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My Hot-Flash Entry into Bicycle Racing

People often say the hardest part of a big race is getting to the starting line. That’s true if you know what you are getting into. But I had come by a different route to my first bicycle race, a Criterion or “Crit”, and was jumping in with ignorance on my side and no preparation. I had returned from a 1500-mile/15-day ride that Spring in “cardio monster” condition and in the spur of the moment decided to see what I could do if I tried to go fast. At age 52 I was feeling pretty great. I hadn’t been in a real race since my teens.

In 2016, Trish Karter set the record for her age group in the Mount Washington Bicycle Race.

A Crit is a very fast multi-lap race of 25 to 60 miles held on a closed course generally a mile or less in length. This one was 28 one-mile laps. To quote a USA cycling description: “A successful criterium rider will be able to dive into a tight corner at high speed, leaning the bike over at a gravity-defying angle, then power out of the turn." 

There were no other women at the starting line, only the intimidating sight of powerful-looking guys and that familiar macho vibe. There was another familiar sensation as well, folks noticing a “girl” in the race, perhaps affecting how macho this was all about to be. I first experienced that sensation in 1972 as Title IX member of the boys’ track team. I couldn’t have imagined I’d be in the same dynamic almost a half-decade later! Nor could I have imagined that women athletes would still be so far behind the opportunity curve. We have work to do.

So there I was toeing up again with the boys. A friend had given me pointers, but I realized at that moment how little thought I’d given to any of this. Nevertheless, I was at the start and I wasn’t backing out.

If you don’t stay with the pack there is no point in being in a Crit. You’ll just be riding around in circles by yourself. Could I hang in? How hard and how dangerous would that be? My friend Scott Chamberlain called me just before the race. He said, “People go crazy in the last two laps.  It’s wild.  Try to stay with them and kick like mad!” I appreciated the joke. Scott’s training back in the day included riding over junk bicycles to simulate race conditions. A different friend advised me to stay safe and let them go when the hammer dropped.

The race went off and to my astonishment I was staying with the pack. It was terrifying. I lost track of the laps early on. My focus was on staying alive and tucked in. It was an oblong course so the corners are tight and way too fast. The riders’ handlebars on either side are inches away. Fingers brush. You don’t take your concentration off the road and the other riders for one second – not one fraction of a second – or you’re likely a goner. 

Riders are having fun but are also really edgy and watch each other carefully. A newcomer to racing is a particularly and seriously dangerous element. It only takes one false move and there’s a pile of bodies and bicycles on the road. Or should you hit a bump wrong you might fly off the road and be stopped by a tree. It’s all very, very close on a wooded road and no room for error. I don’t think I’m overdramatizing, but even if I am that is exactly what I was feeling as I was gripping the handle bars and talking myself through every move, guarding against a reckless or inattentive moment! I didn’t want to be the newbie girl who caused a pile-up. One guy cut me off and brushed my front wheel, but I held steady. Perhaps because my heart stopped!

I was also guarding against hubris. There I was hammering away with these guys and I was old enough to be their mother, at least many of them. I really couldn’t believe how fast I was going and how strong I felt. It was terribly humid and 87 degrees – oppressive weather – and yet it was not bothering me at all.

And then suddenly, in the middle of all this glory, I became overwhelmed with the heat, utterly unable to deal with it. I pulled out of the pack to a small side spur and was beside myself with frustration and puzzlement and disappointment. What on earth was happening?! I’d been feeling so great. It didn’t make sense that I would suddenly succumb to the heat.

And then it hit me: I was having a hot flash! I had been giving the youngsters a run for their money. But mother nature had inserted a “menopausal pause button” and stopped me dead in my tracks. 

I poured my two water bottles over myself and shook it off – at least enough to contemplate getting back on the bike. It was much harder to shake off the frustration of being stopped by something so totally out of my control.

But when I heard the pack coming, as previously instructed, I took off and got a lead on it so that I’d have a hope of jumping back on when they came flying by. I was so excited and relieved that it took the pack a while to catch me. I finished the race with enough left in the tank to give it a huge kick in the final laps and stay close to the leaders as the pack spread out, leaving those behind who had already spent too much.

At the time it was a moment of transformation in my self-view. It reopened a chapter which I thought had closed long ago. I was a competitive athlete again. Or at least I realized I could be, despite my years. Hot flashes and age be damned.  I think I was perhaps as caught up in the macho of all of that as the boys, just in a different way. 

Over the next eight years I matured and mellowed as an athlete. I faced hubris and put it in its place, though not without struggle. I replaced it with deep gratitude at the many blessings which enable me to continue defying gravity. Now at 60, looking back on the hot flashes in the context of the many, many accumulating realities of my aging body, I think of them as a gift. That whole package merely intensifies the satisfaction and joy of being able to keep going.