12 Reasons why my trip to California was NOT a holiday – And what you didn’t see behind the stunning photos!
After my return from California, I was truly amazed to discover how many people had been following my journey. Some of you got it just right, especially the snapchatters, who witnessed what really happened, live, every day. And I felt supported receiving compliments on getting through the gruelling trip. I was approached by others, however, with: Wow, amazing holiday!
Holiday? Let me tell you why this was NOT a holiday.
1. The travel (35 hours on Emirates Airlines)
I was one step ahead of the jet lag. I planned to the minute what to eat, when to eat, when to sleep, when to stay awake, when to have light and when to have darkness, how many litres of water to drink and how I was going to get from the window seat to the toilet without waking the people sitting next to me.
No sugar, no salt, no alcohol, no to anything coming from the trolley.
2. Pro Racing
I had no idea what to expect. I knew it was going to be challenging for sure. It’s easy to sit back on the couch with a beer and watch pro racing on TV, right? Although I knew the level would be much higher than what we do in the UAE/Middle East, I was really hoping I would be able to ‘just hang in there’.
Holy f***! It was tough beyond tough.
I set a new PR for my 20mins max power on the uphill individual time trial. That hurt. For that effort I placed 78th of 81.
In the two circuit races I did, I red-lined for 30-40mins until I got dropped. That hurt. I then fought solo or with a few other riders, chasing the time cut. That hurt. I then got pulled from the races and dealt with disappointment and failure. Now that really hurt.
3. While my team members were racing – and I was on my own.
It was hard. It was very hard. I have put a lot of effort into my training, in every shape and form. But it wasn’t not good enough. As the race team was off to race the next stage; I was left behind, with the time now in my own hands. If I am not good enough, what could I then do? I had many choices, really. But in my head, there was only one option: Go out and work harder! One day I went out and climbed 80km (3250m) of a total 172.5K. That was 7 hours where I was stuck with my own thoughts. That was tough. Mentally more than physically.
4. I cancelled my own holiday
The plan was to do 8 pro races, after which I was going to treat myself to a ‘holiday’ and explore California. I was a failure at pro racing and completed only a fraction of what was planned. In my mind, I didn’t deserve a holiday. Plus if there is something you are not good at, how do you get better? Work on your craft. Practise practise practise. I just couldn’t justify taking holiday. I found another 3 day stage race. I took off alone, to practise.
5. Racing and camping – at the same time.
On race day, I checked into a concrete campsite, living in 2 persons tent, on a 2cm mattress, in a sleeping bag, with no electricity, no fridge, no heating, no light, nowhere to cook or boil water, no peace, no quiet, no space, nowhere to unpack, not knowing anyone, except from the very lovely Janice, who I met only as I crawled into the tent.
And this was all while asking both my mind and body for top performances. I felt like death for 3 days while racing.
I crashed twice during my time in California, both while racing. And while I was lucky enough to avoid getting any serious injuries, the battle with the tarmac left me with bruising and open wounds. When the medics used the rough side to scrub and remove stones from the wounds, I can tell you something: It hurt. Sleeping on a 2cm thin mattress (literally on the tarmac; yes I kid you not the camping ground was an asphalt car park) with bruises and wounds; that hurt. Then there was the dealing with post-race muscle soreness, while racing again and camping again. That also hurt.
Did I mention showering with open wounds and road rash? That really stung.
7. Failing equipment
It’s the same story over again. I have only myself to blame for not buying myself a working bike before I head of to do pro racing. I always crash on the right side, the sensitive side of the bike. There is nothing more to be done. The Di2 software has been damaged, the software has set itself to crash mode; the software is in charge of the gear shifting, the software has control of me.
Every morning of the Sea Otter Classics races, my gears failed to shift during my warm up. Every morning before lining up at the start I raced around to find mechanics; I ran in my cleats through exhibition crowds, wondering if I would ever even make it to the start or out of the start box. Always frantically counting down minutes. And what will happen during the race? Will my gears shift? What should I do if they don’t shift? Train? Complete the course? Work on my mental strength? Quit? Go sightseeing? Those were the thoughts running through my mind on the start line. Stressful. Not ideal.
