Life on the road as a professional cyclist - time and place

This post - and others by Lily - can be found posted initially on her blog here.

I suppose that in 2016 when I quit running, I didn’t think I would find myself, three years later, in a hotel in Bolivia preparing to compete for Olympic points on the track. A completely different track of course. I’ve traded mondo for wood and spikes for cleats, and now have to control a very fast and stiff bike while basically laying on my stomach.

I had never traveled out of the United States until I started racing a bike. And then, in the past two years, I’ve traveled to Canada, the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Peru, and now Bolivia. It’s pretty freakin cool. While I may be spending most of my time training, racing, and working, as opposed to getting out and seeing all of the sights, I do get an intimate glimpse into all sorts of lives outside of the ones I’ve grown up considering to be normal.

I’ve also traveled across pretty much every state in the U.S. for racing. I still haven’t been to Alaska, Hawaii, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas, Kansas, West Virginia, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Delaware, Massachusetts, or Vermont, but I’ve raced (either on the bike or on foot) in all others. Driving through a state does not count as visiting a state, IMO, otherwise I think I would be at 48.

All of this travel has exacerbated a couple of ideas of mine into full-blown ideaologies, ones that I am working very hard to commit myself to.

First, is minimalism. I’ve gotten two of my teammates to watch the Netflix documentary, and I don’t think either of them finished it. So I guess I kind of suck at preaching it, but I think I am doing a good job of living it. I can spend six weeks on the road with everything I need inside one suitcase, one backpack, and one bike bag. Everything that I bring with me is quality gear that I get great use out of. As they say in the documentary, I don’t have many things, but each thing I have is my favorite thing. I’ve dumped at least half of my belongings at home. I try to think of the source of stress in my life, and I would say 90 percent of the time it comes down to things: maintaining my things, buying things, re-buying things, running errands to move things around, and cleaning the things in my house. It’s such a damn waste of time. So, it’s all getting tossed.

ENTER YOUR TEXT HEREPhoto by SnowyMountain Photography

Especially traveling here in South America, I see people who live and work from literal shacks that butt up against the track complex. They wash their clothes and hang them on a line to dry. They grow their own food. They build their own house on the hillside. I also read Sapiens this year, which I thought was a total gimmick of a book for the first chapter and then got completely sucked in. A big thesis in the book was the premise of evolutionary happiness with simplicity: fewer people around you, fewer societal norms to bog you down, and fewer responsibilities outside of caring for yourself.

Which brings me to my second point: reducing screen time. We all know that screen time is proven to reduce happiness. When I find myself bored in between races or training sessions, I’m just scrolling around in my phone when I’m not working. Relaxing right now doesn’t entail being present with myself or some sort of pleasant activity, it entails scrolling past all of the ads on instagram telling me what I should buy or with which new things I should equip myself. Through meditation, reading, stretching and taking care of my body, and decreasing screen time, I am trying to get better quality relaxation.

This is all relevant to cycling because I feel like my life is constantly in flux, either racing or traveling to the next race, punctuated by small blocks at home of training and generally trying to recuperate by being alone. Travel and being in lots of different places doesn’t really bother me - if it did, there is no way I would make it as a professional athlete. But not getting alone time and not forcing my mind to recover from constantly being ‘on’ around staff and teammates has been a real challenge.

This definitely affected me this year on the road. I didn’t want to help load the van, I wanted to get a work task done so I could relax and focus on the race. Last cross season too, I was tired from a full summer on the road, and hadn’t really expected what kind of a toll that would have on me later in the fall. Form was good, but mentally, I was struggling to stay positive.

ENTER YOUR TEXT HEREPhoto by SnowyMountain Photography

I’ve never had a hard time maintaining motivation. I love to ride my bike, and that’s all the motivation I need. But I do get tired and have a really hard time remaining positive, which obviously affects everyone around me. I am hoping that these deliberate changes to raise my positivity are steps in the right direction to balancing a year-long race calendar. I’m not doing a great job at either of them yet, but I am working hard to make sure that I start to put myself first. If I can’t do that, then there will be no part of me left to contribute to a team environment. And, as we all know, cycling is about as team-oriented as you can get - especially the team pursuit.

