On the Road with Erica Schwanke
Words by Erica Schwanke
There’s this climb just south of San Francisco that I find myself riding more than any other. Part of its allure is accessibility. I can be out my door and to its base in minutes. Those first few miles, a series of slight rollers that pop out to the ocean, give the opportunity to warm up my legs and clear my mind. The first part of the climb is a smooth, straight climb on good pavement with a wide shoulder leading to a right turn into a state park. The pavement breaks apart and the road switchbacks up to the summit with an almost complete lack of cars.
I attribute a lot of my love of cycling to this ability to escape. As an introvert and over achiever by nature I’ve always favored hobbies that get me away from people and far from the hustle. First it was skiing in the winter and lake swims in the summer - activities that put me in an environment where I’m forced to be present, relaxed and often alone. Now in California, cycling has become my full time respite. Or more specifically: spinning my legs up Radio Road.
After a successful early road season I hit a few bumps. I caught a bug I couldn’t seem to shake and convinced myself I could sweat it out. I told myself I’d just train through it. Learn from my mistake - that’s really stupid.
Once I took some time to get my groove back I hit the local crit scene and saw podium after podium. Once mid April rolled around so did travel season. First Las Vegas to ride and shoot a new bike, then a triple header of fixed gear racing starting in San Francisco with the Mission Crit, then Brooklyn for Red Hook, and wrapping up in Long Beach with the Short Line Crit.
The Mission Crit went well, for the most part. Two riders went off the front and I sat in the chase group hoping to launch a well-timed attack and secure 3rd place. I made my move too late and came in 4th, just off the podium. Still, my fitness was where it needed to be and I was relieved to feel comfortable in that race, especially since a few riders I’d be lining up against at Red Hook were present and came in behind me. A few days later I boarded the plane to Brooklyn.
Red Hook was exceptionally exciting for me this year because it was my first year racing with teammates in the women’s field. We all qualified well and when the main event came I felt strong and ready. I claimed my spot on the start grid surrounded by my State Bicycle teammates and then it happened - I missed my pedal at the start. This wasn’t a I-tried-to-clip-in-on-the-wrong-side-and-missed-my-pedal error, but instead I went to clip in with enough force that when my foot didn’t catch the pedal it slid forward and almost rocketed me out of my saddle. I watched 30+ women pass me. It took 3 full rotations to finally clip in and while I spent the next 8 laps leap frogging from chase to chase watching the field splinter in front of me. By the time I finally worked my way up to the lead group, I had one lap to recover before two riders crashed in front of me during the mid-race prime lap and I spent the rest of the race in the wind, unable to close yet another gap. Having a race go poorly is the nature of bike racing, but knowing that doesn't make it any less disappointing.
After the fixed gear crits I took a weekend off racing to train and get the self-doubt gremlins out of my brain. It worked, and the next two weekends I saw back-to-back podiums in local P/1/2/3 criteriums before heading to Reno for Tour de Nez.
Last year I raced Tour de Nez and fell off the back of the field in the first lap, claiming the oh so lovely title of DFL. With off camber turns and an uphill finish, Tour de Nez is one of the more technical carts on the local calendar. It’s also in Reno which lands the course at an oxygen-robbing 4,500 feet of elevation. And finally, its large prize purse always attracts the local pros. As I checked registration the day of the race, I saw the names of all the Northern California sluggers on the list plus a few pros, as predicted. It would have been easy to let my nerves get to me but instead I reminded myself how far I’d come. I suited up, and landed a respectable mid pack finish.
After Reno, I packed up two bikes and headed to the airport. A flight to Minneapolis would kick off seven weeks of travel starting with Tour of America’s Dairyland.
I built my bikes in my parents’ garage and prepped for 10 days of racing. I knew the fields would be larger and stronger than I was used to and that the courses a little more technical. I did everything I could to prepare for the trip, being as diligent as I could with my training for the weeks leading up to the event. I was confident going into day one, but after a few hiccups in the first few races as I adjusted to the increased field size and the difficulty of racing in high humidity, that confidence started to wane. After a few races, ever so slowly, the self-doubt, or “brain gremlins” as I’ve heard it referred to, took its hold.
Brain gremlins, it turns out, is a surprisingly apt description. The relationship between confidence and self-doubt is not unlike the mid-80s horror film plot line: what starts out as a fuzzy, curious creature turns into a seemingly unstoppable havoc-wreaking force of nature that destroys everything in its sight. In the film, it’s the illogical and insignificant act of eating after midnight. In the case of this analogy it’s the similarly illogical conclusion that a few lackluster results in a season of great ones make someone a bad bike racer. While there aren’t little monsters chewing the electrical wirings in my brain, at times that would feel almost preferable. That fix would be a quick and easy one, while remembering to believe in oneself can be anything but.
My friend Beth Newell just wrote a piece in response to the recent Olympic selections. As a member of the US National Team, she’d been named to the Olympic long team in March but wasn’t listed in the final selections. On her journey to becoming an Olympian, she writes:
…I can say I probably did not enjoy the journey as much as I should have during the time. Just writing that list above, makes me think to myself: how could I not have enjoyed and appreciated it?!? But, for me, I know I really let the stress and pressure get me. In the end, I didn't care so much about the journey, I really wanted to achieve the goal. And being so laser focused on a goal really made it hard to take the process in stride.
After reading this I remembered something: it was just a few short years ago that I drove to Los Angeles and raced my first fixed gear crit and fell in love with bike racing. I wouldn’t be here in Wisconsin had it not been for that race in LA.
I took the next day off racing to clear my head. The humidity had finally dissipated so I hopped on my road bike and followed the shore of Lake Michigan with no particular destination in mind, eventually stumbling upon a sign “Beach” with an arrow, which I followed. It was the perfect reminder of why I fell in love with cycling in the first place. The respite.
The next day I lined up for the Fixation Open - a fixed gear race incorporated in this year’s Tour of America’s Dairyland and a nice break from all the road crits. The field was strong and largely made up of elite level athletes but I played it smart, happy to be back on a track bike. In a late race attack, one rider and I went off the front and stayed away, landing me a second place finish. After the podium ceremony, I celebrated with my teammates. The sunshine had killed the last of the gremlins, and my confidence was back.