By Clara Hughes
I was a rotten teenager and didn’t listen to my Mom very much. Through the many years of tug-of-wars I usually won, there was one thing my Mom would not budge with. She always made me finish what I started. Her insistence sticks with me until this day. Call me stubborn but there’s not much capable of pulling me out of a race after the gun goes off.
Speed skating races can be grueling but pale in comparison to bike racing. One is indoors and the other is out; one is a race against the clock and the other can be all out war with close to 200 other athletes. Add to this the difference in distance: 5kms on ice and up to 140kms on the road.
Back to quitting. Or wanting to quit. Wanting to stop and get out of the cluster of insanity rolling through the flatlands of the Zeeland region/island of Holland last Saturday. A handful of the racers had done a nighttime time trial in the pissing rain, wind and dark cold the night before, and there we were again facing the same elements en masse the next afternoon.
There was a glimmer of hope of the startline with the sun shining and the big start/finish bus blocking the wind. Riders shed layers of clothing fooled by the respite from the horizontal rain, hail and gale-forced winds that swept the island all morning long. I had goosebumps looking at the weather systems flying by from inside the breakfast room.
That and the fact that my roommate, teammate, friend and Goddess of the Spring Classic bike racing world Ina Yoko Teutenberg kept saying ‘we better line up early….this race is going to blow apart after 3km!’. Ina went to the extent to ask our director, Ronny, to leave a little earlier just so we had enough time.
Yes, when someone like Ina wants to be at the front of almost 200 racers at the start, you know you’re in for a rumble. Ina even warmed up for the race which made me, and I am sure each and every other racer, more nervous.
And so there we were, thirty minutes before the start, waiting on the front line to face the barrage of wind. First objective was to get to the left hand, 180 degree turn followed by a sharp right-hander onto a bike path then onto a small road….you get the picture. I took the advice from Chloe Hosking, my little sprinter-machine chicken-hawk of a teammate who said ‘just stay on the right….someone will crash in that turn and it will be one clister f**k, you can cruise around the mess if you are on the right…’. This drama played out to such perfection that I began to think perhaps Chloe had some Spring Classic Goddess in the making at only 21 years old…but not before some drama on the start line.
Which brings me back to Ina and why she is so awesome. There we were, lined up, feeling pretty good about our half hour spent on the front line when, just a few minutes before the start, two riders from a top-level team rode up, turned their bikes around, and parked in front of the 189 riders waiting to go. Ina would have none of this. She said what WE ALL THOUGHT: she told the two racers to get to the back. That it was not fair to do what they did when all the girls had been waiting and took the time to line up early. She forced the commissaires to do the right thing and send these athletes to the back of the bunch.
Like I said, Goddess. There’s a reason Ina is boss of the peleton. She is tough as nails but always fair.
And then the gun went off. The race began. The crash happened in the turn. The echelon started and there were only about 25 riders in front. And I was there! All the suffering, uncertain, fear-filled kilometers of racing in Holland and Belgium this month led me to being able to hold my spot and remain in the front.
Ina and I let a little gap go for our teammate Ellen who won the epic TT the night before. I watched Ina regulate who was allowed to go up the road until the perfect combination was formed. I was there to witness and calm within the storm of the race. I watched and I learned, my prime objectives this month
From that point forward, crashes, turns, small roads, large, rain, cold cold rain, a drop in temperature and a chill to the bone evolved to near hypothermia.
Which brings me to the point of this story. All the racing I did this month gave me the option of baling on a race somewhere along the way. A girl can only take so much. The racing schedule combined with being on the road for over month, exclusively in hotels or communal living, had me cracking at the core. That and an epic Fleche Wallonne mid-week made the feeling that I was at my limit. This became a reality with the effort and frigid cold that unfolded in the Omloop Van Borsele two days ago.
I knew I was to tired when I mistook Ina’s bike for Ellen’s that morning. I took one look at the bike and thought ‘if Ellen is riding the S4 wheels and not the usual S7′s (from Hed. wheels….the numbers indicating the depth of the carbon wheels….greater depth means more surface area which is a concern with high winds like in the Netherlands), I better reconsider the S6′s on my bike’….when I asked about this the girls looked at me and said ‘that’s Ina’s bike! How could you mix Ina’s and Ellen’s bikes?’ Ina is about 5’4 inches tall and Ellen is at least six feet tall. Yes, I was definitely tired.
And then the race began and I wanted to quit. Less than fifty kilometers into the race I wanted to quit. I could have quit and everyone would have understood. The team was fine without me and the race situation we set was more than ideal. I could pull out and stop the bone chilling rain from settling into my core and it would be okay.
But it would not be okay with me. There’s something about quitting that just does not sit well. I always think about what I would say to a kid at the finish area if they asked, ‘why did you stop?’. There are no words to justify this other than broken bones or a catastrophic situation that has myriad forms in bike racing. Cold rain does not qualify. Fatigue does not qualify.
I counted down each and every kilometer until the finish but made myself continue. I thought I was going to break my teeth and had no control over the force in which my jaw was clamped shut, convulsing with shivers. I couldn’t use my brakes with hands that were blocks of ice. I think most girls were experiencing the same as racer after racer made abrupt exits from the pavement to the surrounding fields for some unwatned cyclo-cross practice in the dirt.
I ate as much as I could just in case the break came back and a lead-out effort was necessary, hoping and praying to the racing gods that this one would stick and we could all roll in safely.
My teeth still hurt from the chattering but I finished that race. Finished what I started and then took the decision not to start Sunday’s race in Belgium. Didn’t start so there was no need to endure the cycle of wanting to stop but being unable to quit.
Sometimes, it’s as important to step back and assess the situation with intelligence and vision. Always, it’s important to finish what you start. Both make you stronger in the end
The break stayed away, Ellen won the race and after a long time with the heat cranked high in the team vehicle, we finally stopped shivering.
This sport is epic, to say the least. Character building to the highest degree. Filled with tests of who you think you are and strive to be. I love it and I hate it for all of the above. I think my re-initiation is complete. With one more stage race to go, I actually look forward to coming back in June for more action.
I’ll never be a bike racing Goddess like Ina, but I think I qualify as a legitimate bike racer now!