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.
I wasn’t even meant to take part. I had registered before the deadline to leave the option of participation open. But I had failed to read the rule book of the Danish Cycling Federation and therefore I was oblivious to the paragraph of ‘binding registration’. I decided against participation even before leaving Dubai and after extensive research, when I discovered the practical, logistical and financial efforts and implications of bringing two bikes from the Middle East to a faraway place in Jutland, Denmark, on a solo journey. I accepted and decided against it. And also I have only really started training more specifically on the TT bike four months ago, along with participation in only three ITT events locally during this time. I took off happily from Dubai with my road bike only.
I learnt about the rules of the ‘binding registration’ as well as the extortionate cancellation fee only 48 hours before the start of the ITT event. To be fair, the rules and regulations are there for a reason and I do take full responsibility for not reading them before submitting my registration. Done is done and I accept the consequences. Luckily the consequences were no worse than I was pretty much forced to take part in the ITT Nationals 2017. It could have been a lot worse really.
I considered my options carefully:
1) Roll down the ramp on my road bike, and then exit the course, accepting a DNF.
2) Perform a personal test on my road bike on the ITT course, and finish most likely as the only rider on a road bike and with a potentially ‘embarrassing time’.
3) Perform some sort of max power test, and then exit the course before the finish line, accepting a DNF and avoiding an ‘embarrassing time’.
4) Get hold of a TT bike? (not an easy task this close to the event)
Not yet having made a final decision 24 hours before ‘my start time’, miraculously my friend Svend appeared with an offer to compete on his TT bike. “Take my bike! I am there anyway acting as support for one of the girls. I’ll bring everything for you”, Svend almost demanded, “I have seen all the training you have done. You’ve got this”. The stars somehow aligned.
At the race destination, I met with Svend 2 hours before my start time. Svend pulled out his tool box and adjusted his bike set up as close as possible to my own bike measurements. Not one measurement was correct. But all were within a few centimeters deviation and as I made an easy roll on the bike to collect my start number and back again with a plastic bag in one hand, I decided “yes, it’s going to be okay, it fits okay for 28km”.
I changed back to my road bike and warmed up on the turbo trainer (supplied by Svend). I didn’t ride the TT bike again before I jumped onto it on the start ramp.
For those of you who do bike racing, you know it’s not an easy task to do alone: drive to destination, find your way, find parking in town via roads that are already closed off, and collect race number in one area and timing chip in another. Go to the loo (at least 3 times), change clothes, set up bike, find tools, buy water, get all stuff organised, eat and drink the right thing at the right time, don’t get too hot, don’t get too cold, warm up (not too early and not too late), stay warm and hydrated on the start line, but don’t carry too much stuff…. Clear the mind and get focused on the task ahead….; the list goes on, and it’s almost impossible to handle this solo and at the same time be fully focused, stress free and perfectly warm for the competition. I have been in this situation countless of times before when travelling alone for competitions. And every time when I have jumped on my bike stressed or cold, I have asked myself the same question: “Why? Why are you putting yourself through this?”.
And here I was again! On all borrowed equipment, set up right before the start of a small event called the Nationals, a competition between the best in the country.
With huge thanks to both Svend and my dear mother, who offered their support from their big hearts, I even managed to fit in a 30 mins warm up on the turbo trainer. Svend supplied the equipment, while my mother unofficially accepted the role as my race assistant. “Mum, I’m running out of water, can you please find some more. Mum, can you please find some tape or cable ties to fit my timing chip. Mum, can you please pull out my vaseline in the right pocket of my sports bag. Mum, can you please add electrolytes to my water bottle. Mum… Mum… Mum… Please… Please… Please…“. Bless my mum. It was her first time being support at a race and I was literally dishing out orders to a clueless helper, while turning my legs on the turbo trainer. It was either that – or start the ITT cold. I cannot thank my mother or Svend enough for their flexibility, patience and generosity.
On another positive note and under the circumstances I was probably the calmest I have been in a long time. No one had any expectations of me. But more importantly, I didn’t have any expectations of myself either. I was out swimming with the big fish, against all odds. The best I could do, was to give the best of myself, on someone else’s equipment. I came into the competition expecting to place last. I would be very happy if I achieved 2nd from the bottom. Let’s not forget I was lining up with the best in the country, incl. 7 World Tour riders.
