Red Hook Crit Interview: Lilah Guertin
Interview by Kelly Neuner
Fixed gear racing for women is exploding across the country, and Red Hook Crit tests the speed, skill, and endurance of the top racers in the world. While the men’s feature race is filled primarily with riders from corporate teams, the women’s race showcases a true range of experience and backgrounds that embodies the spirit of Red Hook Crit’s beginnings.
While more attention is paid to the women’s field, coverage is often limited to the frontrunners. We’re taking a deeper look into the women’s field to highlight the experiences of different racers - including up-and-coming and first-time racers - through a series of interviews.
Lilah Guertin is a Minneapolis-based racer who started out in cyclocross. While many riders mentioned the mental struggles associated with Red Hook, she came in with additional physical struggles. We talked about how she’s worked to overcome those, creating a team that’s focused on providing a different kind of support, and the greater movement around women's racing.
How long have you been racing, and how'd you get started?
I went through a pretty crazy breakup back in 2012 and a mutual friend of my ex was in the bike scene in Minneapolis. I started racing the fall after I met all these people, in 2013. It's crazy to think that it's been four years. I started racing 'cross, which I knew nothing about - I couldn't even hop a curb.
How'd you get involved in fixed gear racing?
I was at this late-night party under a bridge and there was this really loud person with super starkingly blonde hair, like this crazy peacock pompadour. We just started to talking and she said she wanted to get this groovy track team together. Later I find out it's Anna Schwinn of like the Schwinn family dynasty, trying to get me into track.
I came to a track clinic and I was terrified. I just rolled around the apron once - not even on the incline - and said, "No, this is not for me." I start taking my pedals off, and my friends came over and were like, "No, you need to keep going, because you're going to hate yourself if you don't."
Really the catalyst was Anna's Koochella team she started for Powderhorn 24 (a 24-hour community race), which was just five ladies who wanted to ride for 24 hours in hilarious kits.
How did you get from starting track racing in 2013 to signing up for Red Hook?
That was a really long journey. When Tiana did Red Hook, everyone back home was freaking out. It was just amazing to see an overachieved yet underappreciated racer. She literally came from rags to riches; she is Podium Punx and that is her brand. Everyone was so stoked on where she was at for Red Hook. I had done some shitty alleycat fixed gear criteriums and they were tough, but seeing that course last year, I didn't think I'd ever do it.
Then this winter, we started talking about it more and she just kept supporting me and kept the conversation open, saying I do have the skills and presence in track racing and criterium racing, I have the skills from being a courier for a hot minute riding around the city. She just kept reassuring me that I could do this and it's really the reason I signed up for Red Hook.
It turned out to be beautiful and also terrible at the same time.
Well, the crashes that happened. Going through that initial hairpin turn really set you up for disaster or success: how you figured out your speed through it.
What were your biggest challenges coming into this race?
For me — and this is a crazy personal thing I've just started becoming more personal about — I've had some problems with my body and obstacles I've had to overcome. I was diagnosed with cervical cancer back in 2009, had radiation last fall, and was bouncing back from that and I'd been feeling really strong and everything was panning out. Then a week before I came here, I had bad blood work that said I'm still anemic, still have low white blood cell counts. I try to ignore it and push through it as much as possible. Also, I have knee issues with my patella - I've done physical therapy and am working through that.
Really physically, and only mentally the day before, when you're like, "Holy shit, I'm doing this huge race." It is super high-profile; it is an insane opportunity to see all of these people that I've been following and obsessing over in women's cycling for months.
A lot of people bring up the mental struggles of this race, but coming in with something physical is even more challenging.
I felt it a lot coming out of that crash from the finals. After the crash, I wondered, "Should I even do this again?" I nailed my knee on that grate and I couldn't push my gear at all; I was relying on my right leg. And I was riding around before we started again thinking I needed to get off the course, but there was this little voice that said, "Come out here and Get Fratty. Show people that they need to get stoked and hyped on all kinds of racers wherever they're going."
I knew I couldn't reach that gap and was never going to be in the front racing against Olympic-level athletes, but getting back out there and doing another three laps [before getting pulled], I pulled a lot from the crowd. I heard my name randomly, which is super sensational — nobody knows me here — and it was amazing to feel that love even though I have this angry face on. I'm mad at my body, just trying to push it as much as I can, because I don't want to give up. It sucks. I have before and I get more upset with myself when I give up than I do with slowing down, finding a cadence, and finding a gear (except in this case, there's no finding a gear).
So explain "Get Fratty" - where does that come from?
I started a new team with an old Koochella teammate Stephanie, and her and I have been really close, especially over the last year. She's always been really supportive, and we talked about what kind of team we'd want to be on. Once Koochella had changed directions into a more developmental team, we kinda wanted to focus on ourselves and it was important for us to choose people that wanted to support each other. That's another hashtag: #supportdoping, which is a spin-off of #motordoping making fun of the whole culture. #Supportdoping is where Wreckhouse Racing comes from.
When Steph and I started Wreckhouse, we just wanted a group of people who had all the equipment they needed already, didn't need a lot of development, but were just good people who wanted to support each other throughout any endeavor, because mental health above all is what matters.
