E-ticket: So You Wanna Be An Olympian, Part 12Editor's Note: Just how difficult is it to make the U.S. Olympic team? Does it require a lifetime of training and devotion? Would an average person with an athletic background have any shot at all?
E-ticket decided to find out, embarking on a quest that is now in its final month. Kathryn Bertine, a former competitive ice skater turned professional triathlete as well as an accomplished author, is still trying to earn a trip to the Beijing Games this summer. After failing to make the U.S. team, Bertine gained dual citizenship from St. Kitts and Nevis. She checks in with this "postcard" to update her pursuit.
Sometimes reality can be a real bummer. For example, when I found out I'd be racing in China, I deluded myself with the stereotype that the typical female Asian cyclist would probably be a small, gentle woman with a non-aggressive demeanor. The reality? Yao Ming has 27 sisters, and they're all on the Chinese National Cycling Team.
On April 19, I leave Tucson, Ariz., for China. After a 14-hour layover at LAX, thanks to a missed connection, I arrive in Hong Kong the next day and am picked up by Louis Shih, owner of Champion Systems clothing and sponsor of the team for which I will be a guest rider. When I mention that the St. Kitts and Nevis cycling program has had a difficult time raising the $2,000 it costs to make national team uniforms, Louis says, "Tell Winston to send me the artwork. I'll make the kits for you. No charge. I'd be happy to help." I am reminded once again how the generosity of total strangers has become the cornerstone of my Olympic dreams.
Louis drops me off in Sian Kan, a small town outside Hong Kong where I meet the four other women on Team Champion Systems: Sarah Tillotson (my Boise, Idaho-based friend from track cycling camp) and three New Yorkers, Sinead Fitzgibbon, Jenn Magur and Lucretia Cavan. Over the next 10 days, these women will morph from teammates to friends, which is rare in the hyper-competitive environment of elite cycling. Even better, my newfound teammates have offered to work for me during the races -- to strategize, to block, to let me draft, to help me win my coveted Olympic points. Without points, I won't be able to get St. Kitts and Nevis an Olympic slot. We think what you're trying to achieve is really cool, Kathryn, the girls tell me. I don't think they'll ever understand what their kindness and selflessness mean to me.
There will be 15 teams in the Tour of Chongming Island, with roughly 75 competitors. Eight of the teams are Chinese and the other seven represent the likes of Ukraine, Poland, South Africa, New Zealand, Vietnam, Thailand and the USA. (Oh yeah, and one St. Kittian and Nevisian guest rider!) What we don't know just yet is that all of the Chinese teams will be working together to keep the foreign riders from winning Olympic points. If China does well in this event, it will earn a third spot for the host country in the Olympic Games, so the Chinese riders are pretty motivated. Trying to break through the "Great Wall of Chinese Cyclists" will be the strategy of every foreign team, including us.
For three days, we train on the hilly but beautiful roads of Sian Kan before hopping the two-hour flight to Shanghai and the one-hour ferry ride to Shanghai's Chongming Island, where the five-day race will be held. "We wanted to keep you ladies out of the pollution in Shanghai until the race," says our team manager, Andrew. Good decision. For our entire time in Shanghai, a yellowish haze hangs in the sky and we see the sun only through a filter of dingy clouds. Still, the culture of Chongming engrosses us all. Bicycles and pedicabs are everywhere. Vendors line the streets selling foods from exotic fruit to barbequed chicken feet. And despite the primitive economic status of Chongming, there is a cell phone store on every corner. What takes most getting used to is the constant smell of cigarettes. Smoking is permitted everywhere -- restaurants, hotels, bathrooms -- and there seem to be 1.5 billion smokers in China.
The first day of the five-day stage race is a 20-kilometer time trial on pancake flat roads. Unfortunately, while the roads are perfect for fast times, the wind isn't. Between the 30-mph tailwind and the 20-mph headwind, I average around 26 mph for the race. Out of 64 cyclists, I finish 32nd with a time of 33:28. Despite being the highest finisher for Team Champion Systems, I can't break into the top eight overall, which is what I need to gain those coveted Olympic points. China dominates the top 20, as many of the Yao Ming Sisters are close to 6 feet tall and with thighs one could easily confuse with train pistons.