To be honest, I hadn’t even looked at the route in detail (just to make it clear, I would never consider not studying the route under more controlled and competitive circumstances). I heard it was flat with 22 turns. Okay, let’s go! As there was no power meter on the bike, I just received one last minute advice from my faraway coach: “Don’t go too hard in the beginning – and then use your heart rate as a monitor”. I rolled down the ramp and maneuvered out of town behind my personal marshal motor bike. “Don’t go too hard!”… But what does that actually mean? How do you control that ‘feeling’, when you are supposed to give your all, over ca. 45 mins; you have fresh legs and the adrenaline is pumping? I wasn’t sure to be honest. I wasn’t sure of the exact feeling. But I knew I didn’t want to give ‘too little’. I lack experience of my self-awareness.
Just to make you aware that 22 turns, is 22 turns more than what we have on our UAE tracks; NAS, Al Qudra and Al Wathba, where we have zero turns. At home we put the hammer down from start to finish, that’s it. Get measured on raw power. I am not entirely sure how to turn a TT bike efficiently and safely. Again, I lack experience. I decided to take the same line as the motor bike in front of me through every turn. And I decided it would not be worth taking any risks and potentially causing damage to myself or my borrowed equipment. After ca. 10K, I realized and I had to accept that after all I had started too hard. Everything hurt and I was forced to take it down a notch. At this time I was on a long straight, but I only discovered I was on a long straight when I was far enough into it, to realize it was a long straight (lack of preparation). It was quite hard to swallow that I didn’t have full power down the straight (it wouldn’t necessarily make much of a difference to the bottom of the results list, but it would make a difference to my personal performance, judgement of effort and certainly confidence). I was overtaken too. In the UAE I haven’t yet been overtaken (by women). I was totally prepared to get overtaken going into this competition however, but I didn’t know how it would feel, until it happened. I definitely spent some time (and maybe also energy), seconds or minutes, I can’t remember, to deal with it mentally and emotionally. Also around the 10km mark, both my feet started to cramp, like serious pain in both my feet. I had simply tightened my shoes too hard. I don’t know what I was thinking when I was standing in line to the ramp. I always tighten my shoes before I take on a sprint for the finish line. Subconsciously, I tightened my shoes before jumping on the bike. Tight shoes for the best performance. Big mistake. The pain was almost unbearable. I spent a considerable amount of time weighing the two options: 1) loosen both shoes (consequence: a significant drop in speed and momentum) or 2) suck it up and continue riding in pain. I chose the first option as I was coming out of a turn and reached down on both sides. The shoe strings didn’t at all loosen enough. And I still took the loss of speed and momentum. Ah dammit. I’ll have to suck it up then. It’s not an unfamiliar feeling at all. In the Summer heat of Dubai riding dehydrated in 40+ degrees celcius, my feet cramp on a weekly basis. I had to continuously wiggle my toes for the rest of the ITT. Around 20K and 2/3 into the course, I decided to start picking back up again, hurt more and drive my heart rate higher. There was more technical navigation and another long straight along the way. I did the best I could until the finish line. As I came to a stop, I could hardly unclip from the pain in my feet and I had to take a few minutes on the side, before getting a normal feeling back in the feet and being able to walk again. Quite frankly, I had no idea how I performed. Without a power meter it’s also hard to tell. I wasn’t particularly bothered about the final result, in terms of ranking. If I could have had any form of ‘result’ I would have chosen to see my power profile.
As expected I finished last. Number 20 (of 23 starters and 20 finishers). But you know what? It was not a bad time at all! Under the circumstances, I am quite proud to say I am in the top 20 best time trialists in Denmark in 2017! And I am still in possession of US$ 300 (which would have been the penalty fee for cancelling) minus the penalty for the, also borrowed, non-club kit at US$ 45.
The icing on the cake, was after the event when I caught up with the rider (placing 2nd last) and her coach. Their positive attitude, laughter and healthy delight of beating my time and not placing last in the Nationals, really, it was priceless. Just for that enjoyment factor, I was happy to take the bottom spot in the ranks.
After completing ITT Nationals under these circumstances, again I tell myself “No more of this Helle. Come prepared, with the appropriate support and equipment – or stay away”. On the other hand, with the time and effort I put into my cycling, I am equally intrigued to witness what I am actually capable off, under the right circumstances.
Will I return next year? Right now I am thinking: “Probably not for the Elite Nationals. Definitely for the Masters Nationals! (if I can bring my own bike along)”. But I have a habit of throwing myself in the deep end. So who knows.
The day after, Svend earned his title as National Champion Para ITT.
Nothing won, nothing lost… But always an experience richer 🙂
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