Keeping Up With Kira Payer
Words by Katherine Erwin | Photos by Peter Baiamonte
There are some incredibly strong athletes who when interviewed about their performance give that obnoxious answer, “oh it just comes naturally.” This is probably true, but it doesn't make it less annoying. Kira Payer is NOT one of those athletes. Kira is the kind of athlete who gives it her all and triumphs with true grit.
Kira is a rather tall gangly girl with legs like grasshoppers. When I first met her years ago, she had braces and blushed habitually. At that time she had not made the decision or complete dedication to be a competitive road rider. It wasn’t even on her radar. She was just a regular kid who happened to ride bikes well. Kira grew up in Great Barrington, Massachusetts where she was the oldest of four and the only girl. Her mother Tammy, former QOM (a title Kira has taken) of almost every road in the Berkshires, worked at the local bike shop - Berkshire Bike and Board (BBB) during the formative years of Kira’s life. Tammy was certainly an influence of Kira’s but not a force. Tammy, who has been both of parents to her children, because Kira’s father has been absent, never put pressure on Kira or any of her children. Although Tammy was often present at bike events, mountain bike rides, races, etc, her children always had a choice.
Which makes Kira’s drive all the more unique and pure. Kira was a casual rider in 2014. She enjoyed going on the BBB rides that had two groups, A and B. “She started riding with us a couple years ago” says William Caligari who is a fellow rider, but also a sponsor of Kira. “It wasn’t long before she could keep up with the A group.”
That winter is when Kira started riding indoors. “She wanted something for her own. You could tell, when her brothers were faster than her, she wanted to beat them. You could just see it.” Says Steffen Root, owner of Berkshire Bike and Board. But you can only see it when she rides. Non-riding Kira is this gentle, humble kid. Whether is was drive, release or angst, something happened to Kira that winter and she came out in spring 2015 a real force.
It was that summer that I first rode with Kira. Not road, but mountain. She told me that she wasn’t much of a mountain biker and would be taking easy lines. Five minutes later she gracefully rolled down a feature that most other riders (male and female) walked. Under my breath, I thought “sandbagger” but really Kira had no real idea how talented she was.
All of that changed for her later that summer. Kira is not only an excellent cyclist, but she is a straight A student and takes her studies very seriously. That summer she went on a school trip to Sweden where she didn’t ride. After 5 weeks aboard and 20 lbs later, the reality that she was a contender sank in, because of what she had lost, her fitness. “I returned just a month before the Josh Billings, which is regarded as the Berkshire Olympics and I was really out of shape.” Kira tells me. “I was determined to get back in shape and finish with a time under 1 hour ten minutes. Unfortunately, I didn’t make my goal.”
But that defeat was the fuel that charged Kira. Instead of just getting on the bike indoors for the winter, Kira rode hard in the winter of 2015/16. “I created a training plan of my own and riding and training became on obsession of mine. A major factor that helped me to ride outside so much was this obsession (not caring about the cold) and having a friend lend me his cyclocross bike.” Kira continues, “I did these awesome four to five hour gravel grinder with a small group of friends, which were somewhat competitive. Because of such an intensive training program and these epic rides, I came into the season at peak form, which allowed me to win so many races so quickly. The downside to that was that I burnout at the beginning of July, but everything that happened later in the season was due to my early results.”
“At that age to be focused the way she is and dedicated to the sport sets her apart from any of the other kids, especially any junior that I have ever ridden with here in Western Mass” Caligari tells me. “The thing is these kids come and go. She definitely has skill and ability, and she has chosen to become a bicycle racer. I like her attitude, I like that fact that she is humble she is a good kid, she is never annoyed or depressed. When she doesn’t do well in a race, she takes it all in strides and keeps moving forward and she is a super hard worker.”
In the spring of 2016, Kira emerged again from winter stronger than the fall, but this time taking nothing for granted, serious about racing, she approached a coach. “She had some good numbers, I was curious ” says Kira’s coach Aidan Charles. Charles was certainly interested in coaching Kira just from her times, but what really interested Charles was “Her raw power. It was amazing because she was completely untrained.”
Charles agreed to work with Kira in July of 2016. “Her racing style is very aggressive, that plays to her strengths, now she will have to figure how to race efficiently and aggressively” Charles told me. Right after she began training with Charles, she was invited to the USA Cycling's Women's National Talent ID Camp which was held at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Which proved to a valuable lesson in altitude training. “Now I know if I am going to a race with similar altitude, I’ll need to go early to acclimate” laughs Kira. That trip also exposed her to her peers. Other female riders her age. Up until then, she had really only been riding with the BBB crew and racing mostly against amatuer women older than she.
This past fall Kira was also asked to ride for the composite team that the Amy D. Foundation created in the memory of Amy Dombroski. The race was the Green Mountain Stage Race. “It was an amazing experience to race in her memory. It really gave me a lot of motivation. Especially that time of the year, I was pretty burnt out. It gave me a little extra strength to keep going.”
That motivation also helped secure Kira a seat on a development team for young female athletes. “I'll be riding for Colavita/KMS, which is a partnership between Colavita/Bianchi Pro Cycling. After a certain date, per UCI regulations, I may have the opportunity to ride on the pro team as a trainee.”
Sadly, in late December, another young cyclist named Ellen Watters was also killed during a training accident. “She had a contract to ride for Colavita this year” Kira told me. “I am working with Martin Bruhn, a local race director, to help pass bicycle safety laws in Connecticut and New York, such as the three feet rule for when cars are passing.”
Kira, who just turned 18 this January continues to be a straight A student whilst she trains. I asked her what she would do if she doesn’t go pro. “I want to be a sports psychologist and work with other endurance athletes” she says, none of that surprised me.
The pictures of Kira for this story were taken right before that trip she took to Colorado last summer. Peter (the photographer) and I would drive alongside Kira to get the shots, but also drive off to more picturesque settings. I hadn’t seen Peter in a while and was looking forward to catching up, but every time we would park and begin to talk, Kira (who refused to be driven during the shoot) would roll up. We would just look at each other with amazement and laugh.
After the shoot we all had dinner. It was so remarkable to watch Kira, who is such a well adjusted kid, with a grown-up perspective on practical matters but still lined with youthful spontaneity and zest. She accepted my offer for ice cream Sundaes and a ride home (must be noted that she already did a ride that morning, worked a full day at the bike shop and rode the whole shoot.) I dropped her home that night. Her mother and brothers were out of town and I remember thinking how mature she was getting herself to bed at an appropriate hour.
My observations are echoed by everyone she interacts with. “She is so young, so special and genuine.” Charles told me, “She is also humble and she doesn’t demand much. If she can get the right support, she is going to be in a great place and as long as she stays on that track, she is going to crush it.”
Kira would like to thank Berkshire Bike and Board for their continued support along with an anonymous donor that has helped her realize her dreams.
Keep up with Kira
Kira will be going to Europe April 18th - May 1st to race Junior Nations Cup Borsele Stage Race in Holland and the UCI 2.2 Gracia Orlov Stage Race in Czech Republic. She was invited by USA Cycling to represent the United States.