California was a compromise that my spouse and I found mutually acceptable. I wanted out of Canada, and she could get a job at Stanford. I had quit riding when we moved to Toronto in 1998 and started up again after we moved to California. My involvement in the large Northern California racing scene is what eventually led me to Shelley Olds, Megan Guarnier, and Beth Newell.
After the London Olympics I decided to try filming and interviewing these determined cyclists to gain insight into their drive and motivation. I made a leap that each woman would aim for the 2016 Olympics in Rio and was intrigued by their varied and idiosyncratic journeys.
While each woman’s profile has similarities they could not be more different. Shelley Olds (35) played soccer for Roanoke College and showed early promise across several cycling disciplines including road, track and cyclocross. Olds is the most at home being a professional athlete and cycling exists more as a vocation than a job for her. Beth Newell (34) ran in college and started riding as a way to get to work. Newell rose to local notoriety as a key member of the Hellyer Velodrome community with a funny, self-effacing blog, and quickly growing list of results. Megan Guarnier (31) also competed as an athlete in college until sidelined by an injury. Guarnier showed early promise as a sprinter with success on both the track and in criteriums. Her intense, steady approach to racing is reminiscent of other Bay Area Olympians like Karen Brems and Christine Thorburn.
When I arrived in California I joined a local club called Alto Velo, which also supported a professional men’s team and elite/pro women’s team. The club had zero social and volunteer commitments to join so it fit me perfectly.
At the time I joined Alto Velo the top women’s rider in the club was Christine Thorburn, a former collegiate runner who was finishing up a medical degree at Stanford. Thorburn was doggedly pursuing an Olympic spot with the help of Karen Brems, her husband Ted Huang, and a host of other club members. Thorburn made the team with an emphatic victory at the US National Individual Time Trial Championship.
Several months after the 2004 Olympics Thorburn wrote an email to the club listserv about her path to the Athens games. She outlined the general plan and tactics she followed that ultimately resulted in a time trial spot in Athens. It helped that Thorburn, a self described type-A personality, did not spare any detail in her explanation. Thorburn covered a wide range of topics including her underdog status, time trial and road race tactics, bike fitting, bike testing, race selection, training strategies, selection arbitration, the psychological impact of the whole process. It was a detailed, technical process that required a team of volunteers across the country.
Her selection was not without controversy. Kristin Armstrong, who had been racing strongly in Europe, was also in contention for one of two time trial spots, but the position was awarded to Thorburn who had won the US ITT Championship. Armstrong contested the discretionary selection based on her interpretation of the selection criteria. The arbitration was set for several days ahead of the road race in Athens. Armstrong ultimately dropped the case, ceding the spot to Thorburn who finished fourth in the Olympic time trial, 20 seconds out of third place.
Thorburn retired, but Armstrong continued racing. The experience deeply affected Armstrong, and she would never again leaver her team selection in doubt. Armstrong went on to qualify for both the Beijing and London Olympics winning two consecutive gold medals.
I started to write for NorCal Cycling News (NCCN) in 2008 and focused primarily on riders living and racing in the Bay area. The area was, and still is, a cycling Mecca with dozens of group rides and thousands of cyclists. The area was rich with talent and teams. It is the home of industry giants like Specialized, Bell, Giro, Fox, Santa Cruz Bikes, Ritchey and Strava. Access to races, equipment and coaching made it easier for riders like Brems and Thorburn to cultivate their talent. New riders were coming out of NorCal every year, and a handful were becoming dominant figures nationally, and internationally.
I had covered Megan Guarnier, Shelley Olds, and Beth Newell on the local circuit for NCCN. None were California natives but all three had competed in collegiate sports programs, and later moved to California for work and personal reasons. Each one had taken up cycling for very different reasons but quickly found that their talent could take them beyond the local racing scene. By 2012 Guarnier and Olds were both on the short team for the Olympics, and Beth Newell had won her first track national championship.
I had always felt that Northern California was like an independent country when it came to cycling. Only a handful of places in the country could crank out the same level of talent as Northern California. The depth and variety of talent from my adopted home produced some of the best cyclists in the world. I had ridden with Guarnier, Olds, and Newell either on group rides or in races at Hellyer Velodrome in San Jose, CA. By sheer proximity I was able to get a view of their personalities that made their success both obvious, and sometimes surprising.
Not often is one able to get to know an athlete as they discover their own talent. I was never close in ability to any of these women but I was afforded an opportunity to see how they trained, lived and raced. I can still visualize Guarnier climbing up Tunitas Creek road, Olds bridging an attack at Hellyer, or Newell watching for a move during a points race. This wasn’t like watching Michael Jordan or Venus Williams from a distance. Cycling's intimacy and ability to share experiences binds the sports stars with the tifosi in a unique way.
