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When bad days become your best days

By Bruce Lin

Days that start badly, don’t always have to end badly. This is especially true if you’re riding a bike.

It was June 2017 and I was at the start line of the UNBOUND Gravel 100 (formerly the DK100). I felt nauseous and a bit “loose in the caboose” before lining up, so I had to ditch my bike and sprint to a porta-potty. To add to my woes, I had barely slept the night before because my inflatable mattress punctured. Already resigned to defeat, I sat in the porta-potty preparing excuses for a potential DNF.

The race was intense and chaotic from the start. I dodged ejected bottles, tire-shredding rocks, and several crashes. My gastric distress faded as my legs filled with lactate. Then, in a massive stroke of luck, I found myself riding with the lead group. I seized the opportunity and fought to stay in touch, managing to hang for 40 miles until I finally got shelled.

Alone, exhausted, and cramping, I grit my teeth and kept pedaling. Slowly, I started making up places. I passed rider after rider as they cracked and dropped off the front group. After 100 miles of racing, I rolled my half-dead body across the finish line in seventh place. My finishing time was 5 hours and 25 minutes, 15 minutes behind the winner. Somehow, my bad day became one of my best.

Unbound gravel 100 200 DK100 DK200 race Emporia KansasDirty and tired at the finish in Emporia, Kansas. I wasn't smiling when the day started!

Cycling can surprise you like that. The best lesson cycling has taught me is simply to never give up. You may lose all hope, feel like garbage, or even crash. But as long as you keep pedaling, the opportunity to do something amazing always remains.

You don’t have to win, or even race, to experience this sort of joy on a bike. If you can overcome doubt, pain, and hardship in any form, then you’re on the path to achieving something great. In search of more stories like this, I decided to ask some of the riders at The Pro’s Closet about bad days on the bike that turned into great experiences. When you’re feeling down, or things start looking bleak, hopefully these stories will inspire you to keep pushing the pedals.

Lucky number 13

Amy Parulis - PrePack Supervisor

Crashes can ruin your day. But if you can draw on the strength of others to reach the finish, your bad day can turn beautiful. Amy and her wife, Jayne, were taking part in Closer to Free Ride to raise money for Smilow Cancer Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. This year, they’d graduated from the 65-mile route to take on the full 100-mile route for the first time. It was going to be Jayne’s first century. From the start, it didn’t go smoothly.

Smilow Cancer charity ride crash first centuryAmy's damaged leg and bike (left) | Jayne and Amy with Madeline's family mid-race (right).

“I ripped open my race packet, excited to see what the new Closer to Free Ride jersey looked like,” Amy said. “Then my race number fell out — number 13. Ugh.”

Amy had a feeling that her bib number was a sign of things to come. It didn’t take long for the bad luck to strike.

“The first five miles of the ride we got a police escort through New Haven including riding by Smilow and the rest of Yale-New Haven Hospital,” she said. “You have over 1,000 riders bunched together. Unfortunately, most aren't used to riding in large groups. We were taking a turn and the person in front of me switched lines, taking us both out.”

Amy and Jayne went down, but they both managed to get up and continue. Amy’s body and bike, however, were badly damaged.

“I took the brunt of the fall on my left side. My left leg really hurt,” Amy said. “Plus, my rear derailleur got damaged and it would only shift into half of the gears. So I was four miles into a 100-mile ride, in pain, and with a half-functioning bike. Truthfully, I wanted to stop.”

But Amy stayed glued to Jayne’s wheel and they soldiered on together. Along the route, people and businesses were holding signs and cheering the riders on. The riders and people around her inspired her to fight through the pain.

“Riding all around me were cancer survivors,” she said. “I was also the team captain of ‘Mad About Madeline’ and we were riding in honor of my 9-year-old friend Madeline who passed away from cancer the year before. She fought cancer for half of her life and lived what little time she had on earth to the fullest. My pain was nothing compared to what the cancer survivors and the families of those that lost their battle with cancer were going through. At the first rest stop, I loaded up with Advil and had my cuts cleaned up. Madeline's family came out which gave me a huge boost.”

It wasn’t the end of Amy’s troubles though as mother nature delivered one last obstacle. But after overcoming her early crash, she easily laughed it off.

“As we rode back into New Haven it started to rain,” she said. “I actually laughed. I kind of figured that bib number 13 had one more joke to play on me, but I wouldn't let it win. We kept plugging along and crossed the finish line to cheering spectators who also didn't let the rain bother them. Sure I wasn't able to walk the next day and I had to use a lot of ice, but it was so worth it.”

