Pro racing almost broke me; gravel skids are the cure

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Abby Mickey, a former pro road racer and host of our Freewheeling Podcast, just returned from the CyclingTips Gravel Bike Field Test, where she helped test a dozen new gravel bikes. Abby is an accomplished cyclist, but was a gravel skeptic. After a week on fatter tires, she filed this essay on her transition out of pro racing and into a new type of riding.

Gravel kicked up behind me and I couldn’t help but squeal with pure joy. I felt light, in my heart, and my smile was so big it exploded into laughter. My first fishtail skid! Why hadn’t I learned this before?

When I first started riding bikes, back in college, it was fun. It was so fun! Each weekend, going to different races with people who started out as complete strangers and ended up being some of my closest friends. Riding wasn’t about fitness, weight-loss, results, being noticed or making money. Riding my bike was about fun and freedom, speed, the smell of the forest around me.

Over the years, as I got better, my dreams and ambitions took over the original feeling of joy I’d felt in my black and gold University of Colorado Cycling kit back in 2012, ripping through the woods in Red Feather Lakes.

I remember this one short track race so vividly. Something clicked that day. It was the first time I won a bike race. Not once did I think about winning, or tactics, or how I felt. I was just having so much fun, my Yeti moved under me like we were connected, she knew where I wanted to go before I did.

When I found road racing, I discovered that, for the first time in my life, I was truly good at something. In time, I forgot the fun. Training, eating (or not eating in most cases), learning how to get better became an obsession.

In my first few years I didn’t have a power meter on my bike, but by the end of my career, only six years after the start, I couldn’t ride if my power meter battery was dead. If my coach hadn’t given me a specific workout I would ride out the door and get barely a few kilometers before turning around, saying to myself, “what’s the point?”

It’s been three months since I officially retired from professional racing; since I hung up my bike and told my loved ones it was over. All those goals and plans I’d made for myself in the sport would never come true.

In the years leading up to this decision, my weight fluctuated drastically. I lost half my hair. My skin is permanently damaged from acne. That’s just the outside.

That college student who won that short track all those years ago was full to the brim of confidence and love for life. Now, my only reason to get out of bed in the morning is my dog begging me to. There are days when I can’t look in a mirror without crying, and I’ve had suicidal thoughts.

I don’t think cycling broke me, but maybe bike racing did. Maybe I wanted it too badly and I just put too much effort into the wrong aspects of the sport. For example, eating nothing for months only to binge eat all off-season only to find I couldn’t lose the weight when it came time to get fit again.

Cycling isn’t forgiving. Molly Weaver’s article about money in women’s cycling paints a vivid picture of the lengths team management will go to to make you feel like you should be grateful for the $5,000 contract they’re offering. So grateful for the opportunity that you don’t even think “hold on…that won’t even cover my rent.”

Since retiring, a few friends have asked to go on rides, or made jokes about me racing gravel. That’s a hard no. There’s no chance in hell I will be racing gravel, sorry. It’s mountain bikes I am interested in. That girl in Red Feather Lakes is still in me somewhere, and I’m determined to find her.

At the CyclingTips Gravel Bike Field test in Sedona, Arizona, I felt her. As I skidded across the red dirt roads on my first ever gravel bike, I remembered something I’d been forced to forget so many years ago. Bikes are fun! Bikes are freedom. They are speed. They are therapy. They are adventure. Bikes can take you anywhere, show you anything. They bring you closer to the ground under your tires, and the trees you (I) definitely feel like you’re (I’m) going to hit. It’s not all about winning, or what team kit you wear.

When CyclingTips asked me to go to this gravel bike field test it was almost a joke. I have been very honest about my view of gravel bikes…they aren’t mountain bikes, for one. They can’t tackle the fun stuff. They’re not road bikes, they can’t go fast. I was a skeptic.

It took an hour for my opinion to do a 180. Halfway into the first ride, I was converted. That was even before the boys showed me how to skid.

Gravel bikes are potential. They may not be able to hit singletrack, and I’d buy an aluminum one because I’d definitely break a carbon one, but they can do so much more than I thought they could. They create the potential for adventure and forays into self-discovery; for more fishtail skids and fewer power meters. Thanks to them, I am finding the fun again.

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