Spoiled: part 2

Let’s go back one step.

I began racing in men’s fields fairly anonymously, wearing a kit two sizes too big and hoping none of the other guys would put all of the signs together and notice that I am female-bodied and not just really young. I was a mediocre cat 4 by a couple of months into of my first summer racing, when you looked at the results: mostly midfield, a smattering of top tens in flat crits, a few lucky top-fives on a very good day, but always just shy of the podium. For a while, mid-field was great. I was a new racer, in a field of novice/intermediate racers. And, I was getting faster!

I became tactically savvy and confident, I started training far harder than any of my teammates, I read all there was to read about cycling training, and I worked with a coach. I was in phenomenal racing form by the next Spring. And then, my contentment ended. I realized that I was nearing all I could hope to be, if I was going to keep on racing with novice and intermediate men. This personal experiment in physiology had some early conclusions: my power profile was different than the rest of the guys. I had learned to suffer, to conserve energy and to hide in the field, to push through mental barriers and lactic acid, and to hang on for a mid-field finish (better on a lucky day).

I had become an incredibly efficient rider and racer, and had a lot of fun. But, I was never going to learn the strategies needed at the pointy end of the field. And, I knew I would be hard pressed to ever upgrade to men’s cat 3. I was ready to walk away from the sport because I was frustrated with the lack of a pathway for development. Yet, while I was having an internal discussion about giving up this beautifully painful lifestyle I’d adopted, I continued racing for the love of speed and the sport. I LOVED racing men’s crits, even if the novice men did, well… novice things that frustrated me, or more and more often than not made me sit up coming into the sprint rather than risk my skin for 10th place in a sketchy field.

To quote myself on the issue I was facing“All is not equal in cycling. And, I don’t just mean social differences in the way racers are treated. Bodies matter. Anyone who claims the contrary has likely never experienced the challenges of being the only female bodied person on a training ride with similarly skilled and conditioned male racers.” 

2015-07-14 01.00.23

That’s why I petitioned for a change of license to reflect my being physiologically female. There was no good path for further development as a racer on an unequal playing field. Now, read carefully, “development as a racer” means just that. I wanted an opportunity to progress, to race against women with equal skills and tactical savvy, and to learn from those more experienced and skilled. I didn’t request a change of license so I could win, but to learn the skills and tactics I would need to race successfully at a higher level.

I knew women’s cycling had issues, and I thought I was ready to take on the small field sizes and scarcity of races, and brush off the issues with unequal payout. It seemed hopeful. Yet, at that time, just getting past the hurdle of changing my license and the prospect of a future of racing on a level playing field was almost too much to imagine. And, I accepted the uncertainty of the situation—it was quite possible that when I outed myself to USAC, requesting a change of license under a completely absent and unpublished “case by case” policy, that I would be denied or even have my license revoked. If that had happened, I figured I could go back to just riding bicycles, which is what I was leaning towards at that point anyway, as disappointing as that idea was.

To be continued: finding myself unprepared for the inequality, speaking up, the consequences… and, what now?

Photo credit Charles Rumford (featured), Lee O’Reilly (mid-post)

Spoiled: Part 1

I came into women’s racing spoiled.

Prior to racing in women’s races, I spent a couple of years racing exclusively in men’s races.

Racing in men’s races was awesome in my first year racing. Awesome; that was my world. Every weekend I was gauranteed to have plenty of race options, and would gleefully plot out destined-to-fail race strategies with my cycling buddies, then load up the car and go race! I never expected much, except to have fun, win some preme lap prizes, and enjoy the momentary illusion of grandeur that every novice racer feels while an announcer is revving up the small crowd of spectators (family, friends, passerby) during my repeated and glorious but doomed fliers off the front of the crit. It was awesome. Cat 4 or 3/4 races generally had modest payout, and that seemed fair. I mean, what wasn’t fair about it? I was there to race my heart out, and knew that when I went to race we (the cat 4 guys) would get our 45 minutes of glory and microphone feedback buzz out on the course. It was pretty straight forward: “There’s a sweet race this weekend!”, says my new teammate John. We register. We race. We leave to go get food, and make sure to get back just in time for the start of the pro men’s race.

After a 4am, half delirious and hurried disclosure one race morning, John knew I was not male. But, I was determined not to be treated differently, and he never told and nobody else ever said anything… There were no rules being broken. Anyone can race in a men’s race – that much I knew.

I admit to being pretty oblivious to women’s races.

Was there one on the schedule? When was it? What categories were racing? What was the payout? Was it fair?

If you had asked me that first summer of racing, I probably wouldn’t have an answer for you.  Like most racers signed up for the cat 4 races, I was so caught up in my own race day routine that I couldn’t see past my nerves, attempts to focus on warmup, and carb cravings.

There were women who raced in the region who I admired. They were fast, sometimes far faster than me! And, I felt bad that there were so few of them in the races – It must be hard to keep on showing up when you’re one of the only ones. I knew there were issues with women’s races being dismissed as boring or slow, and was adamant that as a good feminist, I would counter any statement to that effect. I didn’t want to be one of them though, not at that point. A race with 3 up to maybe 15 or 20 racers didn’t seem like much of a race, and the announcers were out to lunch – sometimes literally, they were taking a lunch break at that point – and the lack of narration made it impossible for the casual spectator (watch the race for 30 seconds, talk to friends for 2 minutes, watch the race for 30 seconds… and so on) to follow the race.