The hangover cure

Sean “Sully” Sullivan - TradeUP Coordinator

Sometimes, bad days happen because you make bad decisions. Before joining The Pro’s Closet, Sully had a long and successful professional racing career in Europe and the United States. In 2005, he achieved an unexpected podium finish at the Univest Grand Prix in Pennsylvania while racing for the Toyota United pro continental team. It was unexpected because he’d prepared for it in the worst way possible — by drinking and partying.

Sean Sullivan Univest Grand Prix road race 2005Sully giving chase (left) | The strung-out Univest field (center) | Sully on the Univest podium (right).

“It was almost the end of the season, I had been living on the road, out of a suitcase, for months. I was completely over it,” Sully said. “I was heading home to Australia the week after and the night before the race it was our mechanic's 21st birthday. So, of course, a few of us got completely trolleyed. I rolled home at about 3 a.m., took a sleeping pill, and passed out for a few hours. When I woke up, I threw down a bowl of cereal and went to race!”

The Univest Grand Prix was a high-speed road race on rolling terrain. Narrow country roads kept the peloton strung out and the hot weather took its toll on the riders. As you’d expect, Sully’s night out had a negative effect on his performance.

“I spent the first half of the race sitting dead last, still half asleep and terribly hungover,” he said.

But Sully is an experienced and accomplished rider. He knew he just had to hang on for as long as possible. Over the course of the race, he stayed composed, eventually working his way toward the front as other riders got dropped.

“At one stage, I finally woke up,” he said. “I don’t know how or what changed. Suddenly, I looked around and there were only 40 or 50 guys left in the field. The winning break was already gone, so I attacked and went across to them. When I got there, two guys were already off the front of the break, so I attacked a second time on the finishing circuits.”

For reasons that can’t be explained by science, Sully had overcome his hangover and found the strength to threaten the two leaders. He put in a massive solo chase to try and close the gap.

“Unfortunately, I ran out of time and couldn't quite catch them,” he said. “But I was absolutely flying! It was really hot, and the race was on tv. They had the camera on me when I crossed the line. I pulled straight over and vomited. Isn't it funny how you have your best days on the bike when you absolutely don't expect to? And sometimes the days you want to have a really good day, you don't!”

Coming back from the brink

Caroline Shaw - Customer Experience Representative

If you’re really unlucky, you don’t just get one bad day on the bike, you get a bad season. Caroline rides for Ames Velo out of Iowa and she is one of our most prolific racers. She’s only been road racing for a few years, but in that time she’s built serious speed and climbed quickly through the categories.

Ames velo racing Ames Iowa women's crit road raceCaroline leading the field post injury/illness (left) | Before the final sprint (right)

“I was chasing points to try to get to collegiate nationals,” she said. “So I was racing every weekend. One day in Oklahoma, I crashed out when someone took out my front wheel. I went into the curb and did a complete flip onto my back. I didn't realize it at the time, but I really messed up my neck.”

Though she was sore, Caroline brushed off the crash and continued racing through the weekend. But in the coming race weekends, she started noticing an unusual amount of fatigue.

“I just kept getting more and more tired,” she said. “I was sleeping 10 hours a night but never felt rested. It was like I had a constant cold or sinus infection, plus a cough. I went to my doctor and they did several blood panels but everything always looked fine. This went on for two-and-a-half months. I was just constantly tired and sick and miserable.”

As her mystery illness persisted, it had a huge effect on Caroline’s performance. She began to doubt her abilities as a cyclist.

“I couldn’t stay with the field,” she said. “I was always getting dropped and felt frustrated with racing in general. I thought maybe I was burnt out. I thought, well, maybe I’m just not cut out to be a road cyclist anymore.”

After a string of tough races and poor results, Caroline was on the brink of calling it quits for the season. But she kept looking for answers, hoping to turn her luck around. Eventually, she made a serendipitous visit to her chiropractor/physical therapist.

“She noticed my posture was different,” Caroline said. “So she went to work on my upper back and neck and found an area in the base of my neck that was swollen. Somehow I hadn't noticed, but there was a chunk on my spine that was super inflamed. So we chased this. I went in three times a week for her to loosen it up until she could finally adjust it. She literally popped it back into place, which hurt, but then the next day I woke up and I felt like I had enough sleep. A week later, I didn't have a cough anymore. It was crazy. Cracking my neck solved all my problems. My chiropractor thinks it was a pinched nerve that was causing my chronic fatigue.”