We talked to our teammates and were like, what are your 2017 goals in racing or in life? She asked me and I was like, "I just want to get fratty." I want to have a good time, get people out of their bubbles and take over this frat boy brand, because it's not about forcing people to do things they don't want to do. It's encouraging them to do things they wouldn't normally do but are curious about. They may not think they can do it, so how do we foster that properly? Essentially, in a community that supports each other through an emotional and mental standpoint, more than big-time sponsorship. That's who we are.
So that's a different way of looking at a team - thinking about the #supportdoping thing.
I think we have something really unique there. I haven't been on an elite team, I've only been on teams that have started and developed. From Koochella, I learned a lot about how to run a team properly and the ins-and-outs of doing so. I knew we needed more of a family. Steph and I feel like we are already so stressed in life when it comes to family or your career, your social life, racing, nutrition; fitting all of those things in. A lot of teams don't focus on all of the above. There's not that option.
So we wanted to cultivate a sub-community of people you can count on within your network. Someone could say, "Hey, I'm having a bad mental day. I need a hug, I need some brownies," whatever. We feel confident saying that to our teammates instead of it turning into a weird judgemental thing where you open up, but you don't necessarily trust the people you're on a team with because you haven't bonded. For larger teams, there's not that infrastructure to do so if they don't tour or travel together. It's kind of like camping with your friends. You really get to know the intricacies.
It's kind of like being part of a frat.
It's an interesting focus, having that support instead of being competitive, feeling like you can be vulnerable and ask for that support in a different way than just training or racing.
Yeah, that's a big deal. Being vulnerable is a hard thing to talk about.
Right. Being on a team, especially in a leadership position, there's an expectation that you're supposed to be the most together, and you're supposed to know all the answers.
There is, and I'm the first to say, "Nope, sorry, I don't have the capacity for this." And people pick up on that and that's what's great. I'll have a day where I can't get this project done properly or on time and someone else on the team says, "Oh, I'll pick up the slack for that," and it's just no questions asked. Everyone has a little something to bring to the table.
It's a very unique thing. So what surprised you coming into this race, whether that's the race or community around Red Hook?
I was just thinking about this this morning. After coming out of being anxious and freaking out for most of the week, I feel so much support after this race throughout the entire week. I've met so many amazing people, so many WTFs (women/trans/femmes) and WOCs (women of color) here that reach out. They want to get to know you, they want to show you around, and it's great.
Really the outpouring of support from fans, people back home, people here - mostly people here. You feel it. Socially, I'm like exhausted because I don't know how to keep going on this smile train [laughs]. Everything people have to say is super positive, meeting all those rad European broads — so good.
What would you have to say to somebody who's looking to do this race for the first time?
Practice cornering. Also, have a support group for sure. Tiana and I worked really well together because we both have different levels of anxiety, especially within racing, and it really helped her calm down because she had to be strong for me somedays and vice versa. I really wouldn't be able to do this if I didn't have that support group, people who have done it before pre-riding the course with me, talking me through different facets of pre-race day regimens. It's so new to me. So buddy system, have a buddy for sure.
That's a big thing with all these new teams starting, it's providing that support that no one really had before racing as a solo woman. You're so much more connected to this greater network through cycling.
We're at a point historically where so many small-scale WTF teams have been cultivated, where we're really on the curve of this change. I think we're coming into a new age of women's cycling and parity for women in the world, amateur or elite, where there's a lot of bigger names that are starting to push through for us, starting to support us better and in a larger scale. The struggle is not over per se, but we are set up for success and it's going to just keep getting better. As long as we don't lose that trajectory, and I think through journalism we're going to be able to communicate that.
We're so well peer pressured that if you just get the word out and get bigger brands to do smaller stories, especially coming from a community standpoint and then sensationalizing it, it's just going to keep stoking the fire and getting more women and girls into racing. Getting anyone who feels intimidated, and I think this year in Minneapolis has been changing with a lot of women/trans/femme teams aligning.
Because if people don't see themselves there, they don't necessarily feel welcome.
Absolutely. Being out there and being good to each other, which I'm learning. I do want to spend time and talk to people and see where they've come from...I'd want to help foster that.
Yeah, this race doesn't exist in a bubble. It exists in the capacity it does for the women's field because of all the things that are happening all over the world around fixed gear racing for women.
I think on a really personal level, this has been a really weird journey for me. I haven't developed physically the way I wanted to, I'm not as strong of a rider as I was two years ago, but I've been learning to live in the moment and learning to really connect with people on more of a human level. It's been really enriching to be really raw and say, "Yeah, I have cancer," and I'm not trying to shelter it and deal with it alone anymore. I'm opening up to people who care about me and want to help me in a way that's not just being a charitable cause.
I've always felt guarded because of that, and I'm learning to let those guards down. That was part of Red Hook — like I am completely terrified, I didn't necessarily want to do this race — but I knew through this support group that I had the capabilities to do so. I let my fears sit in for a while and then pushed them aside when I needed to. I let other people care about me and love me for where I am in life.
It's made me a positive person. For me, it was learning to be positive and cutting the shit out in life, and cutting all that stressful stuff out, and the cycling community is really important to me that way. It's really changed my life for the better.
Read the rest of the stories from this series here.