For those of you who are curious about my new adventure on the track, I’ll tell you this: it’s one of the most intense, most fun, and most difficult things I have tried on the bike. It’s like being in the peloton times a million. One little mistake and not just your race is over, but the races of three others - races belonging to three athletes who have made this their life. The mental focus it takes to control the bike and use perfect technique is 100 percent. You cannot be thinking about a single thing other than the task at hand. Same with the training. It’s incredibly specific and intense, two things I really liked about track running in high school and college, but two things that require being all in.

This means that it’s been incredibly important for me to decompress. I am really loving it here in Bolivia because it’s quiet. In Lima we were in an athlete village where noise constantly bombarded us. It was damp and cold and there was no place to just sit upright and quietly get some work done. Even in most places in the U.S., we’re constantly in the midst of traffic noises, commerce noises, and the sound of life chugging away at full speed ahead, constantly marketed-to and pressured to be involved in some awesome, new, fun thing. Here there are noises of birds and cows and dogs and wind. There’s not constant music and yelling and sniffly noses and dampness. I am starting to feel a bit relaxed, which is something I have found pretty rarely in my sporting career, and in my day-to-day life. I’m on edge a lot and, while it’s made me a driven and focused athlete, it’s also very tiring.

ENTER YOUR TEXT HEREPhoto by SnowyMountain Photography

One of the things that helps me relax is riding my cross bike, and I am very sad to not be doing cross this year. I did realize last year that I despise racing on fast, dry, courses. So, I won’t miss that, and I won’t miss losing at those races, which did take a lot of fun out of cross for me. When I return to cross, I think I will be able to better balance it within the context of my other sports, and just skip those stupid, dry, early season races anyway. I want to be able to give my full focus to whichever discipline I am doing. I think, in the future, that means starting cross later and really being prepared. That applies to road as well. I feel like for a lot of this summer, I know where I could be, but did not have the time to prepare, partially because I was racing instead of training, and also because I was trying to immerse myself in a new discipline, when attaining the standard I wanted to on the road needed my full attention.

ENTER YOUR TEXT HEREPhoto by Ethan Glading

The main thing I miss about cross is being alone in the woods. I still do a lot of my recovery spins on the gravel or on the trails. It’s about the best possible thing you could do on the bike, in my opinion. But I won’t be home this winter as much to ride my single track. Riding in the woods is one of the things that lightens the load and makes it that much easier for me to occupy the mental space I need to be in in order to race well and go to events with as little stress as possible. I am really going to miss spending designated time there all fall and winter like I have done in the past, although I will certainly slip out any time that I am home and that it makes sense.

ENTER YOUR TEXT HEREPhoto by Flora Yan

For me, my best performances as a professional come when I am happy. But, unfortunately, I think there are also a lot of myths out there about what makes a professional athlete perform well: that you have to love to suffer (bullshit), that you have to be a certain weight (debunked), that you have to set specific goals (anxiety-producing). The #1 thing that makes me ride well is when I am having a good time. And when I can get a lot of confidence from nailing my training. I like to see perfect training translate into results. It just makes sense. I don’t need to rely on magical mental powers to get me through any race when I hit all of my intervals at race pace. If I do it in training, I can do it in the race. It’s scientific, it’s simple, and it’s easy. The only thing left is to make sure I am as happy as possible, because then stress can’t get in the way of me executing what I have executed week after week on the bike in training.

A lot of cyclists at this level burn out from all of the travel. You’re in and out of airports in 48-hour blocks. There’s no family time. You don’t maintain a lot of friendships. You don’t get much alone time. Often you feel like you are reduced to an athlete and nothing else - a machine that executes a plan. Eating becomes monotonous, you don’t see much sun while you’re in a hotel room or riding the trainer. So many people think the professional athlete lifestyle is so glamorous. That traveling the world could in no way be worse than working in a cubicle. That we should constantly be gracious and humble for our genetic gifts (even though we make 1/100th of some who are genetically gifted at understanding finance or consulting). And all of that can become so incredibly unhealthy if you don’t take care of yourself. So, that’s what I am trying to do. I want to have a long and sustainable career in this sport - in multiple disciplines.

ENTER YOUR TEXT HERE Photo by SnowyMountain Photography

Right now, for the first time, I'm becoming a specialist. There is no way I could improve on the track without doing so. I'm really excited to push my limits this fall and see what the focus can do for me. But more than the training, the specialization, and the immersion, is the absolute need to remain a non-specialized human. I think athletes are becoming hip to the idea that we're more than just athletes. I'm elevating that process by having a good time. By getting rid of all of my stuff and not looking at my phone. Me is taking care of me!