Caroline’s health came back, but after weeks of illness, her fitness had waned. But her favorite crit in her hometown was coming up, so she decided to get back on the bike.

“I didn’t have high expectations. I just wanted to try to cross the line with the main group,” she said. “Then during the race, I felt really good. I wasn't expecting to. With every lap, I built more confidence and thought, ‘maybe I can do this, maybe I can do this.’ Then I hear the bell ring for the last lap and I’m on the front. I ended up doing a lead-out for one of my friends who won the sprint.

“I finished fourth, which was amazing. I had started the race thinking it was a long shot to even stay with the group. I went over to my coach in tears. My coach isn't a super emotional person, but he was kind of crying too. He gave me a big hug and said how proud he was. It wasn't my biggest or best result. But after such a tough season, to finally get a good finish at my favorite race — I think it’s been my best moment in racing so far.”

Going out a champion

Justin England - Director of Business Development

Justin is another former pro and he spent a few years with Sully on the Toyota United team. Unlike Sully though, Justin’s story involves no hangover or poor pre-race choices. As we saw with Caroline, a string of bad days can kill your will to ride.

“I think I was a naturally gifted rider, genetically at least,” Justin said. “But I was a latecomer. I was a runner in high school and college and didn't start racing bikes until I was 23. I burned hot for a few years, but then I realized I wasn't going to make it over to Europe or the Tour.”

Justin england criterium nation champion 2009Justin on wet roads (left) | Crossing the finish line (center) | Justin crowned national champion (right)

Near the end of his career, Justin had lost his drive. With only a couple of races left on his calendar, he was already checked out for the season. During the elite men’s 2009 Criterium National Championships in Downers Grove, Illinois, he felt like he was just going through the motions.

“That was the last year I raced,” he said. “I was just kind of done. My motivation was gone and I'd already made the call that I was going to quit racing. At that point, I was only riding five hours a week, which isn’t very much, so I didn't have great fitness. I was on the Cal Giant team and we had a good sprinter, Steve Reaney, so we were all there riding for him.

“It started dry, but then it just dumped rain in the middle of the race. I was absolutely miserable and really not feeling great. I remember thinking, ‘I'm just gonna pull out.’ But I was there to support Steve, so I hung in and toughed it out.”

Despite his misery, Justin’s dedication to his team kept him in the race. His one job was to keep the field together to give their sprinter a chance to win. He kept pedaling, chasing back every attack. His ability to fight and suffer is what eventually turned his miserable day around.

“I was just covering moves so we could end the race in a field sprint. I followed a guy who attacked and it somehow turned into a four-man breakaway. Oops... So I sat on and just did a couple of easy pulls. At that point, I still wanted it to come back together for a sprint.

“And then on the last lap we were still off the front and I was like, ‘Oh crap, I gotta figure out how to win this.’ It had stopped raining, but the road was still soaked. Even though I was out of shape, I was a decent rider in the wet, so I attacked up the only hill on the course and just railed the next four corners and got away.”

Half a lap later, Justin became criterium national champion. What could have been the lackluster end to his career suddenly became his greatest achievement, all because Justin refused to abandon the race.

“I could barely believe it. I was always more of a skinny climber dude than a powerful crit guy. But I ended up winning nationals on a day that I wholeheartedly didn't deserve it. It wasn't the first crit I'd ever won, but it was my first and only national championship and by far the highest-profile race that I'd ever won. It was unbelievable. One of my best memories.”

Type 2 fun

Reese Ruland - Social Media Manager

A bad day on the bike might not turn good until after the fact. Reese knows. She’s our resident endurance phenom. Just last month she went deep into the pain cave to set the women’s FKT for the White Rim Trail. Going far into the wilderness to suffer for hours is just a regular weekend ride for Reese. But one ride in Patagonia, Arizona pushed things a little too far.

Patagonia, Arizona gravel bike adventureReese and George feeling too optimistic (left) | Beautiful scenery but ominous clouds (center) | Frozen hands and slow, muddy roads (right)

“This was in December, so I was in Tucson where it’s warm,’” she said. “My adventure buddy, George was down there too. One day we decided to go and do a little 80-mile gravel ride together. It’s a massive loop in Patagonia. We think, since it’s near Mexico, it’s going to be super warm. The only thing I brought was arm warmers. But we get out of the car and it's freezing cold.”

The clouds above looked dark and ominous, but Reese and George were undeterred. They headed out, thinking that the weather would improve by the time they passed the first climb.

