Pro Journal: A Season With Nina Laughlin

By Nina Laughlin, Photos: Catherine Fegan-Kim

Nina Laughlin is a first year professional cyclist with the Visit Dallas DNA Pro Cycling Team, a new women’s UCI team based in the U.S. She began racing collegiate in 2011 and raced her first stage race, the Joe Martin Stage Race, in 2015. At Joe Martin, the Visit Dallas director, Scott Warren, invited Nina to guest ride for the team. She had a great race and was invited to ride for the team full time in 2016. Her journal will take you through team camp, various races, and the highs and lows that bike racing brings.

Being A Pro Has Its Perks
Our team launch party was in Dallas, Texas in January. Throughout the week I felt like I was on an “Oprah’s Favorite Things” episode because the amount of high quality gear that was given to us was dumbfounding (and awesome). “You get an Orbea Orca! You get an Orbea Ordu! Everybody gets two Orbeas!” Aside from the extra suitcase filled with DNA kits, Rudy eyewear and TT helmets, & other gear & equipment, I walked away from the launch filled with gratitude and excitement for the coming year. I only spent one week in Dallas, but I left feeling like I was leaving my second family behind.

Team Camp in Dallas, TX Photo: Catherine Fegan-Kim

Trust Your Training
I got a call from Scott in March and found out that our team was selected for the Amgen Tour of California (AToC) in May. I was told that our performances at the races in California in early April would help decide the AToC squad. Hearing that, I was more motivated than ever to train my ass off for San Dimas Stage Race (SDSR) and Redlands Cycling Classic. I trained as hard as I could, but allergy season seemed to be in full swing the entire month of March, and I was struggling with asthma. I showed up a little apprehensive at SDSR, hoping that the allergens weren’t as bad in California as they were in North Carolina. The first stage at SDSR was an uphill TT.

I had everything I needed equipment-wise, with nothing holding me back, I was ready to go uphill fast. I went hard and maintained good power and was feeling good about my time. I ended up in 6th place, and I couldn’t believe it. Everyone else on the team wasn’t surprised. They believed in me, so why did I have a hard time doing the same thing? I made a promise to myself to work on improving my confidence. I worked my ass off to achieve results like this, and 6th place shouldn’t come as a surprise!

Nina Laughlin. Photo: Catherine Fegan-Kim

Racing Bikes Isn’t Everything
The plan for the road race the next day at San Dimas was to race aggressively, go for the QOM jersey, and lead Mia out if it came down to a sprint. We were aggressive all day, but Kristen Armstrong was in yellow, and she chased every move down herself. Coming into the finish, our teamwork was flawless. Everyone was where they needed to be, we felt the other teams didn’t stand a chance. I took my last turn on the front and pulled off with about 200 meters to go. A couple of seconds later, I watched in horror as my teammate Lauren De Crescenzo made contact with the metal fence on the edge of the road. It was the most horrible crash I have ever seen, and I rode through the finish line and then sprinted back toward her. Beth Ann (a physician’s assistant) stopped before the finish line to help Lauren.

Later I found out that Mia won the race, but her win was overshadowed by Lauren’s crash and the grave state she was in. Lauren was eventually airlifted to the hospital, where she remained in the ICU for over a week. Lauren’s crash had a big impact on our close-knit team. Afterward, tears were constantly being shed by someone on the team, including the staff, but there was always someone there to help console anyone who was having a hard time. Bike racing is a beautiful but cruel sport, and we do it knowing that something like this could happen, but it really hits home when it happens to a friend and teammate.

Face Your Fears
We decided it would be best for the team to race the final stage—a crit—the next day, to banish any fear that built up after Lauren’s crash. The crit course was lined with the same metal fencing that Lauren crashed into, and that bothered me. I cried a lot before the race, feeling the fear creeping in, but I pushed it out with the help of my teammates. We raced the crit without any plan, and Mia kept the green jersey and we all gained a little bit of strength leading into our next race in just 3 days—Redlands.

Amgen Tour of California, Stage 4. Photo: Catherine Fegan-Kim

Results Are Just Numbers On Paper
The feeling on the team was somber heading into Redlands, but we were ready to race our bikes. Tyson, our mechanic and a close friend to Lauren, wrote “Racing4Roren” on painter’s tape and stuck the note on all of our top tubes. It was a reminder to dig extra deep for Lauren, the most selfless and hardworking teammate you could ask for. Our team went through highs and lows throughout the race. My heart was in the race on the first stage and I raced hard, but the second stage had a lot of close calls with crashes, and I mentally checked out. I finished 15th on both stages, but results never tell the whole story.

