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Friday, March 4, 2011
For the love of the sport

By Kathryn Bertine

Elite cyclist Kathryn Bertine is writing about her quest to qualify for the 2012 London Games. In part 1 of her series, Bertine explains how the pursuit of her Olympic dream has led her to some bizarre is-this-my-life situations, like on a night when she found herself in a 4-year-old's Pirates of the Caribbean bed, pondering her place in the universe.

I've spent the past four nights sleeping with Johnny Depp. I'm exhausted. It isn't Depp who's worn me out, though. It's the 150 other female cyclists I've been racing for the past week. This doesn't explain Depp, but I'm getting there.

My teammates and I are at the San Dimas Stage Race and Redlands Bicycle Classic, two of the most high-profile bike races in America set just outside Los Angeles. Stage races are multiday cycling events that sound like a good idea while signing up, but not so much during the events. They hurt. Bad. But it's a good bad. While cycling offers rewards such as physical fitness and the thrill of victory, there are also crashes, road rash and mind-numbing physical exertion that borders on delirium. Apparently, we elite riders find this fun. Or perhaps we have deep-seated emotional issues stemming back to childhood. No one really knows what drives a person into the world of cycling, but the ones that stick around truly love it unconditionally. Especially the female racers.

While most men's pro teams have larger budgets and corporate sponsors, the women are still working their way up the ladder of global recognition. For the majority of elite female racers, that means taking a no-frills approach to the sport: Flying to events is a luxury. Most of us drive to races, playing games like "How many cyclists can you stuff in a Volkswagen?" We often pay for our meals and gas out of our pockets, and we're lucky (and grateful) when team managers/owners cover entry fees and the occasional dinner. Our bikes are usually loaners, as the irony of the sport is that most elite cyclists can't afford their own stellar carbon-fiber machines at retail price. And then there's the lodging. Hotels during stage races are usually not in the women's race budget, so we rely on home stays to keep us sheltered. And Johnny Depp to keep us warm.

Home stays are local families near race venues who kindly agree to take in pro athletes, for free. We use their kitchens to cook our prerace meals and sleep on their beds, couches and floors. For this trip, my Trisports Cycling teammate, Marilyn McDonald, and I are given a home stay with a family in Redlands, Calif. We share the room of the family's 4-year-old son, who is in turn relocated to the living room couch. Thanks to SpongeBob's absorbing presence on the living room TV, this transition goes remarkably smoothly. His 2-year-old sister, however, will soon borrow my laptop for a game of "Let's sled down the stairs."

Marilyn claims the futon in the 4-year-old's room. I take the bed, which is a replica of a pirate ship, sails and all, complete with a "Pirates of the Caribbean" bedspread.

After the first day of racing in the four-day event at the Redlands Bicycle Classic, I find myself a bit further back in the time trial results than I hoped. This is bike racing: sometimes you soar, sometimes you suck, sometimes you settle somewhere in between. And when you're physically exhausted, mentally dejected and in a strange bed far from home, sometimes you question everything. I whisper to my teammate:

"Marilyn?"

"Hmmm."

"I'm 34 years old, and I'm asleep in a pirate ship bed of a 4-year-old, neither of which belong to me. Is this weird?"

"Kind of."

"Aren't I supposed to have a 4-year-old?"

"Probably."

"How did I get here?"

Marilyn laughs. She knows I'm not referring to my decade-old Volvo wagon with 153,000 miles that we drove to California from Tucson, Ariz.

"We love bike racing?" she suggests.

"Right," I say. "Thanks." I turn over, considering this truth. I do love this racing life, as bizarre, exhausting and underfunded as it is. I especially love how it found me -- suddenly and wholly.

As a sports journalist and elite athlete, I was offered an assignment in 2006 by ESPN. The company wanted me to investigate what it takes to get to the Olympic Games. The catch? I was both the reporter and the guinea pig. For two years, I attempted to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics in road cycling. While I had a short career as a mediocre pro triathlete (and an MFA in creative writing) heading into this assignment, it wasn't quite enough to get me to Beijing. Oddly, though, after two years of road cycling I came quite close. Too close. When my assignment with ESPN concluded in 2008, my love of cycling did not. In fact, it grew. And so too did my muscles, ability and results. I decided to shoot for the 2012 Games, as a member of St. Kitts and Nevis' cycling federation (more on that decision in a future post), which is why, at the end of the day, I'm in a boat-shaped kiddie bed in a stranger's house setting sail with the Pirates of the Caribbean and a flask of electrolytes. Two more years of racing may just float me to the shores of England.

Or it might not. Like most women in their early 30s, I've done some thinking about my life path. I've compared the "What I've got" list with the "What I thought I'd have by now" list. Here's a brief rundown:

What I thought I'd have at 34:

Husband
Kids
Stable career
Dog
Cute wardrobe
Routine
Predictability
Happiness

What I actually have:

Singledom (though that has changed, too -- more in a future post!)
Bicycles
Freelance work
Cactus
Farmer's tan
Spontaneity
Stories
Happiness

Funny how the road to happiness can take such different routes. Occasionally I suffer from GrassIsGreenerItis, thinking I want or need the things my conventional peers have. Sometimes the cycling life makes me angry, annoyed and inconvenienced. But for the most part, it brings me great joy. Sure, I often live out of a suitcase. But I also get to live in the moment. I have to be on best behavior in home-stay settings. But I meet wonderful, interesting people. I worry if I'll make ends meet. But I am getting by. I don't know where this cycling life will lead. But no one knows where any life will lead.

I decide that's enough thinking for one night.

Sometimes -- especially during a stage race -- it's best to remember that not all life questions need to be terribly deep.

"Marilyn?" I whisper.

"Hmmm."

"Do you think Johnny Depp is hot?"

"Yeah. But not so much as a pirate."

"Aye," I agree. But I'm glad he's here with me, anyway.

Up next: Kathryn travels to Belgium in hopes of earning Olympic qualification points at international races.