Reese Ruland: AFA Front Range Cycling Classic
Words by Reese Ruland, Photography by Natalie Starr
In July 2014 I purchased my current bike, whom I’ve named Fox. She (yes, I’ve decided the bike is female.) is an all matte black Cannondale CAAD10. I'll be the first to admit that I have an unhealthy relationship with my bike. There are occasions when I’d rather spend time with her, cranking out watts up steep inclines, than go out for drinks with friends. In human to human relationships, there is an underlying assumption that after you’ve been dating for X amount of months or years, your relationship progresses to the next level. You are Facebook official, you leave a toothbrush at the other persons house, you move in together, engagement ensues etcetera etcetera. Well after nine months of cycling, Fox and I took our bike/human relationship to the next level. We signed up for our first road race. While it would seem that signing up for one of the more difficult races in Colorado, The Air Force Academy’s Front Range Cycling Classic, would signify a really big commitment- Fox and I didn’t actually plan for this. Meaning: I didn’t train and I signed up days before the race, after hemming and hawing about it for two weeks.
Since I’ve never raced my bike before I based my expectations of the race on three things 1) Bike races I’d been to and seen on television 2) My ultra marathon racing experiences and 3) All the times I’ve ridden in a group with the guys I cycle with. Right now I’m going to state that none of those experiences truly add up to a well formed or cohesive idea of what a bike race actually is. They simply amount to the idea that every race is nonstop Tour de France spectator crazy, racers go hard 100% of the time and are out there for the spiritual experience that surely ensues from long days in the mountains. This concept is completely inaccurate, but I didn’t know that at the time.
Due to my lack of knowledge on this matter I began flooding my cycling friends with questions about races. I wanted to know everything- who, what, when, where, whys of road racing. My main concern was: What if I crash? To which everyone simply said, “Don’t.” My friends knew that the biggest problem Fox and I would run into would be overcoming our inclination to be at the front of the group. You see, she and I have a complex. Its not that we feel like we are some power couple that can conquer all, but rather we are not good at coasting. Mainly because it feels like we aren’t working. I blame that on my running background. Why coast when I could pedal and go even faster? I mean, its a race! Thats apparently not how it works in cycling. The trick is to do the least amount of work when you can and save yourself for short hard efforts at key moments.
The day of the race I drove the hour and a half down to the Air Force Academy with Fox relaxing in the back of my Jeep. I arrived entirely too early, but I wanted to have plenty of time to freak out and chat with friends about their performances and gather beta on the course. As other women racers started showing up, I felt something strange creep into my mind. Intimidation. Mostly caused by the sweet kits everyone was wearing and the very expensive bikes all these women were toting around. I looked down at Fox, my aluminum frame suddenly seemed sub par. As if my friend Grant could sense my flagging enthusiasm, he tossed me an extra small jersey from his team and crowned me the honorary Team Butler female rider for the day. I quickly threw it on and another friend scurried to pin my number on before I warmed up.
I must confess that I only warmed up because I saw everyone else doing it. It’s not something I’m accustomed to. For an ultramarathon, I just consider the first few miles of the race my warm up. But you know, when in Rome, right? So I aimlessly tooled around some roads before lining up with the other women at the start line. Due to the small number of female racers, roughly 30 in total, everyone, pros, open and masters, all raced together. Standing there, one foot clipped in, waiting for the gun or something to go off, staring at the matching kits of the pro riders, I wondered if Fox and I had prematurely taken our relationship up a notch. But just as I was about to make a definitive conclusion, I heard the familiar beeping of Garmins starting and the clicking of shoes being snapped into their pedals. And just like that, we slowly rolled off to start our three thirteen mile loops.
“Nope. No. I do not enjoy having this many people surrounding me and going this fast. I’m likely going to die. I’ll crash and I’ll never be able to ride or run again. I’m just going to slow down and hang in the back for a bit.” That was pretty much the train of thoughts that kept circling around in my head for the first nine miles. Then we hit the gradual four mile hill. It was around that time that two of the teams essentially slowed the peloton down to a crawl so as to allow teammates to break from the pack and gain a lead. This confused and frustrated me immediately. I actually asked the women next to me why were were going so slow. Literally coasting uphill. It was there on that drawn out climb that I learned about team tactics. Each team was working for their front rider, giving them a lead and making it easier for them to battle it out for the win. While I didn’t have a team, not I did I know exactly how to react to this “move” I did know that conditions were windy enough to make leaving the peloton an unwise decision. So I just coasted in ignorance and frustration. I could feel Fox wanting to go faster. As we reached the top of the climb, essentially the beginning of our second lap, a women darted around the group and shot to the front causing racers to quickly slam through their gears and chase her down. Caught entirely off guard, Fox and I were slow on the uptake. We scrambled to catch up, but wound up by our lonesome, sitting somewhere behind the leaders, but in front of the chase pack. At this juncture I figured I’d just do my own thing for a while until someone caught up.
I don’t know if it was the excitement of actually pushing myself and racing or the relief of finally being away from all those people, but for the first time in the race I started to enjoy the experience. Being alone with Fox, I felt like I had some resemblance of control. At the very least I could chose my speed. Eventually four other women caught up to me and we formed our very own chase pack. We stayed together until the last four miles of the third lap. Fox and I had been pulling upfront for a few miles and despite slowing down and moving over in hopes that someone else would pull for a bit, Fox and I decided that we should dip out. I’m not sure if doing this violated some unwritten rule of cycling, but whatever. I’ve never been one for rules. So we spun upward and onward into the wind and eventually the finish line.
After cresting the hill and crossing the finish line, I rode over to where a group of my friends were milling about. Having finished their races, I found them relaxing in the sun: bib straps hanging around their waists, tall socks and sandals on their feet. We volleyed questions about one another’s race back and fourth for a while. Rehashing some of the climbs, agreeing that the wind was “insane!!” today. We talked about that one right hand turn, the crash in the men’s Cat 3 race, and ohmygod the winner of the men’s pro race! After a while we all started packing up our bikes and changing into “normal” clothes in anticipation for the drive home. I loaded up Fox and headed back to Fort Collins, not really sure how I felt about the whole experience.
On the ride home two friends that I cycle with called to talk about the race. I chatted away and retold the story of my race to each of them. They, being much more experienced and accomplished racers than myself, gave me some pointers on what to do next time. I listened to their sage advice and logged it for later use. After I hung up the phone, I found myself plotting what I would do next time. Next race. It was than that I realized, despite not knowing exactly how I felt about the race, about this new level I had taken my cycling too, I wanted to experience it again. I wanted to improve. I wanted to go to more events, see my friends race, talk about it in way-too-much-detail later on. But isn’t that the case with change in any relationship? At first it’s hard to figure out how to feel about all this change. Who sleeps on which side of the bed? Which toothbrush was mine again? It takes time to work out the kinks. The key thing is simply trying. You’ve got to try. You’ve got to give this new phase, whether it be in a relationship with a person or (even better) your bike, a fighting chance. The end goal is to enjoy this step and to have fun, but you’ll never know if you don’t try.
Reese Ruland lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. An ultra runner/road biker, she spends her days on running on the trails and riding her bike, Fox, around town. She founded Black Widow Cycling Club (www.blackwidowcycling.weebly.com), an all womens biking team. When she isn't enjoying the outdoors, she can be found drinking fine loose leaf teas.
Natalie Starr is a new photography transplant to Denver, CO. She specializes in lifestyle photography