In Defense of the Off-Season

By: Molly Hurford Jul 16

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I have a confession: I like to run. Give me a hard off-road trail with sneakers, or a beach where I can ditch the sneakers all together, and I’m a happy camper. I don’t get the “runner’s high” on the bike, no matter how hard I try, but I get it almost every time I run. I also like to swim. Pool, ocean, exceptionally clear lake: give me a water feature and I will make the most of it. So does that make me a lesser cyclist, or, even worse, a triathlete?

For most racers, spring and summer compose the on-season. But lately, there have been more and more people, myself included, who elect to make cyclocross in the fall their main season. So that makes road and mountain, by default … the off-season? For me, if you compare what happens in the fall to the last few months, I suppose that’s accurate. I race every other weekend, sometimes more, sometimes less, now. In September, it’ll be a balls-to-the-wall weekend-after-weekend jam-packed race season. If you asked me to do that on a road bike or a mountain bike, I might cry. But when you spend time dreaming of the perfect dismount/remount technique, it’s pretty clear where your heart is.

Second part of the confession (while I’m at it): mentally, much more so than physically, I find it nearly impossible to whole-heartedly commit to two serious seasons focusing on specific sport. I’ve tried the road and ‘cross thing, the triathlon and ‘cross thing, and now, the road and mountain biking and ‘cross thing, and so far, the best has easily been this summer. I gave myself permission to not take racing too seriously, to train hard and race hard but take weekends off. I bought a good mountain bike and … learned how to mountain bike. I raced road, I raced mountain, often with very mixed results. I got beat up, crashed out, crashed on, and I just plain crashed. Because I’d given myself permission to not take the season seriously, I wasn’t upset with a lack of major results on the road (some solid, some “mehhh”) and I was thrilled to not totally bomb at mountain biking. But for someone used to spending summers focused on triathlon, it felt like there was still something missing.

Then, last week, I was practicing my cornering skills in the park near my house. I rolled into my normal parking lot, expecting it to be empty, as usual. It was full, and I quickly saw why: the empty pool I had thought was a monument to summers past (who has community pools these days?) was full of crystal clear water and happy looking kids. “Just finish your cornering,” I told myself, sternly, out loud, eliciting a few weird looks. I finished the corners in another parking lot but the pool was first and foremost on my brain. It was actually a physical pang. So I did what anyone would do: raced myself home, ran in tot he house, past my confused housemate, tore into the basement and grabbed a bike lock, bathing suit and goggles, as well as my ‘cross/commuter bike, and rushed back out of the house.

Jumping into that freezing, glassy water was the best feeling in the world. Swimming laps and trying to adjust to the ice-cold temperatures, looking at the way the light was reflecting on the water, seeing the droplets flying up, executing my first flip turn in well over a year, it was magical. Diving low to swim under a pain-in-the-butt 12 year old who thought it would be funny to cannonball right at me, less fun. But when you’re a triathlete and used to starting races in what essentially passes for a washing machine, dealing with irritating pre-teens is nothing. I remembered: I love this.

The next week, I got another wake-up call. I was at the beach and after lying on the beach with full blessing from my coach to relax and recover from my crash at the mountain bike race in Windham a couple of days before, I realized what was missing. “I’m just going to run to the first hotel,” I told my dad. It would be a mile-long run, not exactly much of a trek.

“Sure you are,” he replied sardonically from under his shades.

He was right. A couple of blocks in, I felt it: the rightness that is barefoot beach running, for me. I ran, ran, ran, and found myself 30 blocks down. Still not a super-long run, but 45 minutes instead of the 10 I’d claimed. When I got back, I jumped in the water and paddled around. Dad was out there. “So, how was the first hotel,” he asked.

It seems that despite renouncing triathlon two years ago, my body is still screaming to go back to it. And I know, cyclists hate triathletes, as a whole. But does that mean we’re all bad?

