It was two years ago when I first rolled up behind a very small group of girls at the inaugural 2009 SoCal High School Cycling League race at Vail Lake in Temecula, California. I was the sweep for the women’s race– meaning I was to ride behind the last rider, to ensure the safety of the group, and to ensure all the girls make it off the course and hopefully in one piece.
With this grave yet fun responsibility, I took off with the very first SoCal High School girls mountain bike racing field. There were seven girls racing that day, but only 5 would finish.
As the field, or small group, took off I had all those feelings one has at the start of a race.
Jitters. Nervous. If one more person asks me to smile at the camera I’ll puke.
As the girls at the front ride away, you wonder, “how can they go so fast?” Suddenly, you are alone.
And then the crickets. And the Crows. “Ha. Ha. Ha.” They wait for me to finally fall to the ground so they can begin to pick my bones.
“Why am I here? What on earth did I do to deserve this punishment? I hate racing. I will never do this again. How did I get talked into this? Who is responsible for this situation, and how can I tell them how horrible they are?”
What the girls don’t know is that everyone has these thoughts. Mountain bike racing is hard. Sometimes it’s not fun. Even Pros have these thoughts, they just know how to ignore them.
These beginner mountain bike girls fly down hill sitting on the saddle, one foot down, front wheel shimmying. My stomach drops, my heart stops beating, this is not good, this is not good, please God don’t let her crash, please! I may think this, it may come out of my mouth, I can’t be certain, the fear in my heart is stifling my perception of reality.
“Slow down!!” I plead.
If you’ve never ridden behind a true beginner who doesn’t use brakes going down steep hills with rocks, you may not understand. This is a kinetic disaster on wheels. I can only pray at this point.
The back of the race is a strangely quiet and lonely place. The crowds forget to cheer for you. The racers at the front of the race are lapping you. You lost concentration and you found yourself in a pile on the ground– adults running up to you in panic mode.
Pamela Bogust was the first girl I came to know in the high school league. A Crescenta Valley student, she was the only girl on the team. The slowest, and the newest rider.
Pam took a hard spill on the first piece of downhill singletrack. I was terrified. This had happened on my watch. I made Pam stay down. She hit hard. I recommended she stop racing and get some attention, and she did.
It is rare that I would encourage someone to drop out of a race, but with Pam I foresaw more and even more dangerous crashes happening as she became fatigued and the course became more difficult. I felt like at the end of the day I had failed Pam, and I prayed she would not give up on mountain biking.
Since Pam was the only girl on her team, it was unlikely her mates would allow her to quit the team.
The teams must have a girl on and racing in order to receive team points for the competition.
With this kind of pressure– some girls are thrown into the mix largely unprepared. Many times, these girls were on a mountain bike for the first time, or had only been riding a handful of days o old equipment that doesn’t fit properly. These young ladies are truly taking one for the team, and ought to be duly recognized for such valiance.
After the race, which Pam would not finish, I visited the Crescenta Valley Composite team’s practices in order to ride with Pam. We ambled up the hill, noted butterflies, and tried to make it through the sweeping dip/turn without crashing. Numerous times. I gave Pam a set of Fox Launch knee pads to protect her and give her confidence.
Fast forward to 2011. I’m at the back of the largest girls field of all time in Southern California, a field of 50 which included Fros/Soph, Junior Varsity and Varsity. More girls race in the high school race than total women at the mountain bike races in the area. This is an encouraging turn of events.
As we stage, emotions overrun me and I almost break into tears. We’ve come a long way, Virginia.
At the gun, I sit far enough back to allow the girls to have some space and sort themselves out. In my experience it doesn’t take long to find out who I will ride with for the rest of the day.
Today it would be Amanda Blau. I was unclear as to how many times she had been on a mountain bike, but this was definitely one of her first.
As the pack rode away from us, I could just feel the hopelessness. I thought I might spend my time today encouraging Amanda to stay in the race, or picking her up off the ground as I had to do with Pam two years earlier.
In the singletrack, I cringed every time she went down hill. She was going too fast (“Slow Down!”). With her front wheel all over the place and a few precarious lines chosen, it seemed a recipe for disaster.
I may have had ten heart attacks along the way. But Amanda wouldn’t crash. And she wouldn’t give up. I encouraged her to drink water, gave her some pointers, rode with her some, and allowed her to be alone some as well. When Pam, who is now racing Varsity, passed us at top speed, I said, “see, her? That’s Pam. She was last place in every race her first year. Now look at her!”
In the end, Amanda was the heroine of the day. While Varsity winner Alexis Ryan would celebrate her win and earn her due recognition for winning Varsity by 10 minutes, Amanda would ride off the course unnoticed, save for her family and team.
The girls of High School Mountain Biking are a tough lot. Their courage for showing up to a race, their determination to finish, their ambivalence to crashing and a little blood and their ability to be a team player are all attributes that I could only to hope to espouse.
I can’t wait to see Amanda in two years, and she how fast she is going to be.