Inside the velodrome at the 2011 Pan Am Games, elite cyclist Liz Reap Carlson pummeled some 1,200 watts of power into her bike pedals. She had one goal: whip around the track and propel herself and her teammate into the final round of the team sprint event, a two-woman, two-lap track race.
At the bell, Carlson went from zero to 38 miles per hour in 19.6 seconds. Teammate Madalyn Godby was in position behind her and bolted around the track. The women's speed not only advanced them to the final round, where they placed fourth overall, but also put them into the record books. Their time of 34.7 seconds made it the fastest U.S. women's team sprint ever. And Carlson, who owns eight national titles, set a second American record with her starting lap.
Carlson downplays the achievement. "Everything just came together," she said. But Carlson is 42. At an age when most track cyclists are retired or hitting the masters circuit, Carlson is setting records and pushing U.S. women's track cycling to the next level. "The other riders have had to step up their game in order to compete with her," coach Jamie Staff said of his fastest female starter.
Carlson, along with Dana Feiss, won silver in team sprint at last weekend's Continental Track Championships, where Carlson also took bronze in the time trial race. The podium finishes helped put the U.S. one step closer to the 2012 Olympics, where women's team sprint will be contested for the first time.
Riding away on Katie Couric's bike
Getting to the London Games is a long shot. But so were the odds of a small-town girl from northwestern Pennsylvania turning pro. As a kid, Carlson rode to the pool, to the park, to summer jobs. In college, by which time most of today's elite cyclists had been competing for years (teammate Godby is 19; Feiss, 22), Carlson was falling in love with two-wheeled adventure as she pedaled from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. "I grew up before the effects of Title IX were felt," she said. "So the idea of pursuing a career as an athlete just never occurred to me."
Stress, recover, adapt. That works on many levels, physically and mentally.” -- Liz Reap Carlson
Carlson channeled her love of riding into a job as a publicist for Bicycling and Mountain Bike magazines. Shortly after being hired, she produced a segment for the "Today" show and ended up getting the mountain bike that had been brought in for Katie Couric. A columnist taught her how to navigate the trails, and before long she entered her first mountain bike race. She won.
The win flipped on her competitive switch. Realizing, she said, that the fast girls got their fitness from the roads, Carlson began racing criterions and stage events, which led her to the nearby Lehigh Valley Velodrome (now the Valley Preferred Cycling Center). Her strong, compact body took well to the track. Carlson, then 29, progressed to increasingly more competitive categories, until another cyclist's wheel accidentally nicked hers. The crash left her with a concussion, a black eye and some doubts.
Crashes happen, Carlson reasoned. So she rebuilt her fitness, quieted her fears and started racing again. A year later, her roommate, cyclist Nicole Reinhart, was killed during a road race. The death left Carlson feeling disconnected from the sport. But she slowly found her way back.
Her heartache was not over. A few years later, Carlson's chain snapped, throwing her over the handlebars. Another concussion. Nearly $40,000 in medical bills. Increased doubt.
Again, Carlson got back onto the bike, an act that has come to define her as an athlete more than her age or her speed. "I look at things and think, 'What went wrong? How do I fix it?'" she said. In this case, she reasoned that faulty equipment could have caused the crash, so she learned to build her own chain, and now she does most of her own bike maintenance.
Ditching it all for cycling
Carlson eventually began competing in grand prix events all over the country. She won her first national title in 2006. She made the U.S. national team. Convinced she had more to the give the sport, she and her husband decided it was time for her to focus solely on cycling. She put her business on hold -- she'd transitioned to owning her own photography, writing and editing company -- and moved to Los Angeles to train full time for the first time. She was 37.
"I'm driven by curiosity," Carlson said. "I thought, 'I know I can do better, let me try to do better.' That was the impetus for freeing up a little time."
Better came quickly. She got faster, had top-10 performances and, within four months, made first-round cuts for the 2008 Olympic team.
"I was standing in the infield," Carlson said, referring to Beijing's Laoshan Velodrome during a World Cup event. "The nation's flags lined the ceiling and the mascots danced around. The event was a rehearsal for the 2008 Games and it was electric. It occurred to me, 'Wow, I'm here, competing at the Olympic velodrome as an athlete.' It was the first time I really understood that I have what it takes to succeed at the elite level."
It was a hard-won lesson. Carlson's rise had been met with a number of closed doors. "I got a lot of resistance," she said of her early years of trying to find a coach and a pro team to train with. She understood that some might not want to invest in an older athlete. Still, the rejection, combined with the financial weight of subsidizing her training and losing the 2008 Olympic spot to Jennie Reed, had taken an emotional toll. Carlson went home in 2009 feeling defeated.
Back in Pennsylvania, she pedaled the quiet country roads of Lehigh Valley. Out there among the cornfields, she thought about how much she loved to ride, how much she loved the sport. Carlson packed her bags, moved back to Los Angeles and hired Reed -- still one of her teammates and competitors -- to help coach her.
"I worked to convince her to let her riding do the talking," Reed said. "When she committed to training hard every day and believed in herself, her talent shined through."
Strong, fit and determined, Carlson outperformed most of the other women at a trials event and made the U.S. team again. She was 41.
"The sport has been my greatest teacher," Carlson said. "Stress, recover, adapt. That works on many levels, physically and mentally." And Carlson's age has proved an asset. Her maturity sets an example for the younger cyclists regarding how to manage time and emotions, Staff said. The younger women, on the other hand, provide a dose of levity. "These girls are silly, so they make training fun," Carlson said.
While competing at the 2012 Olympics would be an exhilarating cap to an unexpected career, it's the future of women's track cycling that excites Carlson. "It feels like we're building something really positive that's never existed before," she said. "I have a lot of faith in Jamie [Staff] and these girls. I'm more confident this time around, and we have a team that will be that much more prepared four years down the road. That's how Olympic sports progress."
Carlson likely will retire at the end of this season. But she keeps getting faster. "I'm still putting a lot of variables together: equipment, coordination, reaction and losing a 10th of a second," she said. So does she think of sticking with it?
"Sometimes," she said with a laugh. "I'll leave it at that."