Emily grit her teeth and pushed. Her legs were burning from her hips to her ankles, and her toes might be numb or in pain – she couldn’t tell anymore. She just couldn’t get enough air, either. Up ahead, she could make out the top of the St. Francis Medical Center, poking up behind the 7000-foot contour line. She had a line of sweat running down each lens of her sunglasses, but there was nothing she could do about it.
The team had come to Colorado Springs ten days ago, so that they could acclimate themselves to the altitude before the US Air Force Academy Invitational, a new race for aspiring professionals. Only junior amateurs with US Cycling Federation cards could compete, and scouts from the various pro teams in the USA had been invited to come watch. K-Bikes (Emily’s team) had partnered with a bike shop in Denver, which also had a small team. Together, the two shops fielded a team of 12 strong riders, enough for a peloton and a couple of leaders. It would be the first time for the young women to compete at a high level, using the tactics and techniques of team riding to the utmost.
Emily had done her best this summer, and she was far and away the strongest rider on the K-Bikes team. But she was from Kansas, and she was not used to such long, steady hills.
The idea of her taking a week off from school had triggered the first argument her mom and step-dad had ever had. Katharine, her mother, was against it, but finally yielded to the combined pressure of Mark and Emily, with some outside phone calls from Matt, the K-Bikes Shop owner, and a half-dozen parents who had been following Emily’s successes during the summer. Mark and Katharine would both be at the race, but they each had to work that week. Katharine was especially upset that Emily was going away without her.
“Katharine, she’ll be fine,” said Mark. “We know everyone on the team, and the organizers have taken all sorts of precautions for this race.”
“I know, it’s just —” Emily’s mother left the room. They could see her shoulders shaking as she went into the master bedroom and slammed the door.
Mark put his hands on Emily’s shoulders as they stared at the door. “Give her a moment before you go in. It’s not easy watching your baby go out on her own. She knows this has to be, but she does not have to be happy about it.”
Her teachers took it better than her mother, allowing her to take the only quiz that week early, and giving her the homework assignments on the Friday before. Working Friday night and in the team van, Emily had the homework done by the time they arrived in Colorado Springs. There were only four of them coming from Newton: Emily and three women who had been a couple of years ahead of her at Newton High, and also rode on the team. None of the other teenagers had made the cut.
“Go for it, Em!” she heard Matt shout from the back of the motorcycle in the next lane. “You can catch your breath on the way down!” His voice seemed distant. Her vision was narrowing, and she knew that soon she would black out. She stood up for the last 200 meters, barely in time not to be dropped by the woman who appeared on her left.
Suddenly, she was over the top. Woodmen Road stretched out before her in a long, beautiful downhill. The police motorcycle escort speeded up and left them plenty of room. Emily felt the load come off her legs as she shifted into her highest gear and pedaled, still standing until she reached 30 km/hr. Then she tucked into an aerodynamic pose and gave those pedals all the spin she could. She began catching up with the motorcycle escort, which caused them to scramble to put even more distance behind them.
She had tried standing while racing downhill, after reading about the Italian racer Fausto Coppi, who was famous for riding uphill seated and coming out of the saddle for the downhill sprints. During the summer, she was sure that the technique had given her the edge more than once over more experienced riders, and it was paying off here, too. This girl from Kansas may not like hills, she thought, but she could handle any gradient of less than zero. Soon she was 50 meters ahead of the next rider in the race.
The whole week before had been grueling and full of surprises. She had expected the painful training rides after first arriving, but they were required to rest every other day, to let their bodies recover and acclimate to the altitude. They had stayed in a training camp in Northwest Colorado Springs, at 7400 feet. That was higher than the ridge that Emily had just passed. She knew that the climb up to the US Air Force Academy would be steeper, but much shorter. Then there would be a downhill sprint to downtown Colorado Springs.
During the recovery days, the racers were treated to tours of the US Air Force Academy, and feted at various events. The cadets from the USAFA Cycling Team were assigned to escort them places, run errands, and generally keep them company. One day, they rode the track railway to the top of Pike’s Peak, where they could see the city below and the plains all the way to Kansas.
The youngest rider in the event, Emily found herself blushing often as cameramen, reporters, and cadets enthused over her record. Not having ever raced outside of Kansas, she did not know that anyone had been watching.
Approaching the first curve, Emily came up slightly off her saddle, which lowered her center of gravity to her bottom bracket. She held herself vertical as she leaned the bike into the curve, taking it at something over 45 km/hr. There weren’t many curves, and they were more like lane changes, compared to the switchbacks that she had seen on TV coverage of major bicycle races. She put her full concentration into the curves, which could end a race, a career, or a life in a split second. Woodmen Road was a major thoroughfare, with plenty of lanes for the riders to maneuver. Emily had been amazed to see the route, which was a joint effort of the towns in the area, eager to attract high-level bicycling to them.
The race blew past an enormous Walmart and the Woodman Plaza shopping center, to the applause of bystanders gathered by the edge of the road. The whole field of riders gained speed heading toward Academy Boulevard. Emily was first round the intersection, and geared down for the climb to the Academy. The hill began to take its toll as the solar collectors and the airfield passed on her right. She couldn’t afford to sight-see. The redhead from Ogden, Utah, (what was her name?) and the semi-pro racer from Sacramento, California, (Augusta something) were taking turns passing her. The trio of leaders were all showing the strain, but also their shared determination to lead the race. It was a credit to the organizers that the three women in front were only 30 or 40 meters from the pack. This could be anyone’s race today.