8. When race officials get it wrong
On the first day of the Sea Otter Classics, I raced a Criterium. I crashed. But I was eager to get back out on the circuit. A little too eager perhaps. I couldn’t care less about the dripping blood. But I cared about my handle bars turning sideways. I might have raised my voice at the officials and mechanics, not on purpose of course, but from the crash-adrenalin. “Let me out. Let me out. I want to finish”. The official held me back; “Stop, breathe – let me check you”. “What? NO! Arms and legs are working just fine. Let me out!” They finally let me out. I raced well. And I sprinted myself to a 5th place overall, which was 100% a top 3 and podium position in the Masters category. Apart from crashing, stage one was a success!
After the race I had a feedback session on my racing with a ‘race mentor’; an LA Sweat female pro rider, sitting at the back of the race, taking notes and helping riders improve their racing. How awesome is that?? I got cold waiting. I also had stones in my open wounds, dried blood up and down my body and my bike was getting checked. A while after finishing, I went over to check my final position and the podium ceremony time. I blinked once and walked away. Ice cold. I was at the bottom of the list with ‘one missing lap’. All energy was sucked out of me.
After failing the pro racing, I really needed a bit of success for myself. I had crossed the finish line in podium position with open wounds. But instead of heading to the podium, I headed to the medics, where I screamed in agony as they scrubbed the stones out of my wounds – as opposed to embracing success, smiling at the flashing cameras and receiving my deserved prize. I just couldn’t take anymore that day.
9. Road trip
Sounds amazing, right?
Of course it was. But it wasn’t easy.
Road Trip #Day1
Here is how I started my road trip. I woke up in a tent, I then raced in temperatures above 32C. I suffered on the final climb to get my 3rd place on the podium. I almost fell off my bike at the top. I didn’t expect a podium place, so I rushed back to the campsite to pack up and shower (only to get back into my sweaty kit for the podium pictures). At 3pm only I left the race venue to start my road trip. I still had not had any proper food and I was of course very dehydrated from racing 3 hours in the heat. I had to get on the road as I needed to get as far down the Californian coast line as possible before darkness. I was in charge of everything. Driving, navigating, flicking the radio channels, absorbing all impressions from my surroundings, eyes peeled non-stop. I stopped the car more times that I could keep count; out of the car, into the car, out of the car, into the car, again and again and again. I took pictures, I filmed, I snapped. But I never stopped for more than a few minutes. I simply didn’t have time. As it got dark and my surroundings turned pitch black, my vision literally disappeared. I was too exhausted to drive in the dark and I now searched for a motel. As I crawled into bed, I selected and edited the best photos from the day. Stunning photos. It would have been too selfish to keep them to myself. I made it a priority to share with you too.
Those pictures however, revealed only beauty from the Pacific Ocean coast line, not how hard I pushed my body through that day.
Road Trip #Day2
I had a very long journey ahead of me with many miles and many sights to cover. I had to manage my time in each place and most likely make decisions on the go. After my first stop I was already set back almost one hour. Why? In a car park by Pismo Beach, a large truck reversed into the front of my $700 Hertz rental car and caused damage to the front my car. Oh my god! That didn’t just happen! Luckily the driver was a good guy and happy to share his details. His 4 family members though were a hard piece of work. I had no knowledge of what sort of accident reports or insurance documentation was needed in this scenario in order to proceed with insurance claims. All l knew was that in the US everybody sues everybody. I stayed calm. But trust no one. To my random luck a police car passed. We explained the accident. 5:1. Each of the family members provided a witness statement saying that I drove into the back of the truck. Oh my god! This was not happening! Just get me out of here! I might have paid an extortionate $700 to rent a car for one week, but at least that was including full coverage on damage to the car. Just get me out of here.
I took off, a little shaken, naturally. I didn’t enjoy any part of that. But the journey had to continue…
For around 10 hours I was driving and doing sightseeing; eyes peeled, full concentration. The goal was to hit Redondo Beach in Southern LA before darkness. I just made Malibu, North of LA, to watch the sunset. Just. I snapped an amazing picture. I stayed for around 1 min, after which I continued driving through the dark, blurred vision, tired eyes. I drove through LA in the dark. I felt like I was going the wrong way. I realized my Sat Nav had stopped working and I had gone too far East. Eventually I arrive in Redondo Beach. Exhausted.
