It is 1:00 pm on Friday in San Diego and I am crying big, salty, tears for the second time in an hour as Matt drives me to the airport. He asks me what’s wrong again and I tell him I’m not sure. It’s the stress of flying alone, maybe, or the weight of a race I want to pretend I don’t care about only I really do. It’s the private terror of racing a fixed gear bike without brakes through tight Brooklyn corners infamous for demanding blood and sweat in exchange for glory, maybe. Or maybe it’s the thought of the magical unicorn of the custom Cinelli prize bike that everyone and their mothers have been staring at via Facebook for the last two weeks (seriously, even my dad knew about it). We pull into the loading zone of terminal 2 at San Diego International Airport. I take a deep breath, wipe my eyes, grab my bike box and cool kid Chrome backpack and walk into the airport.
On the plane I zone out on Dramamine– I am a very motion-sick bike racer– while news footage of the missing Malaysia flight 370 runs on the screen imbedded into the back of my seat. I ask the girl next to me if she’s going home or away from home and she tells me she’s on spring break vacation. She asks me what I’m doing in New York and I tell her I’m flying out for a big bike race. “Oh, that’ll be fun,” she says. “Yeah, we’ll see,” I say with a half smile. I’m thinking about road rash.
I arrive at JFK around 9:00 pm EST. Don, a.k.a. Roadblock, greets me and carries my baggage, giving my wimpy cyclist/girl arms a little break. We catch a sketchy unmarked cab to Flatbush where we’re staying in something called an airbnb, which everyone but me has heard of. It’s actually someone’s vacant apartment (completely empty except for a chair, a lamp and some air mattresses). I’m wired because I’m on California time and consumed too much caffeine as per usual, so I eat a shitton of the pasta Don made and left on the stove, bounce around the empty apartment and then end up going out for onion rings with Roadblock and fellow Wolfpack Hustler/temporary roommate Zach Morvant. I fall asleep at 3:00 AM on an air mattress in an empty room under a single sheet. At 4:30 AM, some asshole decides to park out of my window and blare Jamaican techno for half an hour. At 5:45 AM I discover that the heater is broken because it sounds like a tea kettle whenever it kicks on. I contemplate no showing for the race due to sleep deprivation but manage to go back to sleep and get up on time anyway. It’s pouring rain. I live in San Diego. This is more rainfall than we get in a year and I have no idea how to ride in the wet. My insides feel like a washing machine.
Sleepy Jo discovers Moombaton at 5am.
When we arrive at Red Hook, we’re ushered to the athletes’ area in the cruise terminal. I gravitate towards Kelli Samuelson, who I know from the So Cal race scene, and her friend Stefania Baldi, an Italian woman who I meet in the reg line. We talk qualifier tactics, which I will later fail to follow anyway due to adrenaline enhancement of my already-impulsive personality. We’re surrounded by a bunch of skinny dudes in skin-tight clothing. I’m fairly convinced I’ve seen every possible bike-related pun on the backs of their kits. It occurs to me that this is really a showcase-in-race-form of the biggest brands, and some of the best athletes, in the underground scene.
A little after 1 PM, they corral us into Parc Ferme, check our cleats, bikes and numbers, ziptie a timing chip on us and let us stew in our own nerves. I think I’m going to puke. Kacey Manderfield is the women’s race director, and she is smaller and daintier than I expected for being such a damned good track racer and a past Red Hook winner. She explains to us that we have 20 minutes to lay down our best race time, which will determine our staging for the final. After a delay, they roll us out into the freezing rain and onto the line. Trimble counts down… 10. 9. 8. I am not ready… 3. 2. 1. Go!
Everyone’s confused and freezing. Someone attacks hard and takes a blisteringly fast lap. I can’t see, and I pedal hard to catch up, try to set a good time. I know we don’t have to worry about “qualifying” but nonetheless I want a good time. I can barely see. The course consists of a chicane shortly after the start finish, a straightaway over a ton of rough, uneven road with a lot of puddles. This leads into a long, sweeping turn that puts us facing the opposite direction and into the wind, a gentle left and a long straightaway before the final, brutal hairpin turn. I end up spending all 20 minutes riding, partly because I want to learn the course and partly because I can’t figure out where to exit. I can hear the top 3 lap times and my name isn’t mentioned.
Finally, we pull off and go back to the warmth of the cruise terminal. My clothes are soaked and I’m all too happy to strip out of them and go back to the wool dress I arrived in. Kelli nudges me when qualifying times go up.
I have to go halfway down the line to find my name. I’m 14th out of 31. I’m completely demoralized. How can I possibly expect to podium when I lay down a completely average qualifying time? Kelli and Stefania reassure me during my lunch break. Kelli’s optimistic; she and Stefania set down damn good qualifying laps (6th and 5th, respectively). I relax a little while eating pizza around the corner from the race with the girls. We joke and chat. Stefania speaks limited English, I speak no Italian and Kelli does her best with her own limited knowledge of the language, so we communicate through a mixture of words, expressions and emphatic hand gestures. Despite living on opposite ends of the globe and being separated by a linguistic barrier, we share the same interests: bikes, boyfriends, food, and a little bit of homesickness.
During the 3 hour break between women’s qualifiers and the actual race, everyone’s asking how I did. I talk it over with the other WPH guys and text Matt about it. Fabian (who could probably light up a dark room with his personality) seems to think it’s rad because he qualified 14th too– out of almost 200 dudes. I tell Matt that I’m not worried, because “fast laps don’t win races, fast racers win races” only I’m pretty much trying to convince myself as much as him. He handsomely reassures me and tells me I’ll do great. I have no big expectations. Eyes are off me for the moment and I’m not in the spotlight. The Wolfpack Hustle guys are nervous as they slip away to their own qualifying rounds.