Emily and her teammates did not have the experience or skill to play the waiting game, hiding their sprinter in the peloton until the last mile, then drafting her into a position to jump off the pack and take the lead at the last minute. But they knew that there could be a potential slingshot rider in the peloton. Emily’s teammates had trained hard at last-minute sprinting, so they could snap out of the field and challenge any potential leaders hiding in the pack. Emily’s job meanwhile, was simply to stay in the front of the field for the entire 100 miles of the race. It was a short race by international standards, but the concept was new, and none of the organizers were sure how the Junior women amateurs would do. They were surprised to see Emily and “her” trio riding so fast for so long. The police were hard pressed to clear the traffic up ahead, because the whole field was arriving earlier than scheduled. So much for thinking that the “girls” needed a slower pace.
The climb ended at Falcon Stadium. They tore around it and took a spin around the parade grounds at the Academy before returning to Stadium Boulevard and Pine Drive for the last 20 km into downtown Colorado Springs. The redhead risked a crash to elbow Emily on a curve coming off Pine Drive, and pulled ahead. At that point, there were no observers. Emily swore, and in her anger found an unexpected reserve. Emily took the lead just as they turned onto Willamette Avenue for the sprint to Boulder Park near the US Olympic Training Center. The last ten blocks were flat – just like Kansas. She hardly heard the crowd as she tore past the tape, still bent down. Only after passing the stands did she rise in her saddle and slow.
The cool down circuit was inside the Training Center. She rode straight there and did the required 500 meters to recover her heart rate and her sanity. She also calmed down. Matt and Jake were waiting at the end. She gave them each a big hug, then climbed into the van, while Jake snapped the bike to the rack.
“I knew you would win this one, Em,” said Matt as they drove back to the finish line.
“How’s the rest of the team? Did we finish well overall?”
“Great. All in the top 20, which means the combined team is either in first or second place. The whole field was spread over only 500 meters, one of the tightest races anyone has ever seen. And no one was dropped. Every woman finished the race.”
“That’s amazing,” said Jake. “There’s always someone who crashes or bonks or something in every men’s race I’ve ever seen.”
“So much for the weaker sex,” said Matt.
“The course really could have been longer,” said Emily. “Maybe we should have just raced the same course as the men.”
“And embarrassed them with your faster times?” Matt wiggled his eyebrows as they laughed.
Back at Boulder Park, Emily stepped from the van and began walking toward the stands. Suddenly she stopped, her mouth open and her heart racing.
“This is like one of those big races! So many people.” She started to turn back.
“Easy, Em. This is probably just the first one of these scenes for you. They should all be friendly here,” said Jake,
“And speak English, too,” said Matt. “Wait till you have to listen to speeches in Dutch or French.”
Emily snapped out of it. She squared her shoulders and headed towards the officials. Then she saw her mother and Mark at the edge of the awards stand. Oblivious to everyone else, she ran towards them, and buried her face in their chests.
The crowd was suddenly silent, then began to applaud. The youngest rider had won the race. It was a Cinderella moment for some, and a shock for many.
Aware now of the attention she was getting, Emily stood back from her parents. She turned to the officials, and let them escort her to the award stands, where the redhead from Oregon (Colleen O’Reilly, Emily remembered), and the semi-pro racer (Augusta Bivens) were waiting. The speeches were brief, and focused mainly on the hopes of the USCF to develop a field of talented racers, both men and women, that could return the Stars and Stripes to the podiums of racing venues worldwide. The crowd cheered. Emily and the others waved and posed for photos.
The team was waiting to hug Emily and congratulate her. More posing for photos. An hour after the end of the race, Emily finally got in the van with her teammates. All she wanted now was a shower and a nap.
That evening, Emily and her teammates were escorted to a reception and dance at the Air Force Academy. More photographs, with the handsome cadets vying to get a shot with Emily. Augusta Bevins found Emily standing on the side of the dance floor during a break. Augusta turned out to be quite pleasant. She opted for professional racing after high school, and worked in Silicon Valley as a programmer when she wasn’t racing.
“I expect to see you around a lot, Em,” she said. She clinked her glass of champagne to Emily’s Coke, and moved away.
“Hello, Emily. You’re quite the star tonight.” Emily turned to her mother, who glowed with pride, but her eyes betrayed her concern.
“It’s a bit much, Mom. I’m ready to go home already.”
“Mark and I are leaving in the morning. Want to come with us?”
“I’d like that, but I should really ride home with the team. The others worked so hard for this win. I owe it to them to make the trip back with them. Besides, we want to hear about what kind of trouble the domestiques cause after the party.”
“That sounds terrible.”
“Oh, Mom.” Emily rolled her eyes.
Katharine laughed and patted her arm. “I think I understand. I know I did not look forward to this before, but I am very proud of you. I would have been proud if you had finished off the back of the pack. Thank you, Emily.”
“For helping me see that parents need to grow up with their children. This is a big moment in my life, too. From now on, I plan to enjoy your milestones, not fight them.”
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,