200 Mile Weeks
There is this incredible stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway from Corona Del Mar down to Laguna Beach. If you are heading south, Crystal Cove State Park is the only thing separating you from the Pacific. Descending the last hill, just before the coastal cliffs of the state park transition to multimillion dollar homes, the cliffs flatten for a moment and the highway hugs the beach. The first time I rode down along that portion of the beach, my eyes welled up a bit. It was March, the sun was coming up and the sky was all kinds of pastel. It was early enough in the morning that it was just me on my bike, and one or two surfers hanging around in the early morning swell. I had just moved from New York to California, and in that moment I felt as though I was still dreaming of what California might be like. I dried my eyes, and climbed the hill into Laguna Beach, took a left in town and started the slow gentle ascent up Laguna Canyon. That morning was my first attempt at commuting the 18+ miles to my new job. I had left New York to take an Inside Sales position at a high-end cycling distributor. The job was a huge opportunity for me to move up in the bike industry, so I relocated my whole life for it. Location wise, I was in culture shock, but I was making it work, and the views were helping.
Before moving to Southern California, I hadn’t owned a car in 10 years, and commuting by bike was a hard-and-fast way of life for me, so I asked my new coworkers for advice on the commute. The majority of my coworkers were male, and almost all of them were fit, and very fast on a bike. They spent their lunch breaks on mountain bikes shredding around the trails in Laguna, and they spent their weekends on group road rides at ripping speeds. Yet, when I asked them about commuting, they all said I was crazy. They said, “It’s too far” “It’s too dangerous” “The 1 is famous for people getting hit on their bikes.” I took their advice not as an affront to my abilities as a cyclist, but more as a difference in culture. There is obviously a stark contrast in culture when you compare New York City to Orange County, and that contrast is even starker when you compare the bike culture. People in New York ride to get places, cyclists in the OC are riding for sport, or leisure at the beach. The road cycling scene in Orange County was also like nothing I had experienced before. My coworkers were all running the newest most expensive gear, and much like cars are status symbols, so were their carbon bikes. My road bike was a 2004 aluminum Scott Speedster with a hodgepodge of parts, I was super proud of it, but it was the laughing stock of the office.
Even though my bike and I stuck out like a sore thumb, there was something that I had in common with my new coworkers, and that was competitiveness. I wanted to be taken seriously and I wanted to move up in my career. I saw the challenge to commute this long distance by bike as a way to prove myself. My intention was to make it very clear that even though I didn’t look like a typical bike industry guy, or have a background in racing, I still belonged. Choosing to commute by bike, no matter the distance, also seemed to be a way for me to hold on to who I was regardless of my new environment. I have never been a talented athlete, but I am incredibly stubborn, I’m strong, I have endurance; all of these qualities I associate with simply being a woman surviving the 21st century. And so with a mission to prove my place, I began what I now think of as my 200-mile weeks.
One of the great things about commuting to increase mileage is that you don’t have a choice in stopping. You just have to keep pedaling until you arrive sweaty and half awake. It was a goal I couldn’t back down from. As long as I started the morning that way, the miles were going to happen. My alarm would go off at 4:45 am, I’d make coffee, take a 5 minute shower to jolt myself awake and warm my muscles, pull on my spandex, and get moving. 18 miles each way seemed like an impossible task, and I suppose that maybe if the terrain had been different, it would have been. Compared to Brooklyn, the streets in Orange County truly felt like they were paved with gold. The tarmac along my commute was incredibly smooth, and for most of the route I had a bike lane or shoulder wide enough to feel safe. Save for a few tight corners heading north out of Laguna on the way home, my route was perfect.
The route offered rolling coastal views and long gentle climbs. I covered about 1,100 feet of climbing in 18 miles and that felt just difficult enough coming from New York. The microclimates also fascinated me! In March it could be 65° along the coast and then drop to 35° and frosty through Laguna Canyon. As the weeks went on, my legs were hardening and my body was changing, I had definition in my shoulders and my back that I had never known possible. I felt so strong and so proud. Whenever anyone would ask how I was doing I would just talk about my commute. From time to time on the way home I’d hop off the PCH and slow roll through the state park, stopping to have a beer up on one those sandy cliffs overlooking the Pacific. Every once in a while there would be whales out there making their yearly migration. I had never seen a whale before! It was a lot different from having a mid-commute beer along the East River in Brooklyn, but it also wasn’t all that different, I was just stronger now and there was a lot less noise.
Not to make it sound like I just started riding 200 miles a week without suffering... there was suffering. It wasn’t what I expected though. It wasn’t riding my bike that was hard, it was the exhaustion. I didn’t have a coach or someone telling me to eat this, or drink that recovery shake, take a day off. I was just out there riding 200 miles a week continuing to live my life like nothing had changed. I was tired and hangry pretty much all the time, but I was doing it, and it was not going unnoticed. I would get to work in the morning and my friend and coworker Shelby Reynolds, would shake her head in astonishment as I’d rush to hit the shower in time to be at my desk by 8:00, usually 8:02. Shelby is a seasoned cyclist and an incredibly talented sprinter, but she still couldn’t believe I was riding that many miles and getting up that early to do it. It didn’t take long before she was joining me on my rides home after work. Usually recovering from a tough training schedule, or a weekend race, she would welcome my idea of fast. I would be so dead tired that Shelby would let me grab her wheel through the canyon, and basically tow me home. If you have never ridden on Shelby Reynold’s wheel, I highly recommend it!
On a Friday morning, about three months into my new life, I had made it past the pastel sky over the coastal cliffs, past the the surfers and the possible whales, had just ended the tour of million dollar mansions, and was slogging my way up the gentle ascent of Laguna Canyon once again. I was moving slow and wishing I had that friendly wheel to grab onto. There was an animal hospital coming up on my right that I always looked forward to because I could hear all the pups barking, and that sound meant I only had 5 miles to go. The cacophony of dog barks and howls gave way to what would become a familiar whizzing noise coming up from behind. I felt a tug on my rear wheel, and suddenly 4 or 5 of my male coworkers zipped by me in a tight line, waving as they passed. It was a jarring addition to my otherwise peaceful commute. My heart sank a bit, I felt slightly defeated and also offended by their high speed at such an early hour. But more importantly, I smiled, I was filled with the glory of trend-setting-smugness, and the feeling of not just being accepted, but perhaps even respected. The only real drawback was that we only had one shower at the office, and now I had to take a number.