By Haley Smith
Haley Smith is a mechatronics V&V engineer with a master’s from Stanford University. She was captain of her basketball team at University of Colorado in Boulder as well as nominated for 2017 NCAA Woman of the Year. She now races for the Fount Cycling Guild in her first year a s professional cyclists.
I started 2022 as a Cat 4 bike racer. Coming from collegiate basketball, I was looking for a competitive outlet and took to cycling pretty quickly, earning points to upgrade to a Cat 2 in a few months. Fast forward to April and I was surrounded by pro’s, racing one of the most prestigious 5-day stage races in North America: Redlands Bicycle Classic. It was a whirlwind experience going from fields of 20 to 70+ experienced riders with full teams working cohesively for their GC contenders. I quickly realized that it was going to be a long week after struggling to not get dropped in a 30mph neutral roll out on Stage 1. My goal was to make it through the week and help my team in whatever capacity I could. Though I didn’t quite make my goal, as I was clipped 37 minutes into the Stage 4 criterium, racing Redlands taught me five valuable lessons about being a bike racer:
Lesson 1: Cycling is 100% a team sport
Though it doesn’t always look like it on TV, bike races are full of team tactics and strategy. It is incredibly exciting to watch your favorite GC rider sprint up a mountaintop finish to clinch the maillot jaune, but the only way they are able to win is on the backs of the riders who delivered them to the bottom of that climb. As a former collegiate basketball player, working as a team for a group goal is what motivates and excites me about sport, and I have been delighted to find that this passion and bond is just as strong amongst cyclists as any other athlete.
Lesson 2: Have a plan A, but also a plan B and a plan C, and a plan for when there is no plan
Bike racing is chaotic at times, and things almost certainly will not go how you’ve drawn them up. Because of this, having too rigid of a mindset entering a race can actually hurt you rather than help. It is crucial that your teammates and manager have a game plan as to what your goals and strategies are for the day, but ultimately, every rider needs to be able to think on the fly and just “race their bike”, as my coach and teammate, Jennifer Wheeler, likes to say.
Lesson 3: I can do hard things
Redlands Bicycle Classic is a brutal race. Period. The terrain and technical aspects of every stage plays a huge role in who wins, and even who finishes at all. This race is a race of attrition. Riders who can endure perpetual pain and suffering are the riders who get the results. Though my time racing at Redlands consisted of some of the most mentally and physically challenging hours I’ve had to date, I was able to finish mid-pack for stages 1-3. With this finish, I not only gained confidence in myself as a bike racer, but was reminded that we can shock ourselves when we venture outside of our comfort zone. Despite my suffering, I even found myself smiling from time to time.
Lesson 4: It’s just as hard back here as it is up there. Maybe even harder.
This is a mantra I found myself repeating during the dark times of each day when I wanted to let myself slowly roll off the back of the peloton to my dropped-rider death. Often, this was on a hill or fast section of road where one of my opponent teams would be drilling the pace to work for their GC rider. It would require just about all of the power I could muster to stay at the back where I was, but any acceleration from the group would cause me to fall back and be dropped. At these times, I would remind myself that it was just as hard to go up this hill at 50th wheel as it was at 12th wheel, perhaps even harder because of the rubber band effect of riding in a peloton. And when I did move up to the front, I found myself next to the top teams and riders who were controlling and dictating the race, as opposed to letting the race happen to them.
Lesson 5: You can’t win by focusing on the finish line
Prior to this race, I raced with a survival mindset, meaning I rode with tactics to simply get me to the end of the race. Staying out of the wind and conserving as much energy as possible to avoid bonking or getting dropped. Redlands opened my eyes to the fact that racing this way will only ever allow me to just cross the finish line. To win, bravery and boldness are required. Sometimes, what is necessary to make the lead group, or go solo off the front, or even just hang on for one more lap, is the hardest effort you can manage for the next 5 minutes. I learned when you attack, you go to die. It either works and you make it, or you don’t and you blow up. Either way, your race is done, but at least you tried. When you are always trying to save yourself, you will never truly understand where your limits lie. You will never find the place where you’re seeing stars, your eyes are rolling backwards, and you're gasping to hang on for just one second longer. This place is where cycling’s elite live, which is where I aspire to be.