Maybe, I’ve been thinking, it wouldn’t be so bad to be a triathlete in my cyclocross off-season. Not a super serious one or anything, but do a few local races, maybe an X-terra or two. I’ll still race some road, some mountain, and still be a bike racer, but is it so bad to want to swim-bike-run a few times? I can hear a chorus of people I know yelling, “Yes! It is bad!” but if it motivates you to keep training and working hard, can it really be that morally terrible?

There is an argument to be made that a little trail and beach running will get cyclocrossers ready for the inevitable running sections of races. And swimming works core and upper body, which helps with the remounting, dismounting and carrying during a race. Add in the X-terra element, and the mountain biking will only help with technical sections of a race. Of course, that only works if running and swimming are entirely secondary to riding, riding, riding, but nevertheless, I think it’s a reasonable proposal. I wouldn’t expect to be the triathlete that I used to be, where my swim and run were oddly stronger than my bike leg. I’d hope the opposite is true now. That said, I found that when I first started cyclocross, technical incompetence aside, it was a natural fit for a triathlete who wanted to have some fun: I was able to handle running sections (often longer for me, see above ‘technical incompetence’) and picking up and carrying my ludicrously heavy Surly wasn’t too difficult, thanks to the aforementioned upper-body strength I had that a pure cyclist wouldn’t.

To qualify: I am no longer a triathlete, nor would I want to define myself as one, ever again. But is it so wrong to want to get off the bike and into the water every so often?

I think everyone deserves an off-season. Or, in the absence of a real off-season, you, the racer, darn well better be loving every race that you do (or at least, be excited about each race that you do).


Having It All(?)

By: Molly Hurford Jun 28

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As a female racer, I think and write an awful lot about the state of women's racing in the US, and the way that female racers are treated. But sometimes I forget that the cycling world is just a tiny microcosm, a demonstration on a smaller scale, of issues that face women today.

According to Jodi Kantor in her New York Times article, there is now a "debate about a new conundrum of female success: women have greater status than ever before in human history, even outpacing men in education, yet the lineup at the top of most fields is still stubbornly male. Is that new gender gap caused by women who give up too easily, unsympathetic employers or just nature itself?"

While she's talking about the workplace and education system, that quotes sounds oddly familiar to any woman who's been trying to race seriously for years. A lot of this article and the others I looked at are based on the whole work-family conundrum that faces women (and these articles fully admit they're based on the experiences of upper-middle class, the women who can choose between work and family if they so choose). While I was reading them, though, since I'm sans children, I couldn't help but strike parallels between the plight of the working mom and the plight of the female racer.

So in that sense, Kantor's question about what causes the gender gap is a valid one in women's cycling. Are we not working as hard as the men? Are some team managers and race promoters purposely trying to avoid paying women what they're worth? Are women racers just naturally not as 'serious' as the men?

Most of the articles I looked at centered around the old feminist adage that women can 'have it all,' if they only work hard enough. columnist Rebecca Traister writes, "No, my proposal is this: We should immediately strike the phrase “have it all” from the feminist lexicon and never, ever use it again… And that sucks. It sucks for all of us, who are so very busy – not aiming for complete satisfaction or amassing everything our hearts might desire – but busy working and living and getting by and fighting to pry open more doors so that more women might enjoy more kinds of opportunities than have been available to those who came before."

I know so many amazing women in the cycling scene, both on the professional and amateur level, who spend so much of their time working to promote women's cycling, to make it more accessible, to make a career as a pro woman more feasible, and it seems like most of the time, we're -- pardon the pun -- spinning our wheels.

And the worst part about it is that despite the huge talent pool for women in cycling in the US, I know of so many incredibly talented ladies who struggle every year to find a team that takes them even slightly seriously. And those on teams are often fighting for scraps while the men get the bulk of the goodies. I know this isn't the case for every woman or every team, but anecdotally, I can say that it happens more often than you might think, and infinitely more often than it should. But that isn't even the worst part. I worry that the worst part is that we -- myself included -- have drunk the Kool-Aid. We don't think that women's racing is as exciting, or that it can bring in as many sponsors, or that it has as much of a future. Or, if finding a team is hard, we start thinking that it's because of our abilities, because we're not a little bit better, faster, stronger. And sure, part of that can be true: I freely admit that I'm not as fast or good as, say, Kaitie Antonneau, and I wouldn't bat an eyelash if she was getting paid 18 times what I made. But I know plenty of women who deserving of much, much more than they get. Still, we've been trained to be gracious and happy to get anything, because it's better than nothing.