The next four days of racing feature the following: a 72K criterium, a 78K road race, a 100K road race and a second 72K race. For each race, the last 20 kilometers is an all-out hammerfest of sprinting and attacking. Alas, with aggression comes physical contact, and with physical contact come crashes. While I manage to avoid any carnage, Jenn is not so lucky. During the criterium, she ensnares bikes with four other riders (one of whom was spooked by a spectator leaning out to snap a photo) and she goes down. Hard. Road rash covers Jenn's shins, knees and elbows, and her back is snaked with long thin bruises from colliding with some competitors' tires. You can practically see the indentation of Maxxis and Continental tread. Still, Jenn gets back on her undamaged bike and finishes the course. To not finish this stage of the race would mean she'd have to drop out of the entire event. Not Jenn. Welcome to the world of badass female cyclists. When she returns from getting her wounds dressed at the hospital, Sarah, Sinead, Lucretia and I bestow rock-star admiration. "It's nothing," she says, shrugging. We later find out Jenn is in remission from thyroid cancer, finishing up a painful divorce and has the added stress of being an ER nurse. Road rash isn't even a blip on her pain radar. And I thought trying to get to the Olympics was hard.
Between races, we do what most professional cyclists do on tour. Nothing. As the mantra goes: If you're standing, sit down. If you're sitting, lie down. If you're lying down, put your feet up and order a pizza. Ah, pizza. My favorite recovery food has not quite made its way to Chongming Island. While we're fed three square meals daily by the Chinese Cycling Federation and very grateful for the free sustenance, breakfasting on Kung Pao beef and barbequed chicken feet takes a bit of getting used to. Before dinner, some of us venture out to get our leg muscles worked on at the local Massage School for the Blind. For less than $9 an hour, visually impaired Chinese students practice their healing technique on our lactic acid-filled bodies. I find nirvana when Chen Li massages my aching calves.
After five days, at the end of the final stage race, despite finishing with the main pack each day within mere seconds of the winner, none of us has gained any points. This is cycling. One can be so close and so far all at the same time. I still have hope, though. I still have 13 more races in South America where Olympic points are offered.
"The Manhole Cover from Hell"
Unfortunately, there are no direct flights from China to Venezuela. In the midst of my four flights across the east side of the world, I meet my assistant, Amanda the WonderMinion, in Houston where we board the red-eye to Caracas. Amanda Chavez, 22, my cycling buddy from Tucson, has arranged to take a month off work to assist me as a translator and sherpa. While I hired her as my manager and translator, I would soon realize I also need her as a friend and psychologist. In addition to her minion duties, Amanda also will become the most popular person among the South American coaches, managers and race directors, who adore the fact that this blonde-haired blue-eyed, fair-skinned white girl has the last name "Chavez." In fact, Amanda will become so adored that people will call out her name when I pass by on the bike. Vamos, Chavez! Vamos, Chavez, Chavez, Chavez! By the end of our month together, she will have racked up nearly 100 phone numbers, e-mails and Web sites of smitten male cyclists.
Shortly after we arrive in Caracas, Francisco and Julio, the officials who have come to take us to the race venue, are attempting to stack my enormous bike box and the semienormous bike box of a Mexican cyclist onto the roof of the Venezuelan equivalent of a Geo Tracker. I don't feel much better when they pull out a ball of fraying twine to tie the bikes down.
"WonderMinion," I yell at Amanda, "quick, tell them that strap on the bike box is not a handle!"
"Cuidado, este cintron no es un ..."
