Fit for the fight

by Michelle Lee & Anjali Chainani


Michelle Lee reached out to me on Twitter. She said she had a story from a teammate that she thought would be a good fit for the Ella audience. Could she send it my way?

I have to admit, I didn’t have particularly high expectations. We’ve been pitched quite a few ideas since launch, and more often than not, nothing materialises. But for every 100 stories that don’t eventuate, one will, so I’m always open to hearing ideas and reading features in the hopes that I’ll stumble on a gem to share with all of you.

This story – it’s a gem. Michelle and her teammate Anjali Chainani have a wonderful story to tell, and they tell it wonderfully. I laughed and I nodded. I was insprired and all fired up. I saw myself in what they wrote. I see lots you in what they wrote. And I wanted to hear more. That’s the mark of a good story right there, isn’t it? It leaves you wanting more.

And that’s the best part. We will get to hear more.

Michelle’s story is about starting a club for women interested in learning to race. She’s teaching them – and they’re doing it. (They’re doing it so well!). Anjali’s story is about learning to race. About what it’s like to transition from rider to racer. The things that Michelle has shared with Anjali and the rest of the Women Bike PHL Devo team? She’s going to share them with all of us, too.

Jessi Braverman


Michelle’s Story

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This winter, we started a club of rookie women. We called it Women Bike PHL Devo. The objective of the program was to turn bike riders into bike racers in eight weeks.

Women’s bike commuting was exploding in Philadelphia thanks to a new bicycle coalition program, but road riding and racing weren’t seeing the same gains. Last summer, a dozen local women took turns leading a six-week, 100-person road skills clinic and were blown away by the talent and spirit of the women who attended. It left everyone hungry for more. Forty percent of the women at the skills clinic said they were interested in racing — but few were making the jump.

The plan came together while I was overhauling my road bike, trying to eke one more season out of the Chorus drivetrain. A splurge from my first post-college paycheck, it was ticking along just fine and a warped sense of loyalty insisted that this was the drivetrain I wanted with me for one more season. Nine years after buying my first race license, I would be preparing for professional-level track racing under the Trexlertown velodrome’s Friday night lights.

What took so long? And why was I still here?

“It’s critical to make the first year racing experience great,” declared Joe Kopena, a veteran race promoter who’d convened a group called First States Cycling Alliance to collaborate in growing the sport. “About 45 percent of new racers don’t come back for a second season. But if you can convince a new rider to come back for a second year, they’ll be around for a long time. Seventy percent of riders who renew for a second year will hold a license for 16 years,” he said, citing an analysis of US beginners.

When I learned that the Women’s Cycling Association was also tackling the pipeline problem at the beginner level, that sealed the deal. I wheedled Elisabeth Reinkordt, a recent transplant to Philadelphia, into being my partner-in crime. Neither of us were licensed coaches in the national federation’s sense, but together we had tons of experience working with new riders – Elisabeth developing cyclocross and gravel racers in Nebraska and me through last summer’s road skills clinic.

We set out to build the first-year racing experience we wished we’d had. No heart rate monitors or power meters. The focus was on skills, camaraderie and grit — base miles for the mind. We dug up drills from old mentors and teammates: cadence drills, telephone jumps, team time trial simulations. While it’s difficult to overhaul fitness in two months, you can get a hell of a lot of free speed from technique.

We’re three weeks into the race season. Our small but mighty squad of seven has 27 race starts and eight podiums under its belt.


Anjali’s Story

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Michelle and Elisabeth had a plan for us.

Amanda DelCore, Annie Monjar, Liz Compitello, Shannon Murray, Elizabeth Pinney, Carolyn Auwaerter, and me, Anjali Chainani.

Who are we? We’re Philadelphia-based women who love to ride bikes. We didn’t really know one another before this crazy adventure, and none of us had ever participated in a road race. For some of us, we had come together to collectively takle our first racing experience ever – across any discipline.

It began last December when we each received an email inviting us to participate in “an experiment” cooked up by our fearless leaders. By early January we had all attended our first meeting. An email followed shortly after: “You’ve been added to the mailing list for the best winter/spring on bikes ever.”

And so it began.

We committed to a solid six weeks of training. February to mid-March. Our commitment? Two weekly workouts together, plus one or two additional days of training on our own, and three events. One of these events, the Philly Phlyer, included a road race, a time team trial, and a circuit race.

In return, we were promised a bunch of new friends and bike stories, a sense of what teams are out there and if we might want to join one, and the chance to fall in love with a crazy new side of the sport.

Everything Michelle and Elisabeth promised was delivered plus so much more.