Because of this, there are some incredible racers out there who've been made to re-evaluate their self-worth. The article that this debate stemmed from in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter mentioned something interesting about this whole self-doubt issue. "I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot)."

Again: she's talking about work and having a family, but when I read it, it applies just as well to women's cycling. It is harder for women to make it in cycling, despite what companies and teams will say. But we've been programmed to believe that we have equality, so anything lacking is due to a personal failure, not a flawed system. And the last bit -- about being thin and beautiful to boot -- just reminds me of another hot debate for cyclists. But that one is for another week.

Slaughter also blasted Facebook's female spokesperson, saying, "Sandberg thinks that “something” is an 'ambition gap'—that women do not dream big enough. I am all for encouraging young women to reach for the stars. But I fear that the obstacles that keep women from reaching the top are rather more prosaic than the scope of their ambition."

Again, the same is true in the workplace and in cycling. I know many women who would love a career in cycling, but it's just simply an impossibility. Being willing to work for little money is one thing, but when that means not earning a living wage, or having to work other jobs to support a racing career, leaving less time for training or recovery, that's a reality, not a lack of ambition, that's keeping women from pursuing a pro career.

When I was doing interviews for my cyclocross book, I had a few great eye-opening moments. One was when not one, but several men AND women told me that the reason women's racing isn't quite as exciting to watch as the men's is because we simply aren't programmed with that 'killer instinct.' They were talking about the instinct that makes us want want to crush our opponents, who are often our friends and training buddies when not on the race course. At first, I scoffed a bit. That's ridiculous, I thought. I always want to beat people, no matter how friendly we are.

Then, I was at a race a few weeks ago. There was a minor crash in our field, behind me. I was in the front with six other women, and we opened a gap as the pack struggled to navigate around the crash. We continued at a tempo pace, and I tentatively asked,"So, do you guys want to attack? Because this is probably a good time." That's when I got a couple dirty looks and the group demurred, saying we should wait and see if everyone was OK. When I relayed this story to my male friends, they laughed and told me that the sound of a crash is a signal to pick up the pace in their field. And yes, I know if I wanted to attack, I should have just gone for it. But that's another column for another time: my acute lack of race tactics under pressure.

Now, I've been in plenty of races *cough* Battenkill and Somerville *cough* where crashes in the women's field did pick up the pace for the front. But I think that's a particularly interesting example worth mentioning. And I've written about it before, but it bears repeating: I consider myself to be a serious cyclist, but when someone crashed next to me at Battenkill, my first instinct was to stop and see if she was OK. I will also admit that I squelched that feeling and rode on. And proceeded to feel guilty about it for the rest of the race. Is it because I don't have that killer instinct? Is there something nurturing in my DNA that I just can't seem to get rid of?

Of course, at the end of the day, rather than turning to feminist scholars or feminist debates when I'm worried about my place in the peloton, I should probably just take a cue from Tina Fey during the next race. "Know what? Bitches get stuff done."

Cycling -- and sport in general -- is one place where we can easily see the difference in treatment of women versus men, and while some of it is simply a biological necessity, a lot of it is simply that when it comes to equality in the workplace, professional sports are just lagging behind the times more ostensibly than most other career paths. I've spent a lot of time talking with racers, promoters, managers, and every industry professional imaginable about this, and no, there isn't a simple solution. But pushing for more discussion on the issues of women in cycling, and looking at it as a whole, rather than a race-by-race or racer-by-racer issue would be a good start.