You can get good results with mediocre legs and a lot of heart
Ready to put the second stage of Redlands behind me, I was excited for the next stage, a 7-mile time trial. I had pre-ridden the course multiple times with Beth Ann, and we had discussed the best line choices and pacing strategy. Warming up, my legs felt like lead, but I went out there and gave it everything I had. I ended up finishing in 8th in a stacked field, which helped boost my morale heading into the final two stages.

Nina Laughlin testing the Orbea Ordu Time Trial bike Photo: Catherine Fegan-Kim

Some Races Are Legendary
Since I was a Redlands newbie, all of my teammates liked sharing their tips and memories from previous renditions of the race. Before the Sunset Loop, I had about five different people tell me that “I got dropped in the neutral rollout last year,” or “I think only 15 people finished the race last year,” or “It’s really freaking hard.” The funny thing is, I excel in really hard stages, so I should have been pumped, but all of this build up was making me nervous. I was relieved when the race finally started, so I could experience one of the hardest stages in U.S. racing.

Other than a dog running out in front of the field, the neutral rollout wasn’t as legendary as it was made out to be. When the flag dropped and the race started, however, it was full gas! We flew around the twisty, undulating course and charged up the first QOM. Lap after lap, the field was whittled down until a small group of about eighteen women remained. A break of three was up the road, and I just stayed toward the front of the chase as we flew back into town toward the finish. I came around the final corner second wheel, but was passed by two riders while I was sprinting for the line. I ended up 7th, and although I was bummed I missed the break, I was happy to finish such a highly regarded stage with a solid top ten. I also learned I need to work on my sprint!

Amgen Tour of California, Stage 1. Photo: Catherine Fegan-Kim

Racing Makes You Better At Racing
After some solid racing in California, I could feel my confidence rising in the lead up to our first UCI race, Joe Martin Stage Race (JMSR) in Fayetteville, AR. I was excited to return to my very first stage race and see if I could make some improvements with a lot more race experience in my legs. I finished 26th in the uphill TT last year, and although it was a slightly different course (still uphill), I was aiming for the top ten this year.  Even though I felt like I went out waaaaay too hard in the TT, I was pumped to find out that USADA wanted to test me after the race. I hadn’t heard anything about the race results, but if USADA wants you for doping control, it usually means you did well. After an interesting experience at USADA (just guzzle water, people, otherwise you’ll be there forever), I found out that I finished 5th in the TT. Talk about an improvement over last year! I was really happy with my result, but also devastated after I found out that I missed the podium by 1 second. ONE SECOND.

USA Cycling Pro ITT Nationals. Photo: Catherine Fegan-Kim

Success Fuels The Fire
After some consistent finishes in the stage 2 and 3 Road Races, I found myself sitting in 3rd overall on GC going into the Stage 4 crit. I made it a goal to finish on the GC podium, and if this was a normal crit, it would have been easy. But the JMSR crit is not a normal crit. It finishes at the top of a steep wall of death that claims victims lap after lap. The huge number of time bonuses up for grabs in this crit has been known to shake up the GC, and I knew I had to go for the sprints if I wanted to maintain my GC position.

When the gun went off, I was in a great position, but then I began sliding backwards. My legs felt like bricks, and I wasn’t even close to being able to contest the sprints. I came back from the dead toward the end of the race and was able to fight it out for 12th place thanks to some encouragement from my teammates. After the time bonuses were tallied, however, I ended up dropping to 6th on GC, ONE SECOND out of 5th (The GC podium was top 5). At the beginning of the year, I would’ve looked at you like you had 5 heads if you told me I would finish 6th on GC at JMSR. But after my early season success, it felt like a disappointment. I was ready to throw down at the Amgen Tour of California (AToC).

Amgen Tour of California, Stage 1. Photo: Catherine Fegan-Kim

That’s Bike Racing…
I wasn’t sure what to expect at AToC. I had previously raced against about half of the teams there. The other half were primarily European teams, including Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team and Rabobank-Liv Giant Women’s Cycling Team—two of the best teams in the world. The first stage was at altitude; a loop around Lake Tahoe that was jaw-droppingly beautiful. There was a QOM early in the race, and the forecast called for winds of 35+ miles per hour. We figured the race would blow to pieces on the far side of the lake from a combination of the altitude and strong crosswinds. That didn’t happen.

I made it over the first QOM in the front group, but seriously gassed from the effort. The pace was high for a couple of minutes over some rollers, but then Sarah Storey attacked. The race slowed to a crawl. Everyone dropped made it back into the group, and we rode along at 100 watts for the next 2.5 hours. I almost fell asleep. The crazy crosswinds never happened, but eventually Boels-Dolmans went to the front to reel in the lone escapee. The tempo picked up considerably, but it didn’t really get fast until the last 10 kilometers, and then it was ON. Elbows flying, racers yelling in foreign languages, and wheels darting everywhere. I was in good position near the front, and then I wasn’t. As the race went through a sharp left turn about 2 km from the finish, the girl in front of me crashed. I locked up the brakes and narrowly avoided hitting the deck, but by the time I got reoriented, the race was up the road. I rode tempo to the finish and called it a day.

