Riding by Feel: A Conversation with Alexis Ryan

 In early Spring, we were lucky enough to have Alexis Ryan write a couple of powerful pieces on racing in Europe. In her second post, she eloquently captured those instantaneous, identity shaping choices made in oxygen debt that have the possibility of changing a career. The ultimate goal was to get at the heart of bike racing from a "why" perspective, the adventure, and randomness, the freedom while standing on a starting line of not knowing what was going to happen next. Sometimes bike racing can seem a bit sterile, but it's important to show the dramatic moments that inform so much of cycling's lore.

We recently spoke with Alexis while she was at her European home base in Girona, Spain, where she's spending time learning Spanish and waiting for the next two month block of racing before prepping for a potential selection for World Championships. 

Our conversation turned to differences in race and riding cultures in the United States, why racing on hand-me-down bikes without hi-tech anything as a junior made her a better bike racer, and why the chaos of the Spring captures the essence of bike racing. 

We hope you enjoy.

Stinner: How's it going, where are you right now? 

Alexis: I've been in Girona for 2.5 weeks just training. On Tuesday I leave for the Sweden WorldTour race; there’s a TTT and a Road Race. Then the following weekend is another WorldTour race. And then 2 days later is the Holland Ladies' Tour which  is 6 days, and then two days later is the Lotto Tour which is Four Days. 

I’m living here now, so I need to make it home I’ve been taking Spanish lessons so I can communicate with people, though, they do speak Catalan here. I’m learning Spanish because I can use it elsewhere. But it’s funny. I’m learning Spanish but I go out into the world or outside the classroom, and I’m trying to listen to everyone and they’re not actually speaking Spanish. It’s a little confusing, because they all speak Spanish but they don’t like to use Spanish. 

Stinner: We had talked before a little bit about the exchange of cycling culture between the United States and Europe. Gravel riding is kind of coming from the U.S. to Europe, but road racing in the United States is still modeled after the European racing. Do you see any of that cultural exchange in European racing?

Yeah, that got me thinking, what is different? It’s hard to pinpoint. And in Europe you have the history, there is a cycling culture. In the U.S. there is a cycling culture but it’s so new, so green, it really has no influence. It has influence from Europe, but, geographically,  the United States is so far from Europe that it kind of taking on its own shape. The cycling world is influenced by culture by these old ideas and customs, and American cycling is influenced by cutting edge technology, but also trends.

For instance, in Europe, not so much on my team (CANYON//SRAM), but you have experiences with soigneurs who say you can’t get a massage after you just ate, because it’s bad for you. But why? It’s because their grandmother told them it’s bad for you. The air conditioning will make you sick.

What do you mean it will make you sick?We don’t think like that because we don’t have that kind of influence. As far as the riding itself, the gravel scene is definitely big in the U.S., you don’t have that here. 

Stinner: Bike racing kind of exists on the fringe in the United States as it is. Did you always want to be a bike racer?

I started riding really young. When I first started racing I didn’t want to do it. I just did it because my dad drove me around to the bike races every weekend. So when I was a kid, I did enjoy it, I really liked mountain biking, though. I was a kid, I just wanted adventure. I still have that now, it’s just evolved.

I’m training and I can go on an adventure, but I have two 20 minute power tests I have to do. I just have to keep focused on training for the racing that I’m preparing for, rather than just appreciating going out and riding. And I still do appreciate it. I think all season, I get this build up, I’m just waiting to go out and ride because I want to.

I do want to do a gravel grinder, I just haven’t been able to do one. They always seem to happen when I can’t go out and adventure.

Stinner: When in life did you start thinking, "I like racing?"

The first time I won MTB nationals when I was like 13. I was not expecting it. The day before I had crashed in pre-ride. I just threw the biggest fit. "I hate this, I’m not racing." I woke up the next morning and my dad guilted me into it. “I paid for this, we’re all the way in Vermont.” You need to race. 

So I raced and rode away from everyone and won. This isn’t so bad. That’s when I started enjoying the racing.

When I started riding for TIBCO, when I was a 17-18, I got to do professional races and really started to understand that bike racing was more than just suffering on a wheel. There’s strategy and that was a really fascinating aspect for me. And I got to ride with professionals with these women who had been doing it for ten years, and I was learning things and it was more than mindless riding.

You need to be strong, but that’s not the only thing that matters. you have to understand the art. I think when I realized it’s actually an art, I started to appreciate it.

Ha, you know when you’re told as a kid you can never mess up in art, there are so many different things that can happen before a finish line and all of them can work out. And it’s being able to read the race, to make the call that works for you. Cause what works for you…you need to learn to read a race in a way that plays to your strengths. You can be really smart, and you can have all these ideas. But if you don’t know yourself, and what you can do, then those things are never going to work for you. 