Cyclists and the Art of the Life/Work Balance

By: Molly Hurford Jun 17

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We learn in basic high school physics that two objects cannot exist in the same space at the same time. So what happens when life and work start to occupy the same space? The universe hasn’t imploded yet, but I’m starting to think more and more about it, though not in such quantum mechanic-style terms.

Lately, it’s been becoming more and more difficult for me to decide at what point I’m relaxing, and at what point I’m working. Case in point: I was at the Tour of Somerville on Memorial Day. I was there first and foremost to race, but also to watch the races, to come up with some good column material, to potentially do some interviews, and to definitely set up some interviews. Also, to hang out with some good friends, though some of them were included in that list of interviewees. Among topics discussed after the race once we’d settled down at dinner were my work, the state of cyclocross, and my book. So is that a workday? It didn’t feel like it, exactly, but nor did it feel like being “off.”

There was a moment after the race when someone was bemoaning the lack of coverage of the crit. Someone else suggested that I could have covered it, if I hadn’t been preoccupied. He was entirely right, of course, and it made me wonder: should I have covered it? For whom? Was I on the clock? Then, it occurred to me: I’m never punched out, really.

The problem, then, is this: do I ever get a day off at a cycling event? I’m not a pro cyclist, but when I race, it’s usually fodder for writing, and occasionally a teensy bit of extra cash in my pocket. So racing is work. But it’s also fun. I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t. The point, though, is that even when I’m at a race with no real work goals (read: I’m not actually tasked with writing a race report), it still is work. And it’s inescapable.

Pro cyclists have it just as bad, if not worse. Amateurs around them are there for a day of fun and friendly (OK, sometimes not-so-friendly) competition. They laugh, joke, goof off, and generally have a good time. The pros are there to work, the asphalt is their office space, and the boss isn’t going to come through with that end of the year bonus if their performance is lacking. That said, pro cyclists are racers because they love racing, not because they are forced to be. Unlike working in middle management (sorry, middle managers!) you don’t just fall into bike racing. You give everything to be a pro, and if you’re lucky, you get a little something in return. This isn’t a job you do for the big paycheck. So for pro cyclists, they’re in the same boat as I am: their life/work balance is all out of whack, because there’s no separation of the two.

Things get even more out of joint when doing the balancing act of an elite amateur racer, or a pro without a good contract. Not only are you working a “regular job,” but you leave the office (or coffeeshop, bar, grocery store, whatever) for the second job, that of a bike racer. That’s an even harder balancing act, because with two jobs, one of which is more passion-oriented than the other, it leaves little time for anything else, which means that the cycling job then becomes the “regular life” part as well.

This goes for mechanics or any bike-oriented job as well: if you’re a mechanic and out riding on a new bike, you aren’t just riding for fun, you’re constantly aware of what’s happening with the bike, and you’re constantly thinking about how to sell it to people. Same for reps, dealers and any number of bike-related jobs. When your passion is your business, it’s both the greatest and hardest thing in the world.

It seems like a lot of people I talk to, especially those who work in the bike industry at any level, have the same problem: we don’t know where the workday stops and the “regular life” begins, because for us, there isn’t much of a difference. Since I work from home, my schedule is weird. I write a lot, edit a lot, and ride a lot. Generally, the writing and editing outweigh the riding, but then again, so do the paychecks from said writing and riding.

As a freelance worker, like so many in the cycling world (pro racers included), time is money. Or, more correctly, work is money. Maybe this is just because after last tax season I’m being way more careful about recording expenses, but I’m noticing that things I used to count as being simply fun, I’m starting to realize that they count as work expenses. It’s a bit crude, but it is a good way of telling when I’m on the job and when I’m not: if it can be counted as a business expense, I’m at work. If it can’t, I’m not. Of course, does it count as non-work if I’m out with friends for a drink and end up recording a few quick interview questions?

So how do you cope when your relaxation and your job are one and the same? Do we ever officially turn off from work? I postulate that for cyclists, we’re never truly off the job. But for someone who’s probably grossly out of balance as far and life and work goes, I feel pretty darn good about it.


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