We had our personal and group goals set by the end of January. Unofficial group rides kicked off immediately and official training began the first week of February. It was tough. I had to be up earlier than I would normally be and outside, in the cold. At 6:45am. In spandex.

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But, I got up and went. We all got up and we all showed up. That’s the first step. Just show the fuck up.

Why? I don’t think any of us knew yet. Maybe for the promise that was yet to come. I mean, Michelle and Elisabeth do talk a good game. Besides, don’t we all want to spend the wee morning hours getting told we’re awesome, all while wearing REALLY tight clothes? Just saying.

I can’t begin to capture what we learned in six weeks of formal training. We practiced in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. We trained in large and small groups: drafting, cornering, and pulling. COMMUNICATING.

We learned proper pedaling techniques. We learned what to wear during rides before dawn and in the cold. We were taught how to position our feet, where to sit on the saddle, what to do with our shoulders, neck, arms, and hands while riding. Hills. Fucking hills. How to descend. What to eat! Signaling. Hairpin turns.

We were taught how to push. That’s a huge one right there. We were taught how to really let go of ourselves and move beyond what we knew to be our fitness. How to pass on the left and fall back on the right.

We were coached on attitude. And ego. We even had indoor training parties.

Did you know they gave us homework?! Homework!

Pressure to race existed for me. For all of us. Pressure to perform, to maintain, to survive and to continue. It was tough.

Michelle and Elisabeth didn’t perceive me as I perceived myself. I didn’t think I was good enough to race! And, how dare they think I could? Who do they think they are, anyway? I didn’t think I was fit for the fight. I wanted them to give up on me! After every practice, I wondered: WHY?! Why am I still doing this? Why are they still pulling for me? Why are they rooting for me?

They weren’t letting go. It was two against one. I finally surrendered. I started seeing myself as part of the team and these ladies as my partners.

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Together, we grumbled about the ice and the snow. We met for happy hour. We talked about our anxieties and came up with strategies. They were supportive, patient and expressive in their coaching.

My teammates were present to the fight. Get MAD! they would yell. GET ANGRY! It worked. Someone else can’t be more excited about my life and my abilities than me. That just can’t happen. I got PISSED OFF and gave my all. We all did.

Race day was a mixture of every emotion ever in all the emotions.

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We finished all three races – the road race, the team time trial and the circuit race – weary in our well-doing.

So, what did we get from these six weeks of training and then racing in the Philly Phlyer? What didn’t we get? That’s the better question.

We got the experience of doing something we’ve never done before. We got teamwork and friendship. We got levels of confidence and mental strength.

Personally, I got to really see that everyone has a training goal – a place where we have yet to arrive. We each have to work for it. To train for it. Get in shape for it. There’s a fight, a good one, to endure. We reach for a reason for which to be consistent and focused. I thought that other people had already reached their goals and that I was the only one who needs to catch up to everyone else.

Silly ole’ rabbit. There’s always a fight. No matter where you are. Everyone questions if they’re fit for their own fight. Life isn’t about comfort and convenience; it’s about being faced with challenges and being bigger than the circumstances that surround us.

I need to end this with a thank you to Elisabeth and Michelle because they gave us their hearts. Do you know how you know if you have someone’s heart? They’ll fight for you. If someone doesn’t love you, they can dismiss you, but Elisabeth and Michelle gave three wintry months to train a group of women who never raced road bikes. They put their everything into our development. No easy task. They made promises, and they delivered. Their efforts made a real difference. They didn’t let us walk away without knowing what’s on the other side. For that I say thank you and thanks to everyone who helped them help us.

If you’re reading this and you are curious about riding bikes, learning, developing or training, find a practice and commit to it. Let go of what you know about yourself. Just show up. It’s the first step.


Michelle’s Suggested Starting Points

Tips for people looking for this experience:

  • Find a group ride
  • Remember you are part of it too. Show up. Share photos and stories. Share kale juice or pecan pie. Be there when you say you will.

Tips for people building this experience:

  • Start with heart. We chose people who showed up and, no matter how tough the ride, could find something to laugh about.
  • Build a love for the bike through friendship, skills, and beautiful routes. It’s like base miles for the mind. Then, results can come — the focus and sacrifice required for big-time results will need to draw on that bank.
  • Find a network and a partner. Oh my god find a network. Doing any of these solo would have killed me.

Looking to start racing? Check out any of these programs based in North America. Some are year-round clubs, others are seasonal clinics or series. One thing they all have in common: a focus on skills and camaraderie as much as watts and fitness.

These are just the ones that I know. I’m sure all of you know many others. Tell us about the programs in your regions in the comment below – and if you want, tell us who helped you in your first year of racing. Those beginner stories are some of the best, and I would love to hear more of them.

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