Lessons from the Redlands Classic
Words by Megan Ruble | Photos by Michael Hernandez & Melanie Wong
When I started riding a bike three years ago, I never thought I would be in a grueling five-day stage race going toe to toe with some of the best in the country. Earlier this season, my coach encouraged me to try for a guest spot on a team for the Redlands Bicycle Classic. After lots of rejection, I thought that it wasn't going to happen for me this year. But at the last minute a spot on Folsom Bike p/b Trek opened up and the team captain, Melanie Wong, invited me to their composite team. I was over the moon.
Going into this week of racing, I thought about mindset. My coach told me - Be humble, ride strong, and be a good teammate. My goal was to learn everything I could from the amazing women I was racing with, the team I was guest riding on, and everyone I got to meet. And of course, to have confidence in my fitness and ability to finish.
Stage 1: Greenspot Time Trial
I was really nervous about this stage. I tried really hard not to think things like, "I'm not a time trialist" and just think, "I'm going to do my best.”
We got to the start very early to have our bikes pre-checked by the officials. They use a contraption to measure your TT bike and send you into a frenzy of fixing everything that's wrong. Fortunately, we had our director, Ralf Medloff. He got all of our bikes to pass the measuring test.
I got in a good warm-up and then headed to the start. The official counted me down and I rolled down the ramp without falling off. The course is a gradual climb to a bridge, curve to the right for a short descent followed by another climb. Once you round a little pitch, you can see the turnaround in the distance. I could feel myself struggling and slowing to what seemed like a crawl, but finally I hit the turnaround and tried to keep my pace high for the way back. I finished 19:42. It was good enough to get me to Day 2.
Stage 2: Yucaipa Road Race
This was our first real day of racing. 95 women, the biggest pack I've ever raced with. We would have 4 laps of the loop and then a very long climb on Oak Glen for a mountain top finish. In preparation, at our team meeting we talked a lot about position. It's something I have struggled with, but the ability to move through the pack is so important because you don't want to get gapped off at a critical moment. Melanie's advice was micro movements. Think about making small movements and soon finding yourself towards the front.
We lined up at staging in the Southern California sun and at 11 AM we were off. It was a fast downhill start followed by some more fast downhill. A couple of bumps up and more sweeping fast downhill into a screeching right hand turn. After a couple more turns the road flattens... sort of. Or rather, it looks flat, but your legs are telling you it's not flat and you start to feel like you're breathing harder than you should be.
Several more turns through the neighborhoods and then the road pitches up. At the top, relief! But alas, it's a trick. I still am not sure if there was a short downhill after the crest, but it never felt like one. And then we were out in the open on a long, straight, flat (but not flat-feeling) road, a right turn to the QOM hill, hold on hold on hold on. And we make it to the top and now there is momentary relief as we start the next lap of the loop.
As the next 2 laps went, the heat was taking its toll. Bottles were passed out, people were showering their teammates with cold water, but it was never enough. Lap 3 up the QOM climb was painful. I told myself one more lap. Just make it to the big climb. Lap 4 through the sweeping descents, through the uphill neighborhoods, the pitchy hill over the top to the long open straightaway. Here, I suddenly felt like I was in a giant enclosed greenhouse and I felt myself drifting backwards as the pack accelerated. I lost contact just before the right turn to the final time up the QOM hill. There were a few others around me. I tried to stay with them. Ralf got me a bottle on the hill, but I couldn't hang with the group.
After I cooled down some, I motored as fast as I could to the base of the Oak Glen climb. And then I climbed the endless climb trying to keep a steady pace to the top. The highlight of the race came at 400 meters to go. My colleague, friend, and the president of my profession association, CAAA, was there standing on the side of the road cheering for me. It came when I felt slow, defeated, disappointed, and ready to cry. It motivated me to finish strong.
When I finally crossed the line I was SALTY, tired, and grateful to sit in the shade with my Folsom teammates. I ate a giant bag of peanut butter pretzels and drank all the water.
Our team meeting that night was a mixed bag of emotions. There were successes and huge disappointments. For me, I came here with the goal of learning everything I could and to challenge myself. My ability to move through the pack and finish within the time cut was a success. At the same time, self-doubt snuck in. Why couldn't I hang on longer? I should be stronger than that. I should have done better. I got dropped. This is demoralizing.
Ralf told us – today is over. Leave it there. You think about tomorrow now. I reminded myself that as long I push myself and learn from the process, my race is a personal victory.
Stage 3: Highland Circuit Race
We started this day with far fewer people than before. The start was neutral and we rolled out and up the hill to the start finish. Today would be 14 laps of a 2.8 mile circuit.
When we got to the top of the hill and through the start/finish the race was on straight into a right turn and a fast descent. We passed cheering school kids into a fast right turn into the neighborhood subdivision. The course turned and twisted and swooped through the neighborhood ending with a right turn onto a straightaway through the feed zone. The course slows a bit, time to move up, right turn onto Baseline Road, if you haven't moved up you really need to do it now—the hill looms in front, the top is in sight! Keep pushing. It starts to level but we were all still climbing. Keep pedaling you're almost there. And through the start line we go. No relaxing yet or your position won’t be yours any longer—keep going until you turn right back onto the descent.