Amgen Tour of California, Stage 1. Photo: Catherine Fegan-Kim

Bike Race Dreams Are Made Of Courses Like These
After a mediocre first stage for the team followed by a poor placing in the Team Time Trial, the team was ready for some success. I was really excited for Stage 3, a road race in Santa Rosa with 2 significant climbs. Attacks flew from the gun, but nothing really got away heading into the first climb. I was in a good position throughout the climb, and crested the top with the lead group. We flew down the fun, flowy descent and popped out on Hwy 1 on the coastline. Attacks continued on the windy road leading into the second climb, and positions in the bunch were constantly shifting.

As the field entered the start of the second climb, I found myself in less-than-ideal position at the back half of the pack. I weaved through people on the climb until I had a clear path to just go as hard as I could. As I worked my way to the top, I spotted a familiar rider a few meters ahead, struggling on her own—Marianne Vos. I caught Vos, and we worked together to catch the group of about ten riders that we could see further up the road. We made contact at the top of the climb, and Vos and her teammate immediately went to the front to drive the pace. There was a break of six up the road, and Rabo-Liv had missed out. We bombed down the tricky descent, and I took a few turns on the front.

A couple of months prior I was reading an article about Marianne Vos being one of the best descenders in the world, and I was comfortably ripping descents with her. It felt natural in the moment, but inside I was definitely hard core fangirling (it’s a word, I promise). We ended up catching the break with about 15 km to go, as we headed toward the finishing circuits. I went with an attack or two once we entered the finishing circuits, but nothing stuck. I tried to maintain position toward the front as we approached the sprint, but I slid back further than I wanted in the chaos of the final km. I ended up in 15th on the stage out of a small lead group, and I was really proud of how I rode. Marianne Vos won the stage, and racing alongside her inspired me to dream bigger.

Amgen Tour of California, Stage 3. Photo: Catherine Fegan-Kim

Note To Self: Race With A Flask Of Pickle Juice
Less than a week after the Tour of California, the team flew out to my home state of North Carolina for USA Cycling Pro Road Nationals in Winston Salem. I raced the Individual Time Trial (ITT), and I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about quitting a race so much in my life. I felt horrible, but I didn’t quit, and that was enough of a victory for me that day. I felt exhausted after the ITT, and did my best to recover in time for the 90-mile road race the next day. The first lap was fast, but the pace eventually slowed until a break went up the road. I jumped across, but the group of 12 wasn’t working well together, and we were reeled in after half a lap.

The race was fairly slow for a couple of laps after that, but the speed picked up considerably going into three laps to go. The field was strung out single file, and I sprinted to the front on the downhill and tucked. I looked back and I had a big gap, so I gunned it. I came through the finish line after the first lap on my own, and I flashed my parents and little sister a big smile as I rode by solo. I continued on my own for another lap, but fatigue was starting to set in. I started to feel muscle twinges and downed a bunch of food and drink mix to try to stave off cramps. My time gap had dropped from over a minute to less than 30 seconds, but I didn’t let up. Instead of being caught by the field like I was expecting, Katie Donavan from Colavita Bianchi Women’s Pro Cycling bridged up to me, and we worked to build the gap back up to a minute.

By this point, I was struggling. I was riding in funny positions on my bike to keep my legs from cramping, but halfway through the last lap, my legs seized up at the start of a small climb. They cramped so badly I had to stop pedaling. Katie rode on while I came to a halt on the side of the road, helplessly massaging my cramping legs. The peloton rode by shortly after I stopped, and I jumped on the back and tried to pedal as easy as possible. As the speed picked up, I watched them ride away, nursing my cramping legs slowly to the finish line and wishing I had raced with some pickle juice in my pocket. As I limped across the finish, my teammates were celebrating—Mandy finished 3rd! My mood instantly lifted and I was really proud to have been an integral part of a great team effort. Our small team beat a lot of strong teams that day because we raced with guts and laid it all out there.

USA Pro Road Nationals – moment Nina finds out teammate, Mandy Heintz is on the podium. Photo: Catherine Fegan-Kim

Looking back on my season, I’ve learned a hell of a lot, formed strong friendships with some incredibly inspiring women, and I have grown mentally and physically through tough days on the bike. I have absolutely fallen in love with the sport of bike racing (yep, put a ring on it), and I can’t wait to see what the rest of the season holds for my teammates and I.

Visit Dallas DNA Pro Cycling Teamwomen's uciwomens racingOrbeaNina Laughlin