I am acutely aware that what I do for a living constitutes a leisure activity, or what some might call a hobby. Don’t get me wrong. I have worked very hard for a long time to make a career out of racing bikes. But I am lucky — privileged — that this opportunity exists for me and that I can earn a paycheck by pedaling two-wheeled racing machines.
Like many people, I want to believe my existence bears some meaning, to serve a purpose beyond myself in this life and maybe, just maybe, to leave the world a better place because I was in it. Sure, that’s probably ego talking, but it’s a ubiquitous and arguably legitimate concern. And let’s face it: racing bicycles doesn’t exactly eradicate world hunger.
Cycling holds great meaning for me, though that meaning can be difficult to articulate or defend (philosophically or practically). I often question myself. Am I wasting my time, my intellect, my energy on something totally selfish and devoid of real impact?
I don’t think so, but I’m not always sure.
This quote comes closest to capturing what cycling means to me:
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
― Howard Thurman
Racing bicycles makes me come alive, and most days that’s good enough for me — most, but not all. When I hit setbacks or disappointments, doubt creeps in stronger than ever.
Two weeks ago, I raced the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado. Building back after breaking my pelvis earlier this year required a reassessment of my original season objectives. I had time to build respectable form, and to get in a couple of races ahead of Pro Challenge — Cascade Cycling Classic and Tour of the Catskills — to bump up my top end. It would be tight, and the preparation would not be enough to render top form.
A crash at Cascade broke my bike, and while I was okay, it meant I would miss Tour of the Catskills, a key race in my preparation for Pro Challenge. This meant starting Pro Challenge with less than 4 days of racing my legs, while most of the peloton would be racing on nearly a full season’s worth of race intensity. It happens — the unexpected, the general chaos of life. Rather than fight it, I focused on controlling my controllables and reseting objectives and expectations.
All of this is necessary to roll with the punches, but man, does it ever do a number on one’s head! Even with adjusted expectations — sub-par performances tend to erode confidence, motivation, and, yes, purpose.
While in Colorado before the race, I got to visit with my nieces in Fort Collins. One of them, at 8 years old, had been reading about influential women in history, and had taken to calling them Courageous Leaders. In keeping with the theme of women forging positive change, my sister-in-law explained to her that previously, women could not race the Pro Challenge, but that we had convinced the organizers to include a women’s race this year. My niece looked at me with wide eyes and said,
“Auntie Amber, you’re a Courageous Leader?”
My heart melted. And suddenly I realized how important it really was to start this race, form or no form.
Symbolism matters. The women’s race and the teams, fans, media, and crowds who came out to support it — they all mattered in a big way.
At the race, my teammates and I met a family who had flown out specifically for the women’s event, because their daughters race mountain bikes and because they wanted their daughters to see the pro women compete.
Regardless of whether my nieces ever race bikes, or whether that family’s daughters go on to pursue pro careers, this race meant something. And it means something to be a woman racing bicycles.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given a talk in a classroom, and after introducing myself as a professional cyclist, heard the young students say “I didn’t know girls could do that!”
Racing bicycles is not a normal profession. It’s not something most people think of when they consider potential career options. It certainly may not be a great option for a lot of people. But what I love about this job is that it might inspire young women to consider that possibilities exist for them that they haven’t even imagined, that the world offers more possibility that they previously believed.
Symbolism matters. And if racing bicycles as a woman can symbolize a world of greater possibility, then maybe this funny hobby career of mine means something, too.