Summer retrospective: Part II

I got to partake in some classic East Coast racing before heading to my first races in Europe. I grew up in the desert in Reno, Nevada, so unless I'm racing at altitude through sagebrush, racing conditions almost always feel humid to me. However, the East Coast is a different story altogether, especially in the heart of summer. I think we sweated so much that we actually ran out of sweat a few times. Even so, I love racing in the eastern states.

Another side-effect of growing up in the desert is being wowed by greenery everywhere (how do those lawns stay so green?), but Pennsylvania and North Carolina boast landscapes so lush, it becomes sensory overload. What beautiful places to ride!

International Tour de 'Toona

The hands-down highlight of Altoona occurred at the start of Stage 1, the team time trial (TTT). We had been looking forward to this for months. Not only did our team have a number of strong time trialists, but we also had a deep sense of connection among the riders – a key ingredient for successful team time trials, as I learned in my days of collegiate racing. In the US, we have few opportunities to race the TTT, which is sad, because it's an event that showcases the true intensity and quality of teamwork. While every bike race is an expression of teamwork and sacrifice, in no event is it so tangible as in the TTT. The team becomes one in an instrument of controlled fury. You concern yourself only with the speed and efficiency of the whole, and find yourself riding out of your mind, suffering on a new level to maintain the speed of this fierce machine.

As we lined up at the start, ready to explode with excitement, the bandstand speakers began to play a sappy, slow tune – not at all in keeping with the feeling among us, and in stark contrast to the warm-up mix Mara had prepared for the team (complete with such classic jock jam artists as Sir MixALot and Salt-N-Pepa). This slow-dance song just wasn't going to cut it. A minute to go at the start, without missing a beat and with booming volume, the whole team burst forth in the 80s classic "Baby Got Back": "I like big butts and I cannot lie; you other brothers may deny…" We were loud enough that the crowds started laughing along with us. The song got us grinning and pumped for the race, ready to rock.

A minute later, I was cross-eyed with pain as we thrashed the pedals in smooth formation at top speed. We made our mark with a win (by a small margin over powerful performances by Lipton and Colavita), and got to see Katheryn don the first yellow jersey of her career. It was an intense and emotional podium, not soon to be forgotten!

Charlotte and Hanes Park

Wrapping up the end of my season in the US, I raced with my team-mates Rachel Heal and Laura McKenzie at the one-day criteriums in Charlotte and Hanes Park. As most people know, our team focuses primarily on stage races, so we don't race too many one-day crits (which can be remarkably different in tactics and racing style from crits in a stage race). The time-compressed tactical microcosm of a one-day criterium offers many lessons in bike racing, and I learned a lot from trying something so different from the usual faire of our team's race schedule.

In a long road race, you may have some buffer if your focus wavers: losing position may not mean catastrophe if you're not at a crux point in the race, and you may have some time to recover from the slip (if you're lucky). The one-day crits, however, require constant, intense focus, a break from which means the end of your race, either by loss of opportunity, or worse, by a crash. I learned a lot by watching the more experienced riders position themselves and by working on my own focus. These lessons would serve me well in the coming weeks when I raced for the first time in Europe… but that is another story.

In Charlotte, I also learned that training in the mild coastal climate in California is not good preparation for racing in humid 100 degree Fahrenheit weather. On our ride over to the downtown Charlotte race course, Rachel and I were shocked to discover that the breeze against our legs as we pedaled did nothing to cool us, but in fact made us hotter, as though we were riding straight into a giant hairdryer. When we'd finished racing, we felt so hot and sweaty I would have thought a person would explode before reaching such thermal extremes, yet there we were. As Rachel and Laura laid on the ground in exhaustion, I went to Starbucks to load up on some cold drinks for everyone. I think I packed six drinks in all into my jersey pockets, joking with the folks in line about "going back for bottles" even after the race had finished. The three of us had a lovely picnic in the street, savoring the cold refreshments and the sweet exhaustion that follows a good race.

Most importantly during our stay in North Carolina, we learned about the legendary Booty Loop, a loop in downtown Charlotte composed of all right-hand turns such that one can ride for laps on end without stopping for lights or traffic. The Loop passes what used to be an all-girls college (hence the name) and winds along smooth pavement lined with enormous trees and lush greenery. Our gracious hosts, the Wards, shared this bit of cycling tradition with us, along with their splendid cooking (excellent burgers and smoked pork and chicken, as well as the tastiest roasted potatoes and home-baked brownies and cookies I can remember), and full use of their Play Station 2, with which we rocked Guitar Hero and discovered that John Murphy's mild-mannered alter-ego as a pro cyclist for Health Net is just a cover for his identity as a Guitar Hero mega-star. Seriously, that kid is off the charts on the GH Star Power Meter.

Stay tuned for more retrospective highlights covering my first races in Europe with the US National Team!

Thanks for reading,

Go Green Tip #11

Who doesn't love a coffee-shop ride? Some start at the coffee shop, some end there, others tour a series of coffee shops, and as we all know, many rides involve more time at the coffee shop than actual riding! Well, here's a tip for you coffee-loving cyclists out there: drink responsibly. Support brewing practices with social and environmental standards by looking for coffee that is organic, shade-grown and fair trade. Thankfully these ideas are catching on quickly, so you won't have to sacrifice great taste to drink responsibly.

For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here

Images by Amber Rais

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Relatively new to the sport, Amber launches into her second season racing at the professional level for Webcor Builders in 2007. A former collegiate swimmer, Rais found her passion in bike racing during graduate school, where she earned a Masters degree in Earth Systems. Throughout the season, Amber will give an up & comer's perspective on racing, as well as some suggestions for becoming more environmentally conscious with her 'Go Green Tips'.