cycling · fitness · Weekends with Womack

The importance of a push: getting by with a little help from our friends (and competitors)

I just stumbled on an article about professional cyclist Kathryn Bertine. In addition to being a multi-sport elite athlete, she’s also written about her experiences in several books.

Kathryn tells a story about a cycling race in which she was in a sole break—she had ridden ahead of the peloton of cyclists and was riding into the wind, which is exhausting. She started to tire:

So I started to fade and fade and fade. And I was coming back into the grasp of the peloton. And I … was just at the end of my rope physically.

What often happens after breaking away from the group in a race is that you get sucked back up into the peloton, but you’re so tired that you may not be able to maintain the speed of the group. Then you get left behind, or “spit out the back” (isn’t cycling terminology lovely?). Kathryn puts it this way:

It’s all been sapped from you, so you are just kind of on this trajectory backward, and everybody else is moving forward. And you just kind of want to scream out, “No, wait for me!”

But then Kathryn felt a hand on her back:

And as I am kind of sailing back through the peloton, almost about to be spit out the back — and that would be the end of my day — I felt this hand on my back and in cycling that is regarded as a push. I couldn’t imagine who this could be. Who would be helping me in this manner?

One of her competitors was giving her a helping hand, a push.


The hand belonged to a rider named Evelyn García, who is on the El Salvador national team. She probably weighs about 50 pounds less than me. She’s this tiny, tiny rider. Sometimes a second or two is all you need in cycling. And it saved me. I think physically I was able to stay in the peloton but also emotionally, too. Kind of someone saying, “Hey, I recognize what you’ve done and I’ve got your back.”

I love this story, not because it is an extraordinary one, and not because I think that helping your competitor is always required. But it’s a great reminder that everyone can use a push sometime, and everyone can offer a push sometime.

I did a cycling road race in Rhode Island about 9 years ago, where the women’s field was open– that means all categories of female cyclists were in my race.  What this also means is that the least experienced racers (Cat 4 in my case) got dropped like rocks in the first quarter mile (of an 18-mile race).  So there I was, slogging my solitary way down the road, trying to keep the next woman ahead of me in my sights.

All of a sudden I heard a whooshing sound– the men’s Pro/1/2 field (which was doing multiple laps of the course and started ahead of us) came up.  They swarmed around me and I was caught up in the peloton.  It is against the rules to mix in with another field during a race, but there wasn’t room for me to stay out of their way, and the sheer physics of the situation took over.  I turned to the rider next to me and said I couldn’t get out of the way, that I had been dropped from my field, so I wasn’t a contender in my race.  He smiled, put his hand very lightly on my back, and said, “oh, it’s fine.  Just tuck in and enjoy the ride.”

And I did.  It was exhilarating– I was riding at least 24 miles an hour and barely had to pedal at all.  My magic carpet ride lasted less than a minute, and then the road kicked up a bit.  The peloton glided past me, headed down the road.

That feeling stayed with me throughout the race, and I can still remember how great it was to be a part of it.  I’ve had similar feelings on group rides, both as the helper and helpee.

Social connections are important in any physical activity. Understanding their nuances, learning how to be a good and responsible participant, discovering new roles to play over time as abilities and interests shift— all of these things enrich my experiences of doing sports and physical activities.

Each sport or activity also has its own rules (explicit and implicit), and as we begin new ones, there’s a lot to learn about them. I’m starting scuba instruction next month.  I blogged about my first experience with it here and am looking forward to learning not just how the equipment works (obviously rather important) but also how to dive with others in safe and fun ways—as a beginner, and when I have more experience under my (weight) belt.

I’m also restarting bike training this winter, and as a push for myself I signed up for PWA’s Friends for Life Bike Rally. I got a little push from Samantha by inviting me and others to join, so thanks, Sam! I officially joined a team that includes a bunch of the Fit is a Feminist Issue bloggers and friends. And I’m sure I’ll need some pushes—both physical and mental—during that long ride. We’ll see what I can offer in the way of pushes for others. One thing I can guarantee—you can get on my wheel on the downhills…

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4 thoughts on “The importance of a push: getting by with a little help from our friends (and competitors)

  1. Loved this post. Just started riding with a club this past 6 months after slogging it out alone for a few years. Can’t believe I left it so long. Love the blog.

  2. Excellent post! Kathryn Bertine is an amazing racer and super friendly, encouraging for all cyclists–especially women who are thinking about racing. Pushes are awesome, especially when going up hill — all you need is a very short recovery break sometimes, like you said. Then you’re back there in the thick of the pack!

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