That blissful oblivion was while I was content in the cat 4 men’s field, still a new racer only a couple of months into my first summer of USA Cycling membership….

Stay tuned for part 2: How I got there and why blissful contentment stopped working.

Discomfort. Betrayal. Acceptance.

Personal reflection at the close of the year. 

Bodies and discomfort.

Competitive cycling is a sport that forces you to inhabit your body; to engage muscles for that opening snap of force in a sprint, or to make yourself breath while pushing through the lactic acid burn.

There is no place for dysphoria in bicycle racing. Testing that statement was a large part of my 2014 racing season – I would be caught off guard by a  “ladies” or a misplaced catcall from the sidelines. And, in those few moments of ceasing to inhabit my body, the race was gone. I had missed the move. Struggling to bring myself back to the present, traveling at a speed of 20+ mph on two skinny tires, I would be left to contest a mid-pack finish.

Since the start of the 2014 season, my gut reaction to being called a “lady” has finally caught up to my academic and philosophic resolve to not correct people at bicycle races. It has gotten easier. I asked to race in the women’s field, and it has been one of the best (and, dare I say, transformative) experiences of my life. I do not wish for women’s racing to change to accommodate me. It is my place to be uneasy and incongruent.

It’s true. I don’t stand out in a field of women on bikes, where many have short hair and low enough 2014-12-13 20.32.03body fat to not have much of a chest. And, these days, I’m finding that that’s alright. In life outside of bicycles, there are many things that I do that cause some gender confusion. The short hair, slightly gravely voice, plus added glitter nail polish alone sometimes has me read as an effeminate gay man, the BFF type you’d go get a manicure and talk about boys with (for the record, I’m always game for that). Eyeliner, worn when I’m feeling a bit vampy, dramatically pushes me out of “he” territory, far past the gender-confusion-hesitation checkpoint, and into the definitive “ma’am” category at the grocery store.

My identity discordance with racing in the women’s field is my discomfort to own, and I’ve come to embrace that itchy, squirm-inducing, surreal and often hilarious place of being an androgynous, female-bodied, guy racing in a women’s field. Not male, but one of the guys. Yet, a different kind of guy.

Body betrayal.

2014-12-20 13.58.17

I won’t dwell here. Hurt, rage and negativity is not a healthy place to live.

Yet, just when I come to that place of embracing the discomfort of discordance, perhaps still basking in the joy of having pushed my physical limits in a race, I see the photo evidence. And, my body betrays me. Those are my hips and waist? I have curves? I might even look downright feminine. Sometimes I am shocked at what I look like in photographs, because it is so different from how I see myself in my own mind. Is that really me?

Oh, yes, it’s me. And, when I force myself to look harder, I see the tough, muscular legs of an athlete, as well as those hips that I can’t seem to abolish. So, I might as well start coming to terms with it.

Body acceptance.

Competitive cycling forces you to care for your body. You cannot train hard on a consistent basis without practicing sincere self-care: sleeping enough, eating to fuel your workouts, self massage and stretching of crunchy, tired and knotted muscles. If you neglect these things, your training will break you. You will become ill or incur a disabling injury. And, because of your self-neglect, you will fail to reach your potential. Additionally,  and perhaps most importantly, one must practice being emotionally kind to yourself and believing that you CAN do it, no matter what the “it” of the day is – those intervals that make me vomit every time, finishing strong on the hilliest of road races, or racing in a field shared with world champions.

travisvelodrome

In the genetic lottery, I am extraordinarily lucky to have been dealt a tremendously athletic body, one that CAN do it. I have always been muscular and fast. As a kid, I gleefully beat the boys in my class at foot races or push-up contests at school. Even at ten years old, I recognized that while I felt like one of the boys, I was different. That difference made the accomplishment all the more significant.

As I’ve come to accept this difference, it has become increasingly important to me to be seen as a female bodied person on a bicycle. To be seen otherwise, either in racing or just along for a ride, is to undervalue my strength, tenacity, talent (?), and countless hours of training. All is not equal in cycling. And, I don’t just mean social differences in the way racers are treated. Bodies matter. Anyone who claims the contrary has likely never experienced the challenges of being the only female bodied person on a training ride with similarly skilled and conditioned male racers. Remembering and re-accepting that I am physically different from the rest of the guys, that I am physiologically female, has helped me to come to a place of appreciation for my body and what it is: capable, powerful, and fast. To measure myself, and be measured by others, on the spectrum of female athletes allows me to appropriately value my effort in training and performance in racing.

I am kinder and fairer to myself now. I still choose to place extraordinarily high demands on myself physically. And, in all arenas of my life, have almost immeasurably high standards for my own performance. But, I take the time to massage the perpetual dull ache of training out of my legs, and I am thankful for the ability to ride a bicycle…. very, very fast.

It’s a process. Gender is mutable. Bodies may be uncomfortable places to live, but they matter.