I reluctantly kit back up at as we creep toward our start time– this time in the red-yellow-green champion kit from the Wolfpack Hustle Unified Title Series. Twice on the way to the bathroom somebody stops me and tells me they like my kit. I lovingly refer to it as my piñata suit. When we return to the staging area, I’m jittery again. The rain has gotten worse and, because of the incoming storm, they’ve shortened our race to a mere 14 laps– a mark against me, who needs a long, brutal race to do well.
photo by Christopher Baliwas
When it’s time to go, Kacey hops on her bike and leads us back into the freezing rain. It’s a shock to my system. I feel like a lamb being led to slaughter. We stand in the icy rain as they call up the fastest lap times– Ash Dubon, Liz So, Katie Arnold, and so on. I position myself on the X labeled ’14′, right next to the ever-lovely Veronica Volok. It’s not too bad… I’m in the second row, directly behind 4th place Carolynn Hatch. The countdown begins again. 10. 9. 8… …3. 2. 1. Go!
The first lap is fast because there’s a prime at the end. I follow along, cold, unsure of what’s in store. Liz So leads us whipping around the course and takes it deftly. We slow down after the finish line.
In the face of intimidating races, I am never quite sure how I will respond. Sometimes I am timid, and I flounder and fail. And then there are times when I blossom. This is one of those times.
I know I am fast over an extended period of time. I finished the 2013 L.A. Marathon Crash Race with the lead pack– the only woman in sight. I refuse to be complacent, so I push my way to the front and take a monster pull. I push hard, hard, hard, now taking the course on my own terms, taking sweeping lines and forcing the race into single file. One of the Rockstar Games riders rolls to the front, sensing my strategy and takes a pull. We trade for a while, flicking an elbow for other girls to pull through and keeping it fast enough to shed the deadweight for lap after lap.
At around lap 6, as we cut around the hairpin, I hear someone cry out, and the sound of metal colliding with concrete. I don’t stop. I don’t look back. “Go, go, go!” I yell to the girls who made it out with me. I want to get as far away as possible from the crash. The pack is whittled down to about half its original size. The midrace prime is called at lap 7. Figuring I won’t win, I decide I at least want to go home with something cool, so, right before the hairpin I push my way to the front and then sprint out of it first. Nobody comes around me.
photo by Jesse Lash
At lap 10, we enter the chicane in a long line. “Stay right, we’re passing,” I hear someone call to a lapped rider in the turn. She turns her head in response and drifts towards us. I shy away, but the girl behind me is not so lucky and has nowhere to go. She hits the barricade to our left, bounces off and hits my left leg. You’re going down now, my brain says, but years of riding in tight formations have apparently paid off, and my body says, no, not this time, and pedals out of it. The girl hits the barricade again with a loud crash and I push the pace again.
As we come around the course again, the marshals are waving desperately to us. The motor pulls up. We’re neutralized– Kacey sends us back to the cruise terminal to get warm. Inside, my teeth are chattering uncontrollably. My male teammates are there, wrapping me in a towel, asking me what happened, if they can get me anything. I change out arm warmers but have nothing else to wear. I’m soaked to the bone.
We sit for 20 minutes, cooling down, before Kacey announces we’re going to restart only the break and the chase with 3 to go, giving the break a head start. My heart sinks. How am I going to win a 3 lap race? Everyone’s recovered and my big motor isn’t going to help me over such a short distance. On top of that, my body is trembling. Some of the girls drop out, unwilling to face the brutal weather, and I consider it as well, but I endured a 5 hour flight and took off work to come out and I’ll be damned if anything stops me from at least finishing the race.
We restart and I again set the pace, cautious, waiting, always staying top 3. At some point, Kelli, who has been desperately chasing after being caught behind a crash, catches back on. I keep my head in the game, watching, waiting. Ash attacks, flying forward from the left, but I’m ready for it. I knew she was back there. She doesn’t escape. She’s now forced into the front and has to pull for much of the final lap. I realize, on the straight away coming into the hairpin, that I’m in 4th position– not good enough. Recalling my earlier prime lap, I decide to make a move that could either be idiotic or genius. I do what Don will later refer to as “beasting” and put in a monster effort to come up the left side of the straight away, around the pack, and push my way back over to the right just as we enter the hairpin. I take it wide and shallow, carrying my speed through.
Liz So takes it tight and narrow, coming through on the inside and pulling ahead! We start our sprint as soon as it’s safe coming out of the turn on the wet roads, but I have more momentum from taking the gentler line through the hairpin. I accelerate into her draft and slingshot off of her in an attempt to come around before we cross the line. I don’t think I have it… … But I do!
I can’t help but pump my fist into the air. I ride around the course, grinning like an idiot, blown away. I didn’t even think I’d place.
photo by Christopher Baliwas
Don is bouncing off the walls, excited. When I call Matt, he’s ecstatic as well as relieved– my timing chip had malfunctioned at one point and, with the phone app being the only way for him to track me from the west coast, he was convinced that I’d crashed because I was listed as DNF. On the podium, I worry I’ll cry for the umpteenth time this weekend, but this time it’ll be happy tears. They present me a beautiful Vigorelli. I’m floored.
In forty years, if my health allows and I survive that long, I will tell Matt’s and my granddaughters– who I am convinced will race bikes in tradition of the family– about the blue-and-white bike frame hanging on the wall. I will tell them that I was there at the inaugural women’s Red Hook during a time when we had to fight to see real women’s races. I will tell them that, somehow, I won.
photo by Don Ward
photo by Will Gonzalez