10. Los Angeles
The next day
I had only one full day in LA; which meant I had to cover ALL sights in one day. I got on my bike, naturally. 10 hours later my mission was accomplished. I had covered all sights on a 140K ride. However, halfway through the day and at the bottom of Griffiths Park (the hill with the Hollywood Sign), my Di2 battery went dead (totally my own fault, but still not helping the situation) – and I was sitting on my one single gear while looking up to the Hollywood sign, thinking: I WILL get up there! To make it short, I was given wrong directions and I went up and down twice, grinding my legs in a too heavy gear for a 7% incline. No matter which road I took, I didn’t seem to get close enough to that sign! It turned out only a dirt road for hikers go to the top. Nope, that is not going to stop me! Not now! Let’s test if the 60mm carbon clinchers can handle the mountain biking surface. Towards the top I hit a 14% incline. I could only just keep my bike upright. The final section to the top is a climb on rocks. That can be done walking in cleats while carrying the bike, of course!
Was it worth the effort? To see the view from behind the enormous letters? No. My advice; save yourself the hassle.
My phone was dying, which meant I would soon enough lose navigation. I had to find a route home where I couldn’t get lost. I chose the simplest route – and the longest. Down Santa Monica Boulevard to Santa Monica Pier (it took me one hour to ride that street because of all the ef**** traffic lights). And then another hour along the coast line to Redondo Beach. I didn’t make it home before darkness and I didn’t recognize a thing around me in the dark. Did I mention this day was HOT? I eventually arrived home, exhausted – and dehydrated.
Holiday makers may call it wining, dining, lunching, brunching, sun downing etc. I call it fuelling.
During the two weeks with the pro team, all fuel consumed was with the aim of providing the body with the best tools to perform. One day though we all had a chocolate-chip cookie (some of us 2!) (and it was one of the medium sized ones too!). Oh my god, that was so good.
In San Francisco, I had sushi one night. Otherwise during my time in San Francisco, racing at the Sea Otter Classic while camping, and my road trip; so around a week, I had no one single real meal. I survived only on snacking on rye bread, peanut butter, avocados, carrots and hummus, freebee Cliff bars – and coffee. Fuel that required no cooking, no cooling, no heating, no preparation and no plates. Fuel making my life easy, while on the road, on the bike, in a tent, in the dark or simply out of time. And fuel that could keep me going through my adventures.
12. The last day
On what was supposed to be my last day in California, I woke up with heart palpitations. The few nights before I had also started to become affected by insomnia. It was very simple and very clear; I had run myself down into exhaustion. I had not given myself room for recovery. I had pushed on too hard to fit in too much in too little time. I woke up ill from exhaustion. I recognized the signs. I knew what I had to do. RELAX. I postponed my flight to return to Dubai 4 days later than the original return date. I was desperate for rest. Desperate for a holiday.
My California trip was freakin’ amazing! I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to be invited to test my strength and skills (or lack of) in a Pro field. I am extremely blessed to be able to travel for a whole month. I am forever appreciative of the amazing people I know or meet along the way who help and support me through my adventures and travels. On many levels I can be my own best role model, especially when it comes to courage and bravery. Every single day of that trip I discovered beauty, beauty in nature, beauty in people and beauty in my sport. Every day I learned and every day I grew stronger.
But it was NOT a holiday. It was simply to exhausting to be a holiday.
Randers Bike Week, Denmark, August 2017 – 4 day stage race
I am kind of stripping myself of my victories here. At the same time, I don’t want to appear as if I am the champion of the world. There is always room for improvement when it comes to my racing skills and strength.
Admittedly, I did feel some sort of pride as I was lining up, in front of the remaining riders, in the leader’s jersey. At the end of the day, what I had done, was enough to get rewarded that yellow jersey, representing the current leader of the GC classification. At the same time, on the roads, I felt a significant sense of embarrassment.
I never came to the stage race in Randers to achieve any kind of result, I actually came only to practice my ‘racing skills’, some of which I have repeatedly proven have room for improvement. I also wanted to test my physical ability to race 4 days back to back. Only the week before I discovered I can climb Mt Ventoux 6 times in 4 days with no problems, but… I always stayed under threshold, because I didn’t want to waste any time on recovery. But how will my body react to 4 days repeatedly over threshold? I wanted to find out.
