Team: Gore Wear, Salsa Cycles and SRAM
Hometown: Missoula, Montana
When did you start cycling? How did your career progress? How did you find gravel riding?
I found cycling when I was 19 years old, recovering from a horrible car accident that claimed the life of my first love and nearly took mine. Cycling came into my life at the perfect time. Medical professionals were telling me all the things I would never be able to do again and my family was trying to protect my spirit by keeping my expectations low.
In the accident, I sustained a closed head injury so significant my pupils were fixed and dilated and I couldn’t breathe on my own. Once the Life Flight helicopter delivered me to the hospital, medical staff relieved the pressure in my skull from the head trauma with a little brain surgery and I took a long nap in a coma. While I was “out to lunch,” I had surgeries to address some of my orthopeadic injuries which included a mangled left leg. To give me the most functional future, doctors eventually amputated my left foot.
Before my accident, I played collegiate tennis, skied when coaches weren’t looking, and tried to experience all the fun in Western Montana. Back then, I could physically accomplish just about anything. The accident made me question how able I could be again.
I began cycling because of my service dog, Betsy; a cattle dog mix who was eager to help me in every way. She could pull my wheelchair, fetch crutches, turn on lights and also had more energy than any other living creature I knew. She shared her energy with me and inspired me to leave the house, throw my prosthetic leg over a bike, and pushed me to explore my limits. I owe a lot of thanks to the healthcare professionals who helped me regain the ability to stand, walk, and talk- all of which were hard after the accident. I owe as much, if not more, gratitude to Betsy the Wonder Dog.
Eleven months after my last surgery to amputate what remained of my lower left leg, I competed in my first triathlon. I slowly gained the confidence and endurance to enter 24hr mountain bike races and toe the line at XTERRA Off-Road Triathlons. To my surprise and great joy, I won several solo 24hr mountain bike races against able-bodied cyclists and I became the first female challenged-athlete to finish an XTERRA.
Those successes propelled me to train and race for Team USA. First, I raced in International Triathlon Union (ITU) triathlons, earning several World Championship Titles. The US Para-Cycling Team invited me to try out for their squad and I relished the physical challenge. With some diligent and specific road cycling and track training, I went on to race and win many National Titles, UCI World Cups, and five UCI World Championships in road races, time trials and track races. In the London 2012 Paralympic Games, I won the gold medal in the Individual Road Time Trial and the Silver in the Individual 3k Track Pursuit. In the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, I won a silver medal in the Individual Road Time Trial and a bronze in the Individual Track 3k Pursuit.
After the Rio 2016 Games, I retired from the National Team to focus on my career as a Doctor of Physical Therapy and develop my skills as a coach and speaker. Helping others fuels me as much as anything. On the side, I continued to race recreationally until 2018 when a friend and SRAM mechanic introduced me to gravel racing via Rebecca’s Private Idaho (RPI) Queen Stage Race in Sun Valley, Idaho. The three stages over four days reignited the competitive fire in my belly and introduced me to a community of cyclists that continue to inspire me. I’ve been back to RPI every year since and I can’t wait for 2020!
How do you train for an event like Rebecca’s Private Idaho? How does it differ from training for a standard road Gran Fondo?
I include a lot of strength training into my routines. As a doctor of physical therapy and athletic trainer, I am keenly aware of the physical demands that cycling requires, as well as the compensations I must make given my prosthetic leg.
RPI is unique in that it has the three stages that challenge cyclists differently. The first stage has terrain that would make any mountain biker giggle. To tackle those types of punchy climbs and technical maneuvering requires dynamic control, skillful bike handling and balance.
The uphill time trial tickles the part of my brain that likes to dig in and see how far into the pain cave I can go. The Big Potato has elements of the first two stages all wrapped into a very long day.
Gravel is more jarring than a typical road event or fondo, and requires a lot more endurance training.
How does the gravel at RPI compare to Dirty Kanza?
Oh goodness, answering that is harder than you might think. In some ways, gravel is gravel. The way gravel events seem to be going these days, they are all long. They aren’t cute 20-kilometer time trials. A rider is going to be out in the elements for most of the day. Like when you set out on a 200-mile ride, as in Dirty Kanza 200, or dedicate yourself to about 200 miles over four days in the Queen stage race at RPI, you are signing up for smooth sections, followed by sectors that rattle your shoulder and your brain, as well as wind, in any and every direction, elevation and weather.
In the Midwest, the hills are smaller, shorter, yet they just keep coming at you and the elevation adds up, whereas out west there are mountains! So, the elevation generally comes in sustained stretches. Both varieties are humbling. As a westerner, I scoffed at the Flint Hills. I thought they were cute, but then I felt them slowly drain my energy and motivation throughout the day. At RPI, Trail Creek Pass comes at you right away and lets you know it will be there waiting for your return when you have tired legs.
All that said, I saw a lot more sidewall slices at Kanza. I think the Flint Hill must generate sharper rocks. People dropped from the race in part because they ran out of supplies to fix flats. Knock on wood, I didn’t get stopped by a flat. At RPI, the gravel is bumpier. I think the freeze/thaw that comes through the Rockies each year hardens the sand and makes for more dramatic scenery.
What event are you looking forward to the most this year and why?
I am most looking forward to RPI. It’s like coming home. I am drawn to the western landscape and relish the opportunity to be surrounded by it and a community of fellow gravel nerds who love it as much as me.
What does your nutrition plan consist of for an endurance gravel event? Does it differ from a road or track-oriented event?
The biggest thing I had to master switching from road and track events was learning how much to eat! On a road time trial, I wouldn’t take any nutrition—no water, no calories. Track bikes don’t even have water bottle mounts!
For gravel events I had to learn how to eat on the bike. I worked with a coach specifically to learn how many calories I need to consume and how often.