Editor's note: Alexis Ryan is a Ventura, California native, and professional cyclist for Canyon//SRAM Racing. Alexis will be providing an alternative view, an inward looking approach to just what cycling and racing the Classics means to her throughout the Spring season.Her introduction framed a day in the life, her goals for writing, and an attempt to define herself as a writer. These won't be explicit race reports but will provide insights about culture and her own pursuits on and off the bike.
Do Not Shy Away
There are six of us sitting around a small table. Five have been team mates in the past. I am the newcomer. A faint memory crosses my mind, something to do with dessert, muscle glycogen, and strength. I add another spoonful of rice pudding to my plate.
The conversation has shifted. I listen as five warriors casually discuss battle. A brutal 125 kilometers loom on the horizon. Omloop het Nieuwsblad is the first Classics race of the season and will be my first race with Canyon//SRAM Racing. A question echoes in my mind: Have I sufficiently prepared for a full season in Europe? I believe so, but you can never be sure until it begins—and ends.
Standing on the stage—a stage that was set eleven years ago for the first women’s edition—I hear my name called over the loud speaker. Raising my hand, I give a faint wave. I shiver under the glare of camera lenses. Exiting right, a few fans ask for my autograph and a picture (without sunglasses) for their collection. The audacious ones ask for an article of clothing, to which I politely respond, “NO.” Most forget about me the instant I walk off stage.
The start is anticlimactic. After three and a half neutral kilometers, the green flag is dropped. Suddenly, the tension is palpable. A rider is consumed by nervous energy. Touch of wheels. Her body hits the ground with a thud and a sigh as the air escapes her lungs. A flash of remorse, then it is gone. This is a cut-throat sport. If you allow mishaps to disturb your conscience, your focus will dissipate and you become a passive participant.
The Côte de Trieu, steep but not cobbled, comes and goes. I am unaware of the shattered peloton behind me. The climb is a precursor. The Paterberg is less than five kilometers away. There will be a split, I can feel it. Like a broken record, my mind repeats, “Get to the front of the peloton. If you are not moving forward, you are moving backward.” Simultaneous taps on the right and left shifters, my chain slides onto the small ring. My body is one step ahead of my mind. It knows we are entering the Paterberg.
Sharp, off-camber right turn onto slick cobbles. Immediately, I am in the left-hand gutter. Fifteen riders power up the hill in front of me. I am too far back. Damn. I see a rider bobble—this is not good. Abort gutter mission. Chattering up the steep pitch, a rider turns, perpendicular to the road. I have to unclip, which is more mentally painful than anything else. It is nearly impossible to start again, but I manage.
Legs screaming, lungs screaming, I crest the cobbled climb. There is a group of ten riders roughly twenty-five meters ahead. I am in no-man’s land.
This is the moment when I decide what kind of rider I will become. I have two options.
The first option is to ignore the searing pain that grips my body. Follow my instinct. Close the gap. This is the way of a Classics rider—a champion. Winning a Classic requires grit, honor, and panache. These characteristics are not innate. They are acquired on the narrow, filthy, battered roads of Belgium under atrocious weather conditions.
The second option is to ease off the pedal pressure and experience a short reprieve from the pain. The riders behind will catch. I will be swallowed by the peloton, along with any opportunity of greatness. This is the way of a coward, pack-fodder.
I was not raised to shy away from a challenge.
Sticking my nose to the stem, I fly down the descent. I make contact within twenty seconds. There is a lack of air. Several minutes pass before my ragged breathing phases into a vigorous rhythm. The magnitude of what I have accomplished scratches at my conscience. The thought is pushed aside when I feel the effects of my effort. Bile rises in my throat.
I swallow hard and taste acid.