Three and a half hours later, we make it to the town of Valencia, where the first of two races will be held. Jet-lagged and newly gray-haired, I'm pretty fatigued. Amanda helps me assemble my bike so I can get in a quick ride. After 24 hours of flying, my legs aren't exactly pleased with me. They would like to stretch out in slumber, but that would be a big mistake. A nap would completely throw off my 14-hour time-change acclimation. Besides, I'm here to race. Gotta wake up the muscles. Within moments, it becomes abundantly clear to me that Venezuelan stoplights are purely decorative. A few minutes later, Guiseppina, the Mexican cyclist, and I discover we have cycled ourselves onto the Venezuelan interstate. She seems unfazed, doesn't even turn her head when a tractor trailer burps out a lingering trail of black exhaust. She tells me this is how she trains at home in Mexico City. I try to imagine training on I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix, but my mind takes the first exit it comes across. At the moment, trying to merge ourselves across exit ramps is proving rather challenging, but it turns out our most dangerous obstacles are the stray dogs and grape vendors lining the highway.
The night before the first race, Amanda goes to the race meeting as my manager. She picks up my race number, finds out where the starting line is and lets me know the race will be a 10-lap circuit totaling 52 kilometers. The national teams competing: Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, and St. Kitts and Nevis. "Kathryn, the top eight riders will receive UCI points," Amanda says. "And there will be three different sprint bonuses, which will award the first three riders with extra UCI points."
OK. The good news is this course has two large hills, and I'm a climber. The bad news is there will be three sprints, and I am not a sprinter. Also not in my favor: I don't really have a team. While I represent Saint Kitts and Nevis in the results, I'm simply registered with three cyclists from Trinidad and Tobago as a team of four, which is the minimum UCI requirement for race participation. But in an Olympic year, when every country is trying to gain points for qualifying spots, we won't exactly be working together. For the individual nations with too few riders, it's each woman for herself. I'll have to be my own team; sprint, climb, chase, lead, try.
At the starting line, I put myself at the front, mostly so I can see clearly. The roads of the course are the worst I've yet encountered – moon crater-sized potholes, chip-seal pavement and one nasty manhole cover that is not only raised but pointed into a sharp cone shape. While the thing clearly belongs in the Tower of London torture museum, it seems happy in its new home at the base of our steep hill, just before a tight corner, around the bend from my Olympic dreams. And if one isn't worried about the Manhole Cover from Hell, she is probably also cool with Paquito the Ice Cream Vendor who sneaks into our closed-to-traffic race course to sell helado from the belly of his giant, smiling, plastic penguin cycle.
In the moments leading up to the start of the race, my mind is blank and I am thankful for it. Strange countries, unfamiliar roads, unknown competition, and the possibility of life-threatening crashes ... somehow, adrenaline pushes it all out of the way, just in time. As the starter raises his gun, I notice nearly 99 percent of the cyclists are crossing themselves and mumbling a Hail Mary. I don't know Mary personally, but I'm hoping she'll look out for me by osmosis.
Right off the gun, the pack jumps into a sprint. Then slows. Then sprints again. I stay in the front, keeping steady among shoulder bumps and shouts in foreign languages. On the sprint laps, I'm shocked to find the strength to come in fourth, which is great personally but terrible mentally, seeing as how only the top three get points. So close. Too close.
I can and will still vie for the top eight at the finish. I know I have the strength for that ... until, on the eighth lap of the 10-lap race, a nasty, unavoidable pothole not only snaps my carbon-fiber water-bottle cage but drops my chain from its ring. This is bad. It is the equivalent of having your engine fall out of your race car. I dismount as quickly as possible and reattach the chain to its ring. A spectator takes the opportunity to assist me by placing his hand on my butt and giving me a jump start up the hill. I've never been so thankful to have strange hands on my butt. Still, even with the shove, the incident leaves me 32 seconds behind the pack. Despite the fact I speak only a little Spanish, apparently I am fluent in the expletives.
To come this far, halfway across the world and have a pothole ruin the day? I can't fathom that. One word pops its way into my head. Go. OK, two words. Go and vamos.
For two laps, I chase the pack on my own, giving everything I have.
"Thirty seconds down," Amanda yells from the sidelines. It's no use, I think. Still, try.
Two kilometers later, I pass Amanda again: "25 seconds down."
Another lap: "19 seconds."
Yet another: "11 seconds."
