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photo: Garrett Lau, used by permission

My category 1 upgrade was the hardest upgrade I’ve earned. I finished earning the necessary points early this season. It’s been a long road, eight years worth. I relayed all of this to my friend Sarai of GirlBikeLove and she suggested I write about it. It’s a topic that women who are getting into racing don’t know much about.

What does it really take? I can’t speak for all other Cat 1’s but I can tell my story. For those not familiar with how the progression in the sport of bike racing works, women start out as a Cat 4, men as a cat 5. Points are earned based on the type of race, the numbers in the field, and then how well you place. It’s all broken down in the USAC handbook and when you view it mathematically. As you start racing, you quickly learn that the more you race, the more chances you have to earn points. However, racing a lot, requires a lot of everything: time, energy, money, support, equipment, travel, logistics, navigational skills, travel companion issues, host housing politics, gas, food, time away from work, time away from friends, time away from family, time away from everything.

We live in our own world during race season; and by the way, our off season is, a week? Maybe two? Bike racers live in their own world. I didn’t care as a ‘wanker’ cat 4 (as my doting Southern Utah cycling friends dubbed me), I was willing to do whatever it took.

I started out racing in Southern Utah where, ironically enough, there is no racing. I would drive seven hours one way, by myself, to Southern Arizona or Southern California to race a few crits that lasted all of 30-45 minutes, then drive back to southern Utah Sunday night for work on Monday. I didn’t care how much gas cost, how tired I was, or if I had to train in the dark hours of the morning on the way to work, often doing hill repeats up Snows canyon. I didn’t care if I crashed and nursed my injuries alone on the drive home. And if you think the ‘Loneliest Road in America’ between Northern Nevada and Northern California is desolate, try Northern Arizona through the Navajo Indian reservation.

I didn’t care about winning money. I didn’t care what my co-workers thought of me, or my friends and family. The bike and I had found each other and I had fallen head over heels in love with the sport of bike racing. This complicated relationship has afforded me life experiences, relationships, opportunities, abilities, discoveries, traveling, character development and refinement beyond what I ever thought possible.

But the price is steep: tremendous sacrifice, pain, terror, fear, loss, hardship, humility, career, friendships, but I didn’t stop. What can I say? I’m kind of a maniac. It’s all or none with me.

That’s just the way it is. Learning to accept and love all of myself is also part of this story.

The road to cat 1 can be best described as exponentially more difficult. It is not a linear progression. I can’t speak for everyone who races, but I know that when I was a Cat 4 and learning how the upgrade system worked, it seemed pretty straightforward – going from Cat 4 to Cat 1 would be a logical progression. It was based mostly on numbers. Race a lot. Get a lot of good results. Earn a lot of points. Upgrade.

Naturally, the maniac in me started planning to turn professional in five years. This is my eighth full season racing. I did a few races right after I graduated college but struggled with a lot of auto-immune health problems. During 2008, I moved to California as a Cat 4 because I had learned that it was the best place to be if I wanted to go pro. I have no regrets.

California is also arguably considered the most competitive bike racing region in the US. I couch surfed that whole summer as a cat 4 and earned the rest of my points to get my cat 3 upgrade. Early the next year I became a Cat 2. The disadvantage of racing in that kind of environment is that it can lead to becoming addicted to, or somehow dependent on the belief that you have to race against that level of competition in order to get better.

I moved to Seattle in October of 2013 to continue following my other dream – a career as a coach and trainer. The racing scene is very different than in California. The weather, courses, and race calendar progression and flow doesn’t even compare. The number of women racing was more reminiscent of Arizona and Utah. By the end of my first season in the Pacific Northwest however, I realized that there is never a bike race where you can’t learn something or get stronger.

Winning in a small field is harder than you think. Winning without any teammates against a dominant team is harder than you think. Don’t ever take life’s opportunities for granted and don’t ever underestimate your ability. I learned that I didn’t have to race the big races all the time, I needed to learn how to win locally first, and that I didn’t have to get smashed every weekend by national pros in order to get stronger.

Assess your motivation, resources, goals time lines, don’t compare them to anyone else’s. Put your cart behind your horse and start pulling it at your pace. Fill the cart with resources available to you and let your goals motivate you to keep pulling no matter what.

Don’t use someone else’s reasons to pull or compare your ability to pull to theirs.

Yes, I do think that doing some big races is a good idea; especially if you want to be competitive at the national level. You need to know what that level is like. The gap between local women’s racing and the national level is a lot bigger than it is for men because of numbers and resources. There is far less overlap in women’s racing than there is in men’s. I’m not complaining, I’m simply stating a fact.

A warning: It is what it is. Structure your goals accordingly. You’re not a victim as a female athlete. Empower yourself with coaches, teammates, directors, industry professionals, books etc. all of this is absolutely vital in laying out your own timelines and being specific with your goals.

It’s not just about watts, and then it is.

This is my 8th year racing. I went from a cat 4 to a Cat 2 relatively quickly. But there I stayed. Earning my points within the requisite time to get my Cat 1 seemed more difficult than the others. As a cat 2 you are racing in a Pro/1/2 category anyway so why the big fuss? Is it a big deal?

As a bike racer we hear a lot of ‘it’s not just about watts’, it’s about how you think and the decisions you make and when. I’m smart and I’m tough. I graduated magna cum laude with a Major in Biology and double minors in chemistry and nutrition. I moved up faster in companies as a chemist than most of my co-workers. I created jobs and positions for myself. I moved to California when I knew only one person so I could pursue bike racing. Surely, I can do this. Five years later…Huh?

Going from a cat 4 to cat 3 meant I had to beat the cat 4’s and maybe some cat 3’s. Going from cat 3 to cat 2 meant I had to beat the cat 3’s, some cat 4’s (fairly easy) and on occasion some cat 1/2’s. As a cat 2, you have to beat cat 1’s who have probably been cat 1’s for a very long time, and on occasion, beat a few pro’s to earn points to upgrade to a cat 1. It’s like earning a PhD in bike racing with just as much hoop jumping, drama, politics, sacrifice and perseverance as that college degree.

During my 7th year of racing I learned more about tactics than I did in all the previous 6 years combined. I added all that knowledge to my already built physical engine and by my 3rd race this season I had finally completed my ‘PhD’ of bike racing and earned my cat 1. To do that I surrounded myself with far more knowledgeable coaches, racers and athletes than I ever had before. I learned how to balance my personal, work and bike racing life. I studied, tried different things on and off the bike, fine tuned training and tactics. And at some point I became brave enough to risk failure to succeed.

I see and notice more things in a race than I ever did before. I see now why I had such a hard time upgrading. I wasn’t making the right decisions at the right times to put myself in position. It’s not just about watts. It’s about knowing as much as you can about everything going into a race so you can make decisions as fast as you can when you need to.

And learning all of that takes time.

Listen to your body, study your craft, surround yourself with experts you trust, never stop asking questions, reflecting, recording, watching for patterns, recover harder than you train. Be absolutely dedicated, honest and learn to live in the moment in order to see success and improvement for what it is.

Most importantly, believe in yourself. I probably have some genetic ability, I’m smart and I just keep getting stronger; but more than anything, I believe in myself.

By Heather Nielson, Seattle Washington – Heather is a professional cycling coach for Cycle University in Seattle Washington. In her spare time she enjoys reading, art, cooking and spending time with friends. Follow her at www.ridempowered.com, @ridempowered on twitter, and facebook.