STINNER: We often hear rumblings that bike racing is becoming too scientific almost, that art of bike racing you speak of is lost. But perhaps this starts at cycling's base, where so many people are reliant on power meters to get out the door. Do you think that you can appreciate that art with a reliance on power meters?

When I was growing up there were three of us [Alexis has two sibling, older brother Morgan and and older sister Kendall who races professionally on the TIBCO Women's Team] we didn’t have the resources, my dad didn’t have the money, to buy us power meters. I had a hand me down bike, so I never had access to the higher end technology. I had to learn to read my body and read a race and the decisions to make, how to mover around in a peloton to save energy and read other people and how they’re feeling. I never, I didn’t have technology to rely on, I just had to rely on myself. I felt that a lot growing up. I would see these kids coming into the sport with nice bikes and power meters, $10,000 set up and they’re 16 years old, and they can’t handle their bikes, they’re looking and listening for dad on the side of the road.
And I think maybe in the difference in U.S. culture, when you’re really young, in Europe, all the Dutchies and Belgians race Kermesses when they’re this big, and they just race. And they learn how to race before they get all technical about it. In Europe they learn etiquette, the rules of the peloton, and they learn respect, and there are all these intricacies of racing that are important to learn when you’re young or first starting. And I feel like because American culture, our racing culture is so green there’s no transfer of information. People get into the sport and just do what they want and then go over to Europe and wonder how they get their ass handed to them. They skipped that whole important subject.

STINNER: Is your team, with its Canyon and Rapha sponsorships gaining a following? What are you seeing in the way of fan support for women's racing in Europe right now?

Some organizations are better at promoting races than others. You have the Aviva Women’s Tour in England They always have the biggest crowds because of the way they promote. So there’s every school in the city out there, thousands of kids on the side of the road. They get the community behind it. As for the Dutch and the Belgian Races, some of the smaller ones you don’t get a huge turnout but you can get some good crowds, especially when the big races are run in conjunction with the men. You get people in the team areas, coming up, asking for your autograph, they have a picture of you from ten years ago, and you just think, where did you find this?! There are some super fans and people asking you for the jersey off your back. It’s getting more popular but . . . It helps to have certain organizations promote events. The organization that does the Aviva Women’s Tour seems to care more about promoting the race on the women’s side of it, than  perhaps the ASO does with LA Course by Le Tour. We were in Paris a couple days before LA Course and a few people knew we were racing. But one guy asked us what we were doing there.

“Racing in the Tour de France.” 
“Oh, there’s a women’s race?”

STINNER: On that note, how has the season been?
The team has been amazing. Spring was the most taxing Spring I’ve ever had. But I learned so much. You know I thought I knew a lot about bike racing, and intuitively I did. But I never would have made the progress I did if I didn’t make the sacrifice, sign with a European team and uproot my life to move over here and do 2.5 months straight of racing in the gutter. And it’s not even that I can tell you what I learned it’s more the feeling of racing. You don’t get that in the U.S. and I wouldn’t have gotten it if I came over here with the National Team for two weeks. It needs to be week-in and week-out, getting your head handed to you until you finally come to the conscious understanding of how to race. 

STINNER: Between some of the biggest races in the world, getting to do Tour of California, and La Course by Le Tour among those, what's been your favorite type of racing so far?

I really liked the spring. I wish they had that style of racing in the U.S. You need the legs, you need the brains, you need the guts to do some of the crazy maneuvers. You can’t get it over in the United States because of the nature of the terrain and the roads. You don’t get small cobbled roads in California. I just don’t know what to tell you in terms of a specific race.

It’s like a feeling, the racing’s so aggressive in a way that U.S. races can never be. People just do off the wall stuff. And it’s totally normal. “Oh, she’s just going to attach up the curb.” Like up the sidewalk. She’s going to hop over a roundabout and then attack on this little road and you’re going to get flicked off into the ditch and land in a pile of cow shit. And it’s pandemonium. And I love that. I love that every Belgian race is just chaos. All spring. Whoever makes it through the chaos wins. I mean, it also doesn’t mean that whoever makes it through the chaos first comes out unscathed either. You can go through hell an entire race and win.

Epilogue: We hope to continue our conversations with Alexis on racing and culture, but ultimately, why we do it as well. Sometimes exploring other cultures helps us understand our own. Our conversation included a lot of topics we'd love to include in the future, from the books she's reading to more on the adventures of riding and racing. 

The experiences of a pro cyclist, aside from the jet setting life (of sorts), are incredibly similar to those of us who try to sneak in predawn rides before work. The motivations and sensations are the same. Perhaps learning about the roots of cycling and racing can help us keep a bit of perspective.