On the Road with Erica Ashley
Words by Erica Schwanke, Photography Courtesy of Erica Schwanke
I never thought I’d be a “Roadie.” In fact, I was adamantly against it. Thresholds and clipless pedals and cycling kits? No way! I swore by vans and a steel track bike and my water bottle cages seldom held anything other than beer. Fast forward a few years and I’ve moved on from alley cats and raced a handful of times at various velodromes, finished a couple cyclocross races, and toured a little. In the midst of that I moved from Chicago to San Francisco. Everyone with an Instagram account knows that Northern California is home to some of the best road riding in the country and, not too long after moving, I bought a CAAD 10 off a guy in Petaluma and found a crew of locals to show me the roads. It was every bit as great as I’d imagined. And maybe feared.
About a year later my friend Marc Marino and I were driving to LA for a fixed gear criterium and he asked me why I wasn’t racing road. I didn’t really have an answer other than I never had. From there, we started riding together from time to time and in the fall he walked me through the NCNCA calendar and I built a race calendar and prepared for the season to start. He insisted I’d crush it. I was pretty certain I’d get crushed.
I still very vividly remember my first crit almost exactly 2 years ago. My friend Josh Rovner was in town from New York and the three of us piled ourselves and our bikes into Josh’s truck and headed to Napa. It was pouring which was hilarious as this was at the peak the drought in California. Once at the course I nervously pinned my number on and changed in the back of the truck, listening to the rain pound down on the roof most likely muttering something along the lines of “of course it rains TODAY.” While the boys raced I found a tent with an unused trainer and asked if I could warm up there. I was too cold and probably too terrified to pre-ride the course so I asked a seasoned racer, who was also taking shelter in the tent, for a few pointers. He told me the crit had a hairpin into a down hill sweeping right turn, followed by two lefts before a chicane into the uphill finish. He also gave me one piece of advice: be top 5 going into the chicane and come flying out of it. I lined up nervous and shivering and tried to focus on something other than the rain. At the sound of the whistle we were off and I was lucky - the field was nervous in the conditions and the pace was easy. I sat in and remembered what the racer had told me. I moved up to 3rd wheel in the chicane and flow out of it, sprinting to 2nd place. Needless to say, I was stoked.
Fast forward a couple of months and I’ve raced a few more crits, won my first road race, and was generally on track to finish the season strong when I was broadsided by a car. The impact resulted in a torn rotator cuff, a totaled bike, and an early end to my season. But I walked away from it and for that I am forever grateful.
Before the accident, I’d flown to New York and raced in the inaugural women’s RHC Brooklyn as well as the Wolf Pack Hustle Shortline Crit and my results had caught the attention of State Bicycle Co who offered me a spot on their fixed gear race team regardless of my busted wing. After a lot of time in physical therapy and even more time in the weight room I was ready to come back to racing.
In the spring of 2015 I built out an ambitious race and travel calendar determined to make up for lost time. I hit the local road calendar hard in the early season and put in a lot of windshield time shuttling between races before adding track and fixed crits mid summer. This took me all over the country and to Europe twice. If that wasn’t enough, I also signed on to do some bike touring with Specialized. For the first time in my life I was being flown places to ride and race my bike and once it started it didn’t slow down resulting in an 8 month stretch where I wasn’t home for more than two weeks at a time and usually it was less than that.
Any bike racer you talk to will talk about the constant challenge of finding balance. In my non-bike life, I own and operate an all-woman boutique event DJ company and 2015 was the year that really took off. For the first time in my life multiple people’s ability to pay rent was dependent on my ability to do my job and it freaked me out. Being a business owner in itself is a huge commitment and most people wouldn’t try to race 10 months of the year on top of that. But I’m not most people. But after a summer marked by lay overs, jet lag, and spending all of my time in San Francisco training and working 10 hour days, I was burned out. I had lost my balance.
Then I crashed in Barcelona and cracked some ribs which forced me to take some time off the bike. Shortly after that came cross season.
This last fall I raced my first cross season with the women of Moth Attack CX. It was a really amazing few months for me. I was completely certain I would suck at cross but theres something really magical about having someone give you a bike, especially on they’ve built with their own two hands. After Megan delivered my beautiful bike (more on that, and her, to come) and I practiced my mounts and dismounts, crashed on a few times, and still saw 4 podiums last season. Knowing the time and energy that Megan put into building my bike made me push myself harder than ever before and I loved it. Cross was a challenge and a change. It breathed the life back into riding and racing and renewed all that I had lost over the summer.
As cross season wrapped up, I started to think about road again. I signed on to a local women’s road and track team, Jakroo Racing, known for its strong roster of nationally ranked women. To be honest, most of my teammates intimidate the crap out of me and I’m blown away that I get to call them teammates. Knowing I had big shoes to fill, I also hired the coach who works with all of my fastest friends and finally broke down my last bit of anti-roadie angst and bought a power meter. As winter rolled around I put in long hours on the bike and set goals for the season ahead. In the interest of balance I hired more DJs so I can work less this summer which, in actuality, was probably the hardest adjustment for me.
After a winter of long rides in Marin and substantial gains in my physical and mental fitness, I lined up for my first crit of the year on Saturday calm and collected. I knew I’d put the work in and that I wanted to be there and that I was ready.
The race didn’t go exactly was I wanted and I made a few mistakes as I got the mental cobwebs out. In cross, I could rely on fitness but crits are a mind game. A moving game of chess, as I heard it once described. I made stupid mistakes like not checking my gearing a the line and picking poor wheels in the sprints. Somehow, early in the race, I made my way into a 4 woman break before being popped out the back when I hesitated coming out of a corner. After being swallowed back by the pack, I sat in and obsessed over my stupid mistake. Regardless of my early errors, I saw my first top 10 finish in a women’s P/1/2/3 crit and then I set my sights on Cherry Pie.
For whatever reason, I decided to double up on races that day starting out my morning with a 5:30am wakeup before lining up at 8am in thermal warmers to slug out a 90 minute circuit race in the east bay before driving to Napa and napping in my car (more like napping-a! Am I right?!). The course had been moved to a new location, but they’d held onto the hairpin and uphill finish. As my teammate Amanda and I warmed up in the parking lot, I told her I was worried about what I had left in me. I’d been popped out of the break again that morning and spent the last 10 miles in the wind cursing and fighting (successfully) to stay in front of the chase. Being that it was her first crit of the season, and knowing the payouts went 10 deep, we agreed on the goal of both finishing in the money.
As we lined up I looked around and was suddenly terrifyingly aware of the fresh legs of my competitors in the Pro/1/2/3 field. To calm my nerves I set a personal and completely obtainable goal - when you’ve hit a wall, dig a little deeper. I would not get popped from anything this race. As the whistle blew, a rider attacked from the line and the pace stayed relatively high the whole race despite the 7 turns. Each time we came out of the hairpin I’d see the riders we shelled off the pack, furiously trying to catch back on. But I was still in the race, so I’d look to the wheels in front of me and repeat to myself “dig deeper.”
And dig I did, chasing down attack after attack as the strongest team there fought to send a rider off the front of the pack. With one lap to go I moved up to Amanda and kept my legs loose waiting for the attack in the final climb. When it came I was ready and I flew up that hill claiming 7th place, Amanda a hair behind me. We were both the money. Needless to say, I was stoked.