By Kelly O'Brien
My parents gave me a couple options for a college graduation gift: a down payment on a car or a new road bike. Obviously, I chose two wheels over four. After many hours scouring Craigslist, I went from downtube shifters to Dura-Ace. One quick spin on the seller’s 10-year old Tarmac and I knew this bike would take me places...and maybe even races.
One year and 8,000 miles after getting my diploma and my new bike, I did what many millennials are doing after college...I put my B.A. in journalism to good use by working in a bike shop.
I began riding from the Northwest suburbs to a bike shop in the city every day. That summer, I spent 6,000 miles in the saddle just getting to my job. However, the only racing I did was trying to make the green light at Six Corners during my morning commute. I considered myself a commuter, not a racer. I could ride far, not fast. My bike may be designed to race, but not me.
My attitude drastically changed when I watched a video on Chicago Women's Elite Cycling’s Facebook page promoting the 2016 Women’s Midwest Road Race Championship, a race run by women for women. After listening to the featured women share their stories of how they got into racing, I felt more inspired than ever before. If they could do it, I could do it too. So I registered for my first race.
When I arrived in rural Leland, IL for the race, the nerves instantly sprouted like the unending corn surrounding the race course. From behind the tinted windows of my family’s van, I watched women warming up on beautiful bikes I’d only ever seen in cycling magazines or catalogs at work.
Many donned matching uniforms (or “team kits,” as they’re known in the cycling world) representing their respective teams. And then there was me, on an oversized used bike, not knowing a single person there. My legs shook uncontrollably. But I just kept telling myself that those same shaky legs were strong from all those long, hot summer commutes.
When I made my way to the start, I was relieved to overhear others say this was their first race too. We may not have been teammates, but it felt like we were in this together. Many of us seemed to have similar aspirations of finishing, not falling on the gravel sections, and avoiding flats. Feeling comforted by the camaraderie of my fellow first-timers, my fear faded.
I didn’t know what I was doing for the next 33 miles, but I didn’t care because I HAD SO MUCH FUN. A pack of 10 jumped to the front, and I made it my goal to try and catch up. I was alone for most of the chase, but the moto kept motivating me by informing me of the length of the gap. One minute behind, 45 seconds behind, 30 seconds behind. I couldn’t believe I was actually closing the gap. I looked down at my phone at one point and saw I was going 27-mph. I decided right then and there that I liked this racing thing.
The gravel got to me, the gap got bigger, and I got 11th in Category 4. Despite not catching the pack, I was pretty damn proud of myself. As I watched the winners step onto the podium, I wondered what it was like up there.
Less than a year later, I don’t have to wonder anymore. After seeing a bunch of BFF Bikes jerseys worn by winners at the Women’s Midwest Road Race Championship, I proudly wore one atop the 2017 Skyway Classic podium when I finished first in the Category 5 Omnium. I wouldn’t have been there if CWEC hadn’t given me the opportunity to explore my potential in my first race. I now have a love for racing, and I’m excited to spread that love with more women by working at BFF Bikes. Maybe I’ll get to help a recent college grad pick out a bike soon. I hear bikes make great graduation gifts.