When four women teamed up to tackle the Haute Route - San Francisco, they each had different expectations. Three of the riders, Sara, Jill, and Jaimee, were dedicated amateur racers who would fit the 3-day ride into an already packed and challenging road season. Emilie came at it from a different angle: she was looking forward to the most challenging weekend of her entire year.

"For me," she explains, "it was a chance to push myself multiple days in a row in a manner I rarely experience these days. Even the hardest Cat 3 women's stage race I did paled in comparison to this weekend where we would climb 20,000 feet!"

Emilie was nervous. Without mid-season race fitness, she worried she'd be the weakest link of the group. It's never a good feeling, but sometimes, fitness can be the least of the strengths you add to the group; coming in last place behind other qualities like your mental strength, your infectious positivity, or your willingness to share.

"My ego was also in play: I used to be one of those strong (yet not pure) climbers who could help set a tempo, circle back to motivate others behind me, take long pulls at the front, and do it all with a smile on my face. Now I was clearly going to be the weakest link in our group of 4, battling internally to not get dropped and or to not constantly obsess over my efforts in order to last the whole route."

But Emilie was blown away by the commitment the crew had to stick together, despite what felt like hundreds of opportunities to go up the road with each hammerfest that flew by, trusting each other to work as a team. Sara, Jill, Jaimee and Emilie wanted to show this little 3-Day world, where many riders show up for the chance to live and race like a pro for a few days, that supporting each other can be more important than staying with the lead group.

After joyfully keeping tempo, pacing each other up climbs, waiting for each other, and cracking jokes to keep spirits high, the team finally made it to the last rest stop at the end of Day 1. As they rolled up, ecstatic to have reached the food and bonk-breaking necessities Sara noticed a large van waiting, engine on, with its rear doors open. “I knew what that was…” she starts.

“WE WERE BEING SAGGED!!!!” Jill shouts, relating what happened next in a fast flurry of words: “A part of me was grateful for this but when Sara was like “Oh no, we ain’t!” I was right there with her.” They’d been hanging in the back all day in the name of teamwork and weren’t about to get sagged for it! So Sara, Jill and Jaimee pounded some food and hopped back on their bikes before anyone could catch them. They successfully avoided the sag wagon and descended towards the red-light maze of city streets and the last climb of the day.

At the base of Wildcat Road Jill snagged a Coca Cola hand-up from one of the last straggling sag volunteers and chugged it. “I managed to pace the three of us up that climb, even though minutes before I could swear I was the weakest of us all! By the power of Coke!!!”

The three troopers made it to the finish, ecstatic and exhausted, and wobbled back to the start to find Emilie, who had hopped in the van and taken advantage of the Haute Route post-ride massage.

The team tackled the next two days with the same enthusiasm and teamwork they’d cemented on the first day. Going in to the weekend, Emilie was humbled and nervous. Riding the ferry back to SF on the end of the third day, she was beyond proud. They'd pushed themselves, they'd ridden 20,000 feet, and they'd stuck together. In Sara’s words, “sometimes finishing last is damn fun.”

PHOTOGRAPHY // CHRISTOPHER STRICKLEN