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Elite cyclist Kathryn Bertine is writing about her quest to qualify for the 2012 London Games. In Part 4 of her series, Bertine explains that racing in Belgium isn't like racing in the States and shares what it's really like to go against 200 women all vying for Olympic qualification points.
I am working on my inner bitch. My mental trash talk. My me-first-get-out-of-my-wayness. Because if I don't get in touch with Aggressive Kathryn, I won't survive racing in Belgium. Racing here is different than in the U.S. For starters, European races have three or four times as many racers as the majority of our U.S. events. It isn't so much the 200 riders that gather at the start line that freaks me out, it's the fact that, in Belgium, there seems to be a racing discrepancy on a molecular level. When the gun goes off (which, by the way, is preceded by no fanfare or warning), these women don't simply try to move around one another, they vie to occupy the same exact molecules of space as myself and my bike.
Despite the fact we might have a four-hour race, the peloton sprints to more than 27 mph at the start. Riders look to position themselves at the front because everyone knows what's coming: itty-bitty European roads the size of American sidewalks. Getting too far back is dangerous. If a crash happens -- excuse me, when a crash happens -- anyone stuck behind it is bottlenecked out of contention for the win. Hence, the fight to infiltrate the personal atomic space of others proves necessary. And frightening.
It's not that I'm a pushover. I have plenty of inner bitch. Just ask my husband about my lovely habit of screaming at the TV every time an actor uses bad grammar. ("'Were,' Mr. Schuester, not 'was' you're a teacher, for crissakes." Gleek!) The problem is channeling this emotion when I'm on the bike. Actually, not on the bike, but in the peloton. I do just fine without 200 people around me. As a time trial specialist, my strength comes in beating myself into mental and physical oblivion for an hour of solo riding where my opponent is a clock. A clock situated nicely on the sidelines that respects my atomic existence. But that does me little good in my Olympic quest. There is no Olympic time trial qualification system for small countries such as St. Kitts and Nevis, which is new to cycling and doesn't have a previous Olympic berth. Any "new" country trying to get a cyclist to the Games must qualify that athlete via road racing criteria, even if the athlete is a time trial racer. So I find myself among 200 giant foreign ladies, all of whom appear to know the formula for splitting atoms, as the one woman who only knows that atom is a noun.
My efforts of aggression are sincere. I get to the start line early. I seek out good wheels to follow. I put my elbows out and keep my insecurities in. But then it happens: A rider coming up on my right begins to invade my space. I force my handlebars ahead of hers. She forces hers ahead of mine. As our atoms collide via shoulder bumping, we can read each other's minds. "I want my win," she thinks. "I want my mommy," I cry. And in that split second of doubt when I think about how much I love the skin on my legs, I let the rider into the space ahead of me. This would not be such a problem if she didn't bring 30 of her closest friends with her.
For the next 20 minutes, I take lessons in what I call the Accordion School for Cyclists. I shoot to the back of the peloton, then try to compress myself up to the front, then get squeezed to the back, then to the front, and back again, all of which uses an exorbitant amount of energy and feels about as good as an accordion sounds. Finally, my inner bitch gets some nerve and whispers, "Hey, grammar police, you having a good time back here? Because if you're not, we could go home and watch 'Glee' and give up these silly Olympic dreams." That's when I remember there is only one thing greater than the knowledge of splitting atoms: reverse psychology.
In my third race since arriving in Europe, I finally finished ahead of the time cut, situated in the chase group not far behind the main pack. But I still need to be much farther up in the peloton to win Olympic points. I've learned, though, that before anyone moves up in any area of life, we first need to find our aggression, atoms, luck, the will to improve and a hearty dose of inner glee.