Finding inspiration in an eclectic group of California-riding women

Seven women ride the Tour of California, in reverse, and discover inspiration in the commonalities across a wild range of ability levels

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Seven women, 700 miles, and one overwhelming sense of inspiration.

Women’s ambassador programs have become rather prominent in cycling over the past few years, and while there is not necessarily one common objective among them, they all come together with a unifying message: cycling should be accessible for all women, regardless of background and ability.

Rapha, known for its chic cycling apparel, has expanded wildly in the last few years, not just with its impeccable line of clothing, but also its presence in the community of the sport. Celebrating the romanticism of road cycling, Rapha has sought to build a community around the shared love for cycling — whether in the interest of socializing in the saddle or competition through racing. Perhaps most notably has been Rapha’s development of its Women’s Ambassadors program. Sometimes confronted over a limited women’s apparel selection, Rapha’s support of women’s cycling and drive to enhance the sport is anything but limited.

Earlier this month, the brand hosted a retreat, The Calling, for its 14 North American women ambassadors near Los Angeles. After the weekend retreat, six of the women embarked on a rather epic journey, riding the entire 2014 Amgen Tour of California route, in reverse, from Thousand Oaks to Sacramento.

I accepted an invitation to join the ride and, over the ensuing week, learned a great deal about our commonalities in the struggle that is cycling.

On paper, the Tour of California is arduous — 700 miles and over 60,000 feet of elevation gain (the equivalent of ascending Mount Everest, twice). Every element becomes a consideration, and in many cases, a nemesis. Whether it’s the demoralizing coastal headwind, the thick fog and torrential rain, that new saddle you’re not quite used to, or the intent focus on pacelining and echeloning with wheels you’ve never ridden behind. Coupled with the emotion that develops both on and off the bike when a rider has hit her limits, physically and mentally, the strength and inspiration of those around her is really what keeps her turning the cranks.

The group was eclectic, featuring two former professionals in Meredith Miller and Julie Krasniak, and others who have been riding and racing for a many years, while others had only previously ridden a single century. This wide range of experience and abilities is precisely what resulted in a deep sense of camaraderie as the group wound its way north to the state capital. And that, in and of itself, introduces a component of women’s cycling with which we often struggle. Too often, female cyclists find themselves in one of two categories: beginner or elite. Either they’ve never ridden a bike and need guidance through each and every step, or they’re competitive racers with no reason to diverge from the mentality that comes with being well-seasoned elites.

In my eyes, the Rapha ride slashed the dominant dichotomy of female cyclist stereotypes. The radiation of eclecticism was ultimately the driving force that pushed us across the finish line. Having neither preconceived notions of each others’ abilities or tendencies on the bike, or the assistance of a full-fledged peloton, required a certain tenacity that surprised all of us. The mental difficulty may have surpassed the physical challenges, as there was no opportunity to tune out.

Riding for up to 10 hours a day, especially when alone, is solitary. Turning the cranks becomes mechanistic, thoughts become few, and scenery becomes free entertainment. We had the joy of climbing over canyons so desolate I wondered if anyone had traveled there before. Or why they would have. Climbing Mount Hamilton in the pouring rain, counting down the switchbacks from 18 to 17 to 16, became futile as visibility was but a distant memory. Romanticism at its finest.

This romanticism was not ever-present, however. On a ride of this nature, small talk becomes as necessary as rice cakes, water, and chamois cream. All seven of us had the opportunity to get to know each other, and what better place to do it than on the bike, but that doesn’t make it any less exhausting. Pacelining along dismally windy pastures doesn’t make for positive small talk. Keeping every rider front of mind, at all times, is tiring to say the least. Unlike a race, where a rider prioritizes herself and perhaps her team, this was an instance in which each one of us was responsible for every rider in the peloton, regardless of ability, and regardless of how we were feeling at that very second.

Trying to quantify my own exhaustion, I searched for perspective. Climbing up the exposed, painfully steep Old San Marcos Road in Santa Barbara, I turned to Meredith Miller and asked, “How does this compare to stage racing in terms of exhaustion?” Perspiration forming along her helmet and sunglasses, she answered plainly, “Totally exhausting. In different ways.”

That was one of many moments in which we were all on the same level. Abilities, experiences were no matter. If you were to ask Kim Cross, a 38-year-old freelance writer and editor from Birmingham, Alabama, where she fit in with the crew, she would deem herself “the weakest link.” But, quite the contrary, Cross, like most of us, rides her bike when she can. Not only that, but she’s more partial to the dirt, so her road miles are few and far between. The mere fact that she even thought to tackle this feat was inspiring.

Inspiration is cliché in endurance sports. We’re all looking for that boost to climb aboard the saddle when the legs ache and the weather grumbles. But a group of seven women attempting to shift the paradigm of how female cyclists are viewed based on physical capabilities — that’s inspiration. I consider myself inexplicably lucky to have joined the Rapha Ambassadors on this journey. I left Sacramento with an incredible sense of inspiration — from the professionals I secretly wanted to mimic in cyclocross races, to the working moms who rode more that week than they had all year; from the support crew, which included Rapha’s Jeremy Dunn, Tim Coghlan, David Wilcox, and Chris Distefano, who offered long-distance emotional support, to the man behind Sag Monkey, Nick Nicastro, to the creative mind behind this crazy journey, Paige Dunn.

Female, male, it doesn’t matter. Tackling 700 miles in seven days on relentless terrain is a feat. Simulating the Tour of California gave me a tangible perspective on where we rode, and furthered my belief that pro cyclists are, well, superhuman. Jumping in head first, despite not knowing anyone, or how we would work together, created a camaraderie that could not be simulated in any other capacity.

Let this experience be a driving force for every cyclist. Whether you’ve just bought your first bike to start commuting to work, or you’re thinking of riding your first century or racing your first criterium, or even those of us who have been around the block with every discipline of racing, and riding, but never made it beyond “seasoned local” … no matter what your two-wheeled goals may be, they are possible. Whether you’re male or female, there is no real difference between the beginner and the elite in the grand scheme of cycling. Whether intentionally or not, the instances in which we come together, gasping for air, and ignoring the inevitable burning in our legs, are the pinnacles of this sport.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.