Heather MacKinnon Red Hook Crit
Words by Heather MacKinnon
My knees are locked, my skin is layered with bumps that I can't actually feel, and my teeth won't stop chattering. Layers next time, Heather, layers. I need to be prepared with those arm things or leg things everyone else has. This new Team Vulpes kit isn't really that warm. Layers.
I'm tucked within a small, frozen and soaking wet group of ladies who aren't speaking. We are all fucking terrified. I can hear Dave Trimble on the speaker, he's lining some of us up by names on a list he's holding inside of a plastic zip-lock bag. He is telling us the rules but all I heard was "Please, please be safe out there ladies".
What the hell am I doing here? Do I know how to do this? Who do I know here that I can get to slap me? I'm pulling every memory from my alleycat wins, every night spent riding the streets of Oakland with friends, every youtube training video I watched on the rollers to help remind my legs what they do even during that awful winter. It's March now and this felt different. A lot different. I think I got this, I'm like 50% sure of that.
The bicycle underneath my body is what most people would call a track bike. I've ridden these for years but this one is different. This one is aluminum and my body still hadn't become accustom to since it arrived in a tiny cardboard All-City box at my bike shop. That was three days ago. Then I was told to be clipped into the Time Atak pedals for Red Hook Crit regulation, that was yesterday.
Lakes are now forming where puddles were and I'm trying to wipe the rain from my glasses with my bare white knuckled hands. I can barely see, the rain clouds make it for a gloomy, dark afternoon. It's about 1:30pm, the ladies qualifiers were supposed to be at 5:30pm. The weatherman said 'monsoon rains' so Trimble had rearranged the entire schedule for his number one priority, our safety.
It's silent. There's cameramen getting yelled off course. Nobody is outside watching us begin, they're all inside or under the overhang by the first turn. All you hear are the echoes of a loud beep in increments of a second. Then there's a gunshot. I'm just riding my bike as hard as I can and staying as close to everyone else as possible. I get cut off before the first single-track curve, I let her have it.
The combination of absolute fear and the painful raindrops hitting my bare arms and legs prevented me from looking up most of the time, but I managed to stay rubberside down. Some girls didn't.
The lead group is off and I'm not going to try to keep up, I can't. The negativity and doubt filled my mind. It's slowing my body down. There's a girl in front of me, I silently hug her wheel. There's a glimpse of hope, If I don't place top 3 I can at least finish top 15. My teammate is behind me, there might've been another behind her. We have our tiny little second group and it stayed pretty consistent the next few laps. I felt the rain hit harder when I passed the girl in front, now I'm lead this group. Wait, Is this right? Shouldn't I try to go faster, catch up, what do I do now? So I just kept riding.
My legs keep moving, the rain keeps hitting, all I can hear is my breathing. The only enjoyable part of the miserable afternoon was passing the main crowd and hearing "Go Heather! Go!". That alone kept me pushing each lap just to hear it again. I couldn't wait to hit that part of the course each time.
I'm alone. Totally alone. I can't even see the lead group. I hear someone, maybe two ladies behind me, they sound distant. I keep going. I remember everything my teammate Roz taught me all winter. She taught me true strength and to keep believing in your legs, even when they're yelling at you. It's all a mental game, I repeated her words over and over.
My head sunk into my buckling arms, I'm grinning.
The women's division, the first of its kind for the Red Hook Crit, had actually allowed us to be lapped twice before we had to get off the course. I was already defeated from the last 40 minutes inside the boat terminal by the time someone told me this. I'm still grinning. I get to do that all over again in about another hour or so, depending on the weather they said. Awesome.
It's almost dinner time and the ladies roll out a second time. We might be a few short besides the fact we all qualified. Now we're all at the start line again, but with laughs. We all know each other's pain now, we know what each other saw and felt. There was this beautiful one-ness that was coming from our group of bikes. I realize now I was riding my bike along some really powerful and inspiring women, I didn't stand a chance. It was in that moment that I knew I was doing something really special. How lucky was I to be a part of the first ever women's race in the most talked about crit race in the country? Even if I don't finish at all I know that I'm here, freezing my ass off on this foreign bicycle, in the middle of a hurricane, for every other woman who has ever thought about riding a bike, let alone racing. I'm here to show that it's possible, it’s do-able, and any lady can be standing here with me if they wanted to. You can do anything, even as a woman and I stood for that. I raced for that, I raced for every lady who was watching us and saying to herself "I wish that was me", I raced because that was my way of saying "IT CAN BE".
I felt proud of myself for even trying this, I felt even more proud for all the other ladies that are waiting with me while Dave lines us up again. He's telling us we only have to complete 10 laps instead of 24. If anything, I'm going to leave this race with experience from these supremely fast women and all of it has been worth it. I slew of "Good Luck"s are passed around the group this time, everyone seems more comfortable. I'm making jokes with a fellow cyclist next to me, we are talking about how warm it is outside. Sarcasm is heavy in our shaky voices to cover up the misery we know we're about to endure again.
But this time's for keeps. This is the main race and its darker, still wet, and I felt more eyes on us. There's more cameras and now it feels exciting. There's less fear, more anticipation now. I knew the course, I knew the weather, and I knew why I was here in the first place. To have fun, to stand for other women in competitive cycling, and to ride my bike.
So we're off.
No sooner than we left the gate to louder cheering and screams and cowbells, the race was neutralized after a few laps. Somebody crashed and it was really bad. I assumed our race was done and I wasn't mad at that. A few other lady racers are into their warm clothes and I followed suit. Not even 15 minutes later Roz is dragging her bike with speed yelling, "Come on! We're back on!"
It was at that moment that I decided I had enough emotional trial and error, and excitement for one afternoon. I felt completely content with my decision to cheer the rest of my new friends from the fence.
It's 2015 now and with a new sponsor (Superb Bikes), team (Pedal Express), and training regime approaching quickly. I'm looking forward to my second time around Red Hook. This is my comeback story.
With just about every obstacle stacked against me last year, I still managed to pull through. Knowing that I might have the power to inspire another cyclist, or female one at that, is all I need to keep me racing. Because if I can get through that storm, anyone can.