When the UCI took away qualifying points I accumulated last season, I initially couldn't muster the desire to get back on the bike and continue my quest to reach the Olympics.
Slowly, the mental wounds healed and the sadness and frustration morphed into anger and motivation. Good anger, mind you, the kind that evokes passion, change and perseverance (as opposed to bad anger, which evokes sharp objects). Now, with my first few races of the season resulting in podium finishes, I'm starting to think the UCI should take away my points more often.
I am fired up!
I couldn't see it a few months ago, but now I know an incredible truth about disappointment and loss: Getting torn down allowed me the opportunity to rebuild a stronger version of myself. Here's a quick recap of the past six weeks:
My season began Jan. 29 on a frontage road next to Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix with the 20km (12 miles) Colleen Whealdon-Haught Memorial Race Against Time time trial. Race season starts early in the Southwest and more than 400 riders showed up to the event to test their winter fitness and pay homage to a fellow cyclist who passed away from breast cancer in 2009.
Signs evoking a passion for life -- "Crush Cancer!" "Pedal Faster!" -- marked the time trial route and reminded all racers that no matter how much our legs hurt, there is always a reason to push harder. I won the women's event, finishing in 29:02, averaging more than 25 mph, an indication my training was exactly where it needed to be.
In mid-February, the Valley of the Sun stage race in Phoenix offered a 24km time trial, a 62-mile road race and a criterium. It also offered some terrific competition, as talented racers like Evelyn Stevens and Ally Stacher of Specialized-Lululemon, arguably the world's best women's pro team, showed up to do battle in the desert.
Unlike normal people, I love the time trial event. The solo suffer-fest of cycling against clock is a phenomenal outlet for good anger; I pretended every rider ahead of me was a UCI point I had to chase down. At the end of the day, I averaged just better than 26 mph and chased down enough imaginary points to come in second to Stevens, the reigning U.S. national time trial champion. As I saw my name next to Stevens', the last of my frustration and sadness from the UCI debacle trickled away, and a new voice in my head whispered about my Olympic goals. You can do this. While hearing voices is often a bad sign, I'm pretty sure the voice was my own. This time, the difference is I actually believe it.
The first weekend in March, the Tucson Bicycle Classic offered a snappy, three-day stage race. This time, the key event was the road race, and the 60-mile hilly course was one I knew well from living in the area. What I also knew well was my tendency to race defensively, follow instead of initiate and wait to see what might happen. But that's not how you win UCI points, I thought to myself. Time for a new plan. A new plan and mentality.
My friend Alisha Welsh (who won the prologue stage) and I gambled on a gutsy move: a 60-mile breakaway right from the start. We gave it our all, broke free from the field, worked together and stayed away from the rest of the race, eventually putting 8:15 on the peloton. In fact, the motorcycle official and support vehicle didn't even realize we were gone, so we rode like fugitives on the run for nearly three hours, wondering when (and how fast) the posse was coming to chase us down.
We escaped to the finish line, where Alisha outkicked me for the win and I reveled in a second-place finish that marked a change in my confidence, aggressiveness and maturity as a bike racer. (Finally!). There were no world champions in our group at the Tucson Bicycle Classic, and the field was smaller than those I'll face in Europe and South America, but I believe this kind of proactive racing is the only way I'll get to the Games (that, and maybe stowing Alisha in my suitcase).
Of course, getting to the Games is as much a logistical challenge as it is a physical one. Some nations are able to send athletes to as many qualifying events as possible, but this is not the case with St. Kitts and Nevis. I have the honor of racing for them, but it is up to me to fund the mission. So I've had to rely on two major factors: invites and income. I've been invited to race in El Salvador in March, Europe in April and Venezuela in May, but getting there will be on my own dime.
Like all quests, there are unforeseen roadblocks and unknown paths that are difficult to navigate. Sometimes, I have to choose between the cans and cannots, the wants and needs. For the first time in years, I'll skip the Pan American championships next week in Argentina in favor of going to the Vuelta El Salvador, where I have more days of racing/point-gaining chances in the six-day stage race and the plane ticket is more reasonable. Doing both just isn't possible. But that's OK. The reality of an Olympic dream is it isn't free. Sometimes dreams are hard, and they don't always seem fair. The trick is to focus on what we do have, what is within our control and what matters most: doing the best we can with what we've got.
Onward, then, to Vuelta El Salvador and the start of my quest to gain back my lost UCI points and potential Olympic qualification. Rebuilt and race ready, I'm bringing a new plan, a fitter body, a confident mind and a pocketful of good anger to the start lines in Central America. Let's see if that's enough.
Kathryn Bertine is the author of two sports memoirs, "All The Sundays Yet To Come" and "As Good As Gold." You can follow her on Twitter @kathrynbertine.