I am on my own again. Surprise! But actually, this time I didn’t mind so much ‘riding on my own’, because I just wanted to focus on what I came to practise. I was happy not to be held accountable to anyone. I had also been clever enough to book myself into the official race Motel (motel = motorway sleep over building), full of riders and teams, 99.5% male. Check, I am gonna be just fine here.
Here’s what happened, yellow jersey and all:
Stage 1 – 30 mins Criterium (15x 1.4K lap in Aars town: uphill on cobble stones, downhill on tarmac)
I had a 330K drive to the race destination, I am not exaggerating; I had the windscreen wipers on full power the entire way. It never stopped raining. 20 mins before my wave starts, I am sitting inside my mum’s small car, getting changed and pinning numbers on the front seat, with the windows fully steamed on the inside and hammered with rain on the outside. On a positive note, no one on the packed town centre supermarket parking, will be able to see that I am getting naked inside the car. Four turns. Cobblestone hill. Rain. Again and again and again. I ask myself once again: “Why are you doing this to yourself?” I always find a strong enough argument to get on with what I set out to do in the first place.
Unfortunately there are not enough female riders to form our own wave, let alone our own classification. Men or women, I don’t really mind, I just need to practise. Men over 60 and women are thrown into the same classification, however we are still not enough to form our own wave. We start all stages also with Men over 50 and Men D classification. Now we are enough for a good size peloton, however with a wide range of strength and ability. It’s my 4th Crit only, ever. I am here to practise everything that a Crit demands. Another aim of mine; postpone the DNF as far as possible (yes, in a stronger field on a 1.4K lap, of course I will get lapped and taken out, it’s just a matter of time),
Miraculously, the rain clouds slowly disappear during my 12 mins warm up (yes, I left it a little late. It was raining), and we took off, uphill, dry. Jeez, the gentlemen are GONE! Flying start, completely stretched out, I think I have lost all wheels (in front of me), already on the cobblestone uphill on lap 2. We don’t have cobble stones in Dubai. I have many things I want to practise, so I’d better get a move on with my practising. Some I have lost already; positioning, gone. It takes me 2-3 laps to settle in on the cobble stones, working out gearing, cadence and grip, what works best for me. Good practice. I am left on my own somewhere. Don’t take any risks Helle and ride as hard as possible to postpone the DNF. Just over 17 mins after start, I got pulled. It was inevitable. Two men over 50 had taken the lead, wiping out rider after rider. To my great surprise I got pulled ‘3rd last’ in my classification and to my even greater surprise, only one rider in my classification did not get pulled. A German gentleman earned the yellow jersey.
Stage 2 – 77K Hill Stage (5 laps, ca. 875m elev total)
I drive to the race destination, arrive ca. 1 hour before my start. I sit in my car, again, this time in between to fields, with the rain hammering down on the roof. I stay there. The weather forecast for today was: Rainbows (no joke! I watched it on TV). Rain and sun, all mixed up, wait for the rainbows. Yes, I am waiting, for the rain to stop. It’s on and off, like someone is playing with the control for the shower. It’s time to go, I manage to get a 12 mins warm up, on a hill, then it starts pouring again, I hide under a tent by the start line. Miraculously, the rain stops before we take to the start line.
I manage to sit tight in the group during lap 1, through a couple of brutal hills and ridiculous amounts of water being sprayed around between the bikes, most of it I am certain, landing in my eyes. We go by luck, some of the puddles take up the entire road and they are filled with sharp stones. Some will get punctures, some will not. I struggle on the last long hill on lap 2. I have to see the group disappear just over the top. I get caught from behind by two male riders, we work hard together, chasing the group, not far in front of us. If they slow just a little we can catch them. They didn’t slow, but eventually they disappeared. Towards the end of lap 3, I discover a slow puncture and roll into the start area with a half flat tyre. There are bikes and wheels everywhere, but when I ask if I may borrow a wheel for 2 laps, all answers are something like “meh”. I am now walking around in muddy grass searching between wheels, for a wheel. Forget that then! I wait for the service car. I wait. I wait. I wait some more. Only when the race director, Bjarne, notices I am trouble, he quickly fetches me replacement wheel, a junior replacement wheel, better than nothing for sure. I can’t pedal downhill on the small cassette, but at least I have a wheel. I imagine I am now very far behind and I refocus on some of the things I wanted to practise and learn, one being testing my ability to race day after day after day. So there is only one thing to do there on my own: work hard! Don’t save any energy. I have 30K to go. I push. On the final lap I see a rider in my classification in the distance in front of me. Goal: chase and pass. I did.
