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by Alison Tetrick
June 24, 2016
Photography by Cor Vos
WOMEN'S CYCLING BROUGHT TO YOU BY ORBEA
Earlier this year, endurance rider Sarah Hammond penned a short but to-the-point article for Ella on the reason why she, as an incredible athlete, chooses to not participate in bike racing. On the other side of the spectrum, pro cyclist Alison Tetrick has been struggling with the question as to why she does, still, after some serious crashes, continue to race. She shares her thoughts here:
The phone call comes in for a typical interview request from my latest bike race participation or community event involvement. Pleasantries are exchanged and if the journalist has utilised Google prior to the conversation, they usually have a pretty good idea of who I am and what comprises my background including injuries, education and career.
Then comes the inevitable question.
“Why do you race bikes?”
This is the most common question I am asked. Actually, I wish that were the most common question I am asked. I am lying. The truth is that the most common question I am asked is “Why do you still race bikes.”
I could answer that first question all day long. I can revel in the beauty the bike offers in scenery, freedom and adventure. I can passionately describe how I love the burning in my legs and lungs in order to win races and be a team member on a Women’s World Tour Team, Cylance Pro Cycling. I can explain my love for the culture and the community of people just like me. I can recount stories of the lifelong friendships and bonds I have created with amazing people and my family. I can puff with pride about representing solid, reputable sponsors and their brands and advocacy initiatives. I can even distract you with the intrigue of world travel and being able to race and ride around the world, as my job! Racing and riding bikes is an incredibly powerful experience and opportunity for me, and I love sharing this passion.
But when you insert “still” into this seemingly innocent question, that is where the truth of the matter lingers in the shadows of all things raw and real. All the parts of the question I would like to avoid.
Why do you still race bikes?
The question comes and my heart rises into my chest as if it grew four sizes too big for my body and needs to escape in order for me to breathe. It is like I am claustrophobic from the inside out. I feel a flood of fear and vulnerability slowing rising into my throat, and tears burn behind my eyes. My body temperature rises and sweat drips into my armpits but somehow I have the chills and shiver. There is an internal realisation that it is indeed a very good question. It’s just one I don’t even want to ask myself. It is too real. It hurts too much. I go to therapy over a question like this.
My cycling journey is headlined with issues of head injuries and broken bones that required a path of recovery through mental health, graduate school and advocacy. You don’t get to pick your own story. They never tell you that. They tell you that you can create and be whoever you want. Then a defining moment or thing happens, and that’ll be your story. It turns out my story literally hit me on the head. Pun intended.
I have lost my fair share of skin and pride while racing my bike, and I continue to feel the pangs of anxiety and nerves when I line up to race. One crash in particular was life altering. Along with a broken pelvis, I battled a traumatic brain injury that took me through an emotional roller coaster of mental health, depression, learning to read again and regaining life balance.
Head injuries are very complicated. As much as I would like to move forward without mentioning it and show some sort of standardised resilience, the impact has been too great. It causes me to accept and recognize my vulnerability each day. I now raise awareness about complications associated with head injuries and mental health. I went to graduate school to further understand the brain and head injuries. My life was completely changed, yet I continue to race bikes.
What is the allure and the driving force that seems to conquer all fear and possible danger to line up and continue the pursuit of professional cycling? That’s a good question. I wish I had an answer. I simply do not.
I have answered this question in more ways than I can count. I use it as a therapeutic process for me to see my progress, to try to quantify what happened, to try to find the answer by answering, and to continue to be strengthened at the cost of humility. Although my approach allows for some powerful answers, it doesn’t necessarily answer the question. At least not to whom it really matters, that critical and discerning version of yourself that you bury in your core.
These responses are all true. These are some of my acknowledged reasons and although they may answer the question for you, I am not completely satisfied.
You may notice that none of my answers have a thing to do about results. This is also very true. I love good results as much as the next competitor, and will never forget standing on the podium at the World Championships. But it isn’t the results that drive me forward. Results, deliverables and winning are like rainbow sprinkles on a chocolate sundae. They sure look pretty and are externally validating, but they aren’t the substance of the dessert. There is a greater purpose to bike racing than results themselves.
I don’t know. That is my answer. But really, do any of us know the answer? There is an invisible force that the bike conjures and as sweet as a siren song we follow along. Bikes just foster this rare set of emotions that we cannot describe. We aren’t brainless, we aren’t enchanted, but we continue following something we love for the very sake of it all. There are many mysteries in sport, and perhaps this is one of them.
Of course I struggle with the risk and the inherent danger of the unknown. I strive to be educated and calculated. It is the scientist and survivor in me. I also know that I have spent much of my career fearful. Life and bike racing is meant to be inhaled to its fullest. I admit that I question my decision and my capabilities, yet I know I am not blindly pursuing a passion. I continue to invest in the inevitable Plan B that just might be my Plan A all along. I have another career and education outside of the bike bubble and I still love the ability to feel free on two wheels. Passion cannot be always be verbally defined and sometimes can only be felt. Bicycle racing is only a short part of a long life so I will make a lasting legacy with while I can.
To be a legend to myself. Maybe the answer is just the ability to ask the question in the first place. If we didn’t love this sport so much, it would be easier to explain.
I dedicate this post to those that have asked this question and may nor may not have noticed me writhing and evading in pain, guilt, and uncertainty. To the friend that told me it was acceptable to not have an answer to this question, thank you for encouraging expression of limited human capacity.
May you all pursue what you love with vigor and passion. Each day should be conquered with purpose and perspective. Even through tender memories and consequences of your story, love and cherish the person you have become through it all. Look broadly to be prepared, and narrowly enough to be focused and present.