When I started racing at the NSC Velodrome in June 2009, my inadequacies quickly became obvious: poor fitness and no tactics. My then 30-year-old body had only recently rediscovered a healthy, active lifestyle after shedding 20 pounds. My mid-twenties knew only walks to and from Chicago’s el and a diet heavy in Greek carryout.
I confess that in my previous two seasons as a Thursday Night Lights spectator, I watched without regard for what the racers actually did out there. It just looked fun, and I wanted to try it. Never did my clueless, happy-go-lucky mind imagine being the short, slightly chubby gal with the black-and-pink bike who the faster, leaner racers spanked week after week.
On the night of my TNL debut, the field spun by me three times in a 30-lap scratch. I rolled of the track in shame. Few races went by without me getting lapped multiple times in that first season. Yet I kept showing up for my weekly slice of humble pie. Being the worst one out there was embarrassing, but I enjoyed it too much to quit.
In my second season, I hungered for speed. “I just want to be faster,” I kept saying to anyone listening. After a stress fracture forced some time for reflection, my priorities shifted. Concentrating on fitness, endurance, attention to strategy and pushing myself seemed better objectives. As the cliché goes, you’ve got to walk before you can run.
Clearly mine would not be an Evelyn Stevens story. Accepting my place among several women who A) had been racing at the track for years and B) had previously engaged in a healthy, active lifestyle became crucial. It seemed a fine line between recognizing this ability gap for what it was and convincing myself I forever belonged huffing and puffing several laps behind them. While these seasoned riders were not yet my competition, they could serve as motivation for improved performance.
Forget unrealistic race-winning scenarios or even earning points. Modest aspirations marked each week—stay with the field for X number of laps; if dropped, move up track to rest and hop back on a wheel; only get lapped once. It worked. I improved. I won—WON!!!—a handicap race much to the amazement of everyone, including myself. Small and insignificant as it was, that victory remains a personal milestone.
This year things seem to be converging. My fitness continues to improve. Muscles once smothered by cushier layers have started to surface. Mentorship from a teammate has forced me to take risks, understand my bike and work harder on my weaknesses (i.e., sprint endurance, standing starts). I am keeping track of how fast my efforts are so I can shave time off and quantify my improvement.
When heading up to Blaine for my first race in 2011, another teammate and I discussed our objectives for the evening. We decided to do whatever it took not to get lapped. For the most part, it worked. In the 30-lap scratch only the three leaders gained one on me—and not until three-quarters through the race. A few people told me I looked faster and stronger. Their comments affirm the subtle improvements I recognize but somehow worry may disappear.
The most dramatic change is my understanding that goals may be whatever one wishes—reaching the top, the next level or a personal best, or simply enjoying ever- so-small, week-to-week successes. After all, I’m just an average Jane who races her bike because it makes life better.