As I reach the finish line, I get the news that the German gentleman in yellow had crashed out (he was okay, but didn’t finish the stage). To my surprise, I was now first in the GC classification and rewarded the yellow jersey for stage 3. Okay, I take the yellow jersey then, purely for fighting it out there on my own (in my personal view). As I drive back home, I have to stop; the rainbows are just incredible!
Stage 3 – 62K Road Race (with ca. 570m elev, hills, hills and more hills)
Ugh. Legs are in a little trouble. On day 3 already? Really? Could I still be affected by deep fatique from climbing Mt Ventoux 6 times a week ago? Or is that all I can take? I am not sure. But I am feeling. And I am learning. The weather is the same every day. All morning, it’s hard wind, some hard showers, some light showers, some clear skies. Apart from the consistent hard wind, it’s changing any minute. The start today is conveniently located outside the Motel. I line up at the front with the other 2 yellow jerseys and the one polkadot. I feel a quite ‘cool’ for a moment, the best of the bunch (or perhaps just the luckiest). The guys in yellow set the pace fast out of the start. We hit the first long hill. My legs! They are screaming at me up that long hill. I get passed one by one. I am still on the hill when I stop getting passed. I wave goodbye to the front. I also wave goodbye to the German gentleman, he is fast on the hills. I end up with 3-4 guys. The tables have turned; from feeling quite ‘cool’, to now feeling quite embarrassed riding around in the yellow jersey, behind the front group. Argh. Just keep fighting, Helle. I just don’t know if this is really all I can do? Or are those 50+ and D guys super super fast? Or am I fatiqued?I don’t know. There’s one very strong German guy, who came back from a flat, he did a lot work to get us round the laps. To my surprise, I had finished behind the front group fast enough to keep the yellow jersey into stage 4. Just! I am leading only with seconds. I jump on my bike to ride back the motel. I have a flat. Now? Pheew. Back at the Motel, I lie with my legs up against the wall. They are not very happy.
Stage 4 – 33K Circuit Race (8 laps of 4.2K, one long hill on every lap).
Same, same. Strong wind, some hard showers, some bright patches. Last stage. Let’s go. It appears to be colder today. I manage to get a pretty good 25 mins warm up. I line up at the front, in yellow. It’s pretty okay to be standing here at the front; however it is not cool to be riding at the back, in yellow. On the other hand, we are kind of meant to get dropped or let me paint it a little brighter; we are not meant to be able to finish at the front. After all, our classification, Women and Men 60+ are racing in a group of men qualified to be stronger and faster. Something would not be right if we all managed to finish together. Today, as any other day, my aim is to drop as late as possible. I am 100% certain I will lose my jersey on this final stage. I don’t think that helps much. The pace is a little more settled today. Maybe I am not the only rider with pretty tired legs. I sit in the group until the 3rd time we pass that long hill. I have to let them go on that hill. It is just a little bit too long. Once again we form a small chase group, but the front disappears. It’s a very short race today, just around one hour. I just want to go give everything I have. Apart from the hill, where we go ‘our own pace’, I take the front the majority of the time and hammer the flat sections. I want to finish off my legs. I felt a little less embarrassed today than yesterday, in the yellow jersey, as we lapped through the start and finish area 5 times, at least I was at the front hammering around the corner like it was depending on life or death. I might have been behind the front, but I went home hard. I also wanted to finish 2nd GC. I did.
It was quite an experience. I spent more time behind the peloton that I did in it, which was a shame, because that was one of the top things I wanted to practise. But I got to practise some other things and I always learn something new, both about racing and about myself; all in pretty awful Danish Summer weather. I had never in my life pictured that I would go as far as feeling embarrassment riding a yellow jersey; that was new on my learning curve. To be fair to myself though, there were more riders in my classification than there were space for on the podium. I didn’t get that jersey without having to fight. It was at the times where I could easily have let go, but chose to keep fighting, that I made my gains. They paid off; enough to earn the yellow jersey for two stages. And at the end of the final stage, I happily handed over that jersey to the rider who deserved it more than me, the better rider on hills, the German gentleman over 60 years old, who fought his way back to the top from a crash. Glückwunsch. Well deserved.
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