MY PATRON SAINTS OF CYCLING
I would not have cycled at the intensity that I do if it were not for a collection of strong and dedicated women. I’ve started thinking of these women as my live saints, and, no joke, I sometimes imagine them in full icon regalia, gold crowns shining over their helmets and polarized lens glasses. When my partner, Patrick, built my first road bike, he was already a couple years into the cycling habit. We could do chill rides together, but I couldn’t keep up with his harder efforts, nor any of the group rides. Then, I found an amazing crew of women training for the Louisiana MS150 ride: Team Swirl, led by Kerry and Beth, owners of the local Swirl Wine Bar and a few new friends that I did not know I was missing from my life.
That summer, I found myself driving with my new friends every weekend to New Orleans’ Northshore. We rode 50, then 60, then 70 miles with a crew of 8-10 women (and some men too). Every week, I felt stronger and more comfortable on my bike. Kerry and Beth naturally made cycling fun, accessible, and welcoming. They had started their MS150 team after a good friend of theirs was diagnosed with MS, and as the team has grown, they have stayed focused on the important parts of keeping their community together.
On Sunday rides, Beth would charge ahead, and the stronger riders would keep up with her. Meanwhile, Kerry would hang back, slower and steady, but not slow. I rode with Kerry’s group for weeks until one day, I found myself hanging on the back of the faster paceline. After our rides, we would have lunch: burgers at a huge restaurant with hundreds of beers on tap. The group of us would chow down and soak in the air conditioning after 50, 60, 70 miles under the Louisiana summer sun. The absolute joy of the crew, the endorphins and exhaustion hooked me in. Cycling wasn’t just skinny young men racing each other, comparing egos. It could be tons of women, looking out for each other, pushing each other, and shamelessly downing beer. These saints drank pints and ate hamburgers and were just damn friendly.
Once I started riding with team Swirl, I met other women to ride with. This crew of women, all balancing full-time jobs, the distractions of New Orleans, and cycling obsession just clicked. We would get each other to go on the group rides together, finding solidarity in a group of women in this men’s scene. We pushed each other, talked each other into racing, had women’s practices. Two of these friends talked me into something crazier. Kristina and Elyse convinced me that endurance gravel was the thing to try. Specifically, they convinced me to enter the lottery for Dirty Kanza.
Almost exactly six months after my first century, I began training for one of the toughest races in the country. Fortunately, Elyse and Kristina are badasses. Elyse is like the patron saint of snacks and getting shit done. Kristina reigns over taking no shit and crushing out crazy endurance miles. If we need to raise money and plan training rides, Elyse is ready with an arsenal of spreadsheets and pre-delegated task lists. If I want to quit 90 miles into a 130 mile ride, Kristina tells me to start repeating “you got this” over and over until, well, I’ve got it. When I needed something, when I was worried about training, the two of them were there to lift me up and set me on course.
As I tried more racing and difficult events, the two of them kept me going. They reminded me when things didn’t matter. Because that’s the thing, riding bikes is fun, and I do it for fun. Even though some of the events are called races end with prizes, none of those rewards are enough to be true motivation. In the end, it is about challenging myself in ways I never thought possible and meeting truly amazing people along the way.
More recently, I signed up for a local gravel event. My gravel-happy, caffeine-boosted ass took off too quickly in the first few miles. I was alone with no clue where any of my friends were. Then, a paceline caught up to me that included a couple of strong women taking their share of pulls. Two of those women, Alison and Roseanne were, I knew, the leaders in the master’s women’s race. They were women who had not only beat me but lapped me in cyclocross races in the past. But this day, I was able to hang on to them for the rest of the race. I kept my cool and kept pedaling. To be able to ride with two incredibly strong women from my region, two women I never thought I could keep with, was a divine kind of grace.