“But we get to the top and it starts raining on us,” Reese said. “It’s just so cold and so miserable. But we kept thinking it was going to be fine. We drove all the way here. We have to keep doing this.”

The rain turned their route into a muddy mess. Mud caked their bikes and clothes. Progress became painfully slow but Reese and George, ever the optimists, kept telling each other it was going to get better.

“There was one moment the sun made an appearance,” Reese said. “But then it just immediately starts dumping rain on us again. At that point, we’re not talking anymore. It’s just pure misery. We stopped to eat some food, and we just brought stupid food, like Pop-Tarts and Rice Krispie Treats. Both of us start laughing hysterically. It was kind of the only thing that kept us going. Food was the only thing that we had to look forward to.”

The rain persisted for the rest of the ride and at the half-way point, things only got worse.

“It got so cold that I couldn't feel my feet,” Reese said. “George couldn't feel his hands. We’re riding through this thick mud, and at one point, George breaks something on his bike. He's got to fix it with frozen hands. So he's like slapping his bike around and I can't help because I don't know what's going on. It was so bad we started thinking that we might have to call Border Patrol to come rescue us.”

But remember, Reese is an endurance phenom, so she’s a pro at suffering. Instead of giving up, she and George decide to endure. For several more miserable hours they plodded along, silently suffering together, until they reached the final climb. Overjoyed, they raced each other back to the car.

“My feet are frozen and there’s just pain with every pedal stroke,” Reese said. “George was clawing at his shifter because his hands were frozen. I'm hysterical because I can't take how silly George looks trying to shift. I remember him being so triggered, because I beat him up the climb. When we get back to the car we just eat everything. And we destroyed this poor rental car because we're covered in mud.

“It was the worst, coldest, muddiest ride I've ever been on. I don't think I've ever been more miserably cold. But then afterward, it just seemed extremely funny. The weather was beautiful in Tucson and we left that to go do this death march in Patagonia. Looking back, I’m proud that we finished. There's this point, where you each diverge into your own separate quiet space of suffering. But you're both suffering together. Eventually you start laughing at how ridiculous it all is. To do this dumb thing with my best friend, and just suffer together — it made it one of the more beautiful rides we’ve ever accomplished.”

Pre-race wreckage

Spencer Powlison - Content Marketing Manager

Gravel races tend to be unpredictable. Long, fast rides over rough terrain can lead to crashes, mechanicals, or plain-old exhaustion. Spencer didn't exactly set himself up for success at the 2017 Crusher in the Tushar event. On an easy pre-race spin the day before the mountainous Utah gravel race, he suffered a terrible crash.

Crusher in the Tusher Spencer Powlison gravel race crashSpencer, with a wounded hip, chasing Drew Miller (left) - Photo by Christopher See | Post-race shell shock (right)

"I let my guard down for a split-second, and both of my tires went out from underneath me on a bit of loose-over-hard dirt, only a couple miles from town," he said. "It remains the worst crash I've ever had on a road or gravel bike."

He went to the local drugstore and loaded up on bandages and patched himself up in the bathroom of the seedy motel room he was sharing with a friend.

"For sure I needed stitches in my hip," he said. "But Beaver, Utah is in the middle of nowhere, so I knew it would have been an ordeal. I just didn't want to deal with it, so I did my best to dress my wounds. To this day, I have a horrible scar on my right hip."

That wasn't the end of his misfortune, however. About halfway through the race, at the route's low point in the valley east of the Tushar mountains, he ran over some road shrapnel and instantly flatted. After putting a tube in his tire, he was way behind and simply tagged onto a group to catch a draft before the final climb up Col de Crush. Then something unexpected started to happen.

"This climb is massive," Spencer said. "You start with these heinous, sandy rollers that are practically like a cyclocross course. Then you climb 3,000 feet on the steepest, most blown-out dirt road in the heat of the day. But damn, I started to feel really good. I was picking off rider after rider. I saw my buddy Neil Shirley keeled over on the side of the road — he's a legit ex-pro rider who destroys gravel races. That's when I knew I was on a good ride."

Spencer kept catching riders and ended up finishing 13th at the mountaintop finish, 10,000 feet above sea level.

"It was such a crazy day," he added. "A huge storm blew in soon after I finished and most of the field got absolutely drenched. We were all huddled around in space blankets. At the time I was bummed on my flat, but maybe that was exactly what I needed to save my matches before that crucial climb to the finish."

 

Have you ever had a bad day on the bike magically turn into a great day? Have you had the opposite happen? Tell us your story in the comments!


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