One to go.
On the start of the last lap, I catch back onto the peloton. Exhausted, I dig as hard as I can at the finish line and cross it in 13th place. Two seconds behind the winner. Olympic points go only to the top eight.
A four-hour bus ride for Jesus
Afterward, I return to the hotel to rest up for the next day's race, only to discover the next day's event is not in the same city.
"They're busing us to Guanare," Amanda explains.
"How far's that?"
"Four hours. We leave at 9 p.m. You race at 8 a.m."
"WHAT?! They're taking us four hours away in the middle of the night to do a 20-mile race? Are you kidding me?!"
"I think it has to do with the sponsor."
"Who is the sponsor?"
"WonderMinion, I'm really not in the mood for ..."
"Seriously. The race is called 'Race for the Life of Jesus.' It is sponsored by a church. A church in a town four hours away."
I'm pretty sure Jesus wouldn't want his athletes cramped in a bus for four hours between races, but I have little say in the matter. All I know is I'm tired, and when seated on a bus for four hours in the middle of the night that blares Marc Anthony techno mix on repeat, drives 20 mph over the speed limit, and has an overzealous air-conditioner that seems to be trying to cryogenically preserve us en route, my mind goes to interesting places. Like this one:
I'm not really loving Venezuela, but I love this quest. Despite how much I love it, sometimes it is harder than I expected. Physically and mentally, I knew this journey would be difficult. But then there is the emotional part, the part you think you've got under control until it shows up mid-bus ride at 1:36 a.m. in a foreign country where you are lonely and every familiar comfort seems very far away. I'm on the second of five weeks away from home, and I can barely see a day into what my future holds, and I'm subsisting on empanadas and yak livers.
After nearly 20 months of being on this quest, change should hardly surprise me. I've changed sports, priorities, coaches, schedules and body mass index. After two years, my boyfriend, British Steve, and I have parted ways. But I can withstand heartache. After all, I'm not some teenage sports phenom on a clear path to glory. I'm a 32-year-old athlete with a mortgage, a beat-up Volvo wagon and one last shot at a longtime dream.
On to ... Uruguay
The second day of Venezuelan racing goes much like the first. Today is a 38K, six-lap course with three sprint bonuses. I win none of the bonuses and come in 17th in the pack finish. Ah, cycling. There's not a lot of sports in which 17th place is only one second behind the winner. Again, there is that schizoid feeling of being simultaneously proud and disappointed. I came here for points. Didn't get any. But there are nine more races to go. Or so I think.
At the finish line, Guiseppina, my let's-go-cycling-on-the-interstate friend from Mexico, says, "See you in Uruguay!"
"What?" I summon Amanda over to translate. As it turns out, the Pan American Cycling Championships are set to take place in Uruguay in six days. As a national team member of St. Kitts and Nevis -- a nation that is part of North, Central and South America, even if it is technically floating around in the Caribbean -- I am eligible to race.
"But I didn't see it on the UCI calendar!" I exclaim. I read that thing cover to cover, every week. For the past six months. What Pan Am Games? Amanda explains the race isn't on the women's calendar; it is listed on the men's, but women are still eligible to go. Ah, of course. This calendar was apparently written by the same people who came up with the one-size-fits-every-gender idea for clothing female athletes. Guiseppina says the race in Uruguay will offer double the Olympic points of the China and Venezuela races. Well, then, let's go to Uruguay.
Amanda and I survive a seven-hour bus ride from Guanare to Caracas, arriving at the airport at 3 a.m. After buying our tickets for the eight-hour flight to Montevideo, Uruguay, we take turns napping on the terminal benches. The site of WonderMinion, snoring slightly in the Caracas airport, reminds me that nothing worthwhile in life can ever be achieved alone. March forth ... three weeks and 13 races to go.
Got a question or a comment? Send them to Kathryn at ESPNOlympian@aol.com. Kathryn is sponsored by Team Sport Beans/NTTC, TriSports.com and Trek Bicycles. Click here for more information on the St. Kitts and Nevis cycling club.
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