Around we went. Fast as blazes through the neighborhood, a little relief in the feed zone, then the climb. Some laps were so hard I felt sick. Other laps made me think, I can do this. Lap 8 my legs were feeling it. I slid back a bit coming to the top of the climb and had a little gap on the descent. I was tailgunning through the neighborhood and got gapped in the final couple of turns.
"It's ok," I thought, "the feed zone is right there, I'll move up." But they didn't slow down. It got faster. I went as hard as I could, right turn to Baseline Road, faster faster but I couldn't catch. Dropped. I finished lap 9, came around for 10 - they're right there! But I really couldn't catch now. I got pulled with 2 to go. But I made the time cut. I live to race another day.
Debriefing with my team later that night, I found out that I got popped on the QOM lap. If I could have just held on a bit longer, it would have slowed. Knowing that both consoled and frustrated me. I'm glad I got dropped because the pace ramped up, but I'm disappointed that I couldn't suffer a little bit longer. My real success of the day, however, was the neighborhood. I am a nervous corner-er, but I felt comfortable and competent through that section.
Stage 4: CRIT Day
Known to me as - the scariest day of the week.
This crit would be technical with 9 turns. Two of them very hairpinny. And did you see my note above? I'm a nervous corner-er!
Because our race was late in the day, the team met up for an easy coffee ride. This put my anxiety induced grouchiness to rest for a bit and I enjoyed my coffee and the company of the amazing teammates.
To the race—Downtown Redlands. Lots of people. And a lot of advice from my critmaster teammate, and friend, Marissa Axell. Pure gold.
There was pushing and jostling at the start line. Hint: this is going to be cutthroat.
I don't really even know what happened during this race other than it was the hardest, fastest crit I have ever done. I felt great on the course. I don't think there was enough blood flow or oxygen to be nervous. Every time through the start finish I put in a big effort to move up in the pack. At some point, when my eyes were crossing, I looked up at the start/finish and saw 22 min to go. Next lap - 10 laps to go. I got popped with 9 to go, pulled at 8. I stood back and watched the pack dwindle every lap as UHC sat at the front and drilled it.
What a great race. It was SO much fun and so blisteringly hard. I'm proud of myself for cornering a bajillion times at lightning speed and for hanging on as long as I did.
And guess what? I made it to stage 5 of Redlands. I dug my nails in every single day. Clawed my way to the time cut and made it.
Stage 5: Sunset Circuit
This race is infamous. You can't hear about Redlands without someone talking about this brutally hard stage. And the first thing you hear about is the neutral (read: not neutral) roll out.
It goes like this: You leave the crit start line behind a shiny black car. Everyone is trying to get a better position. The car leads you up a climb, your heart rate is rising partly because you're climbing and partly because it's so stressful to keep your spot and you feel like when the gate opens this herd of wild bikes is going to trample you. Oh yeah. Because THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENS.
As soon as the paddle turned green it was a literal stampede right into the twistiest, bumpiest, scariest neighborhood you could image starting a bike race in. The roads were narrow and the QOM points were on the line the first time up the climb. They. Wanted. Those. Points. This means people were crashing left and right. At the hairpin at the bottom of the climb I got caught behind a pile up and lost my already weak contact with the group. I didn't have the legs to chase back on. Bethany Allen told me this is a race of attrition and to keep going hard. So I kept riding. I found myself in a little group. Finished the climb, through the feed zone, and to a very fast descent. And they totally dropped me. Gah! I chased through the neighborhoods, and back to the climb, but they were gone. I climbed, to the feed zone, Jakroo's Michael Hernandez handed me a bottle and I made a sad noise and he said, "No, none of that, there is a group behind you." He was right, I needed to suck it up and ride my bike. I came this far.
Our little group caught another group at the top of the climb. We worked together and each lap caught more people. At the start of lap 8 (of 9) they pulled us and our group rolled down to watch Ruth Winder's spectacular finish.
This was by far the hardest week I have ever spent on my bike. These races were brutal—physically and mentally. I was challenged every day. The women I raced with were strong, fast, and completely inspiring.
-An unexpected takeaway for me at this race was the teamwork I experienced and the friendships I made. That hashtag— #teamworkmakesthedreamwork—I felt it deeply during this week, for possibly the first time in my life. The six of us went through a harrowing experience together, supporting each other through heat, suffering, crashes, getting dropped, being happy, and being disappointed. My heart is full.
-Grit and mental toughness. You can't do this race without fitness, but more so, you cannot finish this race without grit. It was not about talent. It was about pushing yourself past your limit. It was about being humbled by getting dropped and getting up the next morning ready to fight again. Persevering when it was hard and even when you felt a little bit like a failure.
Growth happens when we are on the edge of our comfort zone—pushing yourself to the limit over and over and finding yourself. This is living.