Certain phrases tend to be repeated when elite sport is discussed.
You’ll hear quite a bit about determination, some nuggets about bravery, and then perhaps the words “inspiration” and “drive,” — and quite frequently, “I was born to do this.” That’s OK, and most of the time, it is probably true. But as an athlete seemingly buried in the world of cycling, these sentiments also neglect to mention how bizarre everything can feel.
Elite sport (which in my case means track cycling) is, objectively speaking, a very strange way to spend one’s time. Three of my teammates and I dress up in spandex, put on rather funny looking helmets, get on bikes, and then chase four other girls around an oval with very steep sides in the hope that our group will be faster.
And we do this over, and over, and over. We analyze everything. We look at graphs. We pick apart video. We sit down with coaches and physiologists and nutritionists, and pull apart our performances - breaking them down into their numbers to try and figure out, “What’s going right. What’s going wrong? Where can I get just a little bit more out of myself?”
We spend months away from home, much of it living in a quiet house, in the quiet town of Milton, Ont., about a 40-minute drive to Toronto. It is an all-consuming, total devotion to speed, technical skill, and mental focus. It can be immensely rewarding or unbelievably frustrating. It can leave you giddy with joy. It can also leave you broken-hearted and crying alone in a bathroom.
I’ve experienced all of this, and the thing is I often feel I don’t even know the half of it. To be frank, I’m finally just getting “here” — the national team, the “A” squad, the Olympic Performance Pool. With the exception of a very talented few, cycling development takes a long, long time. Plenty of the best riders continue with the sport for years.
Learning the basics
I began cycling when I was 13 at the Argyll Velodrome in Edmonton. I joined the Lori-Ann Muenzer Program, which teaches kids the basics of racing the track, road and mountain. As a triathlete, I wasn’t great at the bike portion, and this was a way for me to improve. I certainly didn’t expect to focus on one cycling discipline full-time, and I never imagined I would pursue it to the national level. But the sport has a way of sucking you in, and enough steady work along the way pushed me to succeed at the junior level.
Transitioning out of junior is tough for most women in cycling — you go from racing 17 and 18-year-olds, most of whom are fairly similar to you in ability, to getting thrown in with the elites. One year you’re racing what amounts to a relatively small group of friends (at least in Canada), and the next you’re trying to hold the wheels of Olympians.
Whether or not you keep racing depends on your motivation, your long-term goals, and to be honest, how lucky you are. I was very, very lucky: my parents were constant supporters, my coaches believed in me, and I didn’t have to go through those years alone. At my first junior national project in 2012, I made friends with a girl from Quebec, Ariane Bonhomme. Five years on, we’ve gone through everything together. Long training days, big wins, frustrating plateaus – whenever this bizarre cycling world has started to feel like too much to handle, we’ve been each other’s support system.
It’s hard to overstate how important it’s been to have a friend my own age, going through this process with me. We’ve seen a lot of people who started cycling with us move away from the sport. While we’ve been pedalling, they’ve been building their own lives and identities … graduating from university, growing their careers, and some starting to settle down — it can give you doubts. Having someone with whom you can share concerns, and bounce around ideas about the present and future can help keep you grounded.
Recently, both of us have transitioned upwards again – from the NextGen development program to the elite squad that will train towards Tokyo 2020. The same women that we’ve watched race World Cups, world championships, and Olympic Games are now our teammates – names like Allison Beveridge and Steph Roorda, people with a ton of race experience under their belts.
I thought that adjusting to a higher-level environment would be challenging and intimidating, but when your new teammates are totally welcoming, and relaxed, settling in is much easier. The thing is, the more high-level athletes you get to know, the more you realize that the doubts you have — fears of getting “left behind” in life, concerns about training plans, wondering if you’re really doing everything you can in your sport – are prevalent for everyone. And that can be a comfort.
It’s impossible to say what will happen over the next three years. I know there will be ups, and there will certainly be plenty of downs. But the question I think I really need to ask myself is, “Will I look back on the time I’ve spent, no matter the outcome, and be happy with the choices I made?”
Turning an Olympic dream into a reality involves a huge amount of work, time, outside support, and luck. I might have what it takes, and I want to have what it takes, but regardless, I’ve made amazing friendships. I get to travel the world, seeing places I might never have experienced. I get to spend my time chasing excellence, and learning about self-improvement, team building, and countless other skills that will stick with me for a lifetime.
And those doubts? I know they’ll always be there. No one is utterly confident in the choices they make. But for now, I’ve decided to go with the flow, enjoy the ride, and relish the strange and wonderful world that is track cycling.
(Large photos by Rob Jones/Canadian Cyclist and Cycling Canada)