The first thing I noticed about Guarnier when I rode with her several years ago was her laugh. It was generous, deep, and loud. To this day I think of it as “booming.” She applied it to her self conscious reflections on her own behavior as well as random jokes from those on the ride. It was offset by her ability to quickly shift gears when asked a serious question. Guarnier likes direct questions and clarity. Ambiguity does not suit her.
The way she’d focus in on a question reminded me of an eagle I once saw in an urban setting. It seemed nervous sitting at the top of a pole or building on El Camino Real in Menlo Park, CA. I wanted a closer look and as I got closer I realized it was watching a pigeon it had brought down. I crossed some invisible barrier and all of a sudden the bird fixed me with an attentive stare. The eagle's vigilance was the tightly wound bearing of a predator. It changed gears in and out of focus so quickly that the shift in focus itself what was most disturbing.
Guarnier dreamed of going to the Olympics as a child first as a skier and then as a swimmer. She excelled in the pool and swam competitively first in high school and then at college. She swam for 13 years but while attending Middlebury College in Vermont the increasing demands of swim workouts and injury rehabilitation began to take a toll on her academic goals.
“At one point I had to take a step back and say ‘Look, I’m not at college to swim, I’m at college to get an education.’” Guarnier said. “So I had to make the tough decision to retire from swimming when that was my identity. I was a swimmer. For as long as I could remember I was a swimmer, and to take that part of my identity away was challenging. But it did open new doors for me."
With swimming behind her, but her desire to compete intact, Guarnier decided to pursue triathlons. She started a new training program and eventually a friend in her dorm at Middlebury encouraged her to attend to a bike race.
“I went to a bike race and I never really looked back at triathlons,” Guarnier said. She had found a new path.
Guarnier began to pursue it after she graduated while she worked a day job at an engineering firm in Northern California crunching numbers while working in probabilistic risk assessment.
Other athletes graduate from college and then drift into cycling as a way to fuel their competitive spirit. Professional athletic opportunities after college are rare for women and usually not lucrative. Shelley Olds graduated from Roanoke College, where she had been captain of the soccer team, and struggled with what was next. Olds began to work a series of entry level jobs, first as a physical therapy aide and then in an administrative position at Kaiser, but the 9-5 grind never felt right.
"When I started working full time when I got out of college, I knew that I wasn't doing what I was meant to do,” Olds said. "I knew when I finished soccer that it was a really low point for me. I kind of was lost, ‘What am I going to do; I need [athletics] back in my life.’
“Luckily I found cycling which is better than I ever could imagine as far as sport goes because it's so dynamic and you can be so versatile. I know I'm athlete at heart. That's what drives me and that's why I'm happy every day now because I'm doing what I love to do."
Olds started riding in 2005 and, at the urging of a friend, took out a racing license. She excelled at a variety of disciplines; cyclocross, road and the track. Olds began to focus on track racing and by 2008 was competing at UCI World Cups around the globe. Olds began to seriously pursue an Olympic track spot with the help of Nicola Cranmer, the founder of the Proman Cycling team - an early incarnation of the current UCI program Twenty16-Ridebiker Alliance.
Olds specialized in the points race, a tactical mass start event that requires speed, endurance and a gambler's winning instinct. She possessed the speed and innate sense of how to read a race.
I raced against Olds at Hellyer Velodrome where she would enter the men’s races while preparing for the World Cup circuit. She was quick, focused and possessed a finely honed race sense. I am not a particularly strong rider, so I try to learn by following riders who can read the ebb and flow of a race. They are the riders that are always in the right move, use a small amount of energy to make a big impact, and always have a result. I remember watching her and thinking, ‘If I want to learn how to race, this is a rider to follow.’ She wasn’t overwhelming the field with her power or speed. Her talent was instinctive vs. obvious. She was like a shark - dominant, yet unseen and invisible until she attacked.
Olds appeared to be on schedule for the Olympics after winning several national track championships and World Cup medals. Then the UCI changed the Olympic track format, removing the points race, and leaving only the Pursuit and Omnium available for women endurance riders. Olds saw the writing on the wall and switched to full-time road racing.
Her road career was just as successful. She racked up several big domestic wins and in 2012 won the Tour of Chongming Island World Cup. The win helped earn her a spot on the 2012 London Olympic team where she finished 7th in the road race after flatting out of the winning breakaway.
Olds had made the Olympic team. She had been in contention for a medal. For some people these achievements might be enough but not for Olds. To be so close and miss can be worse than not being there at all, especially for an athlete as competitive as Olds. Can any athlete that is talented and driven enough to make it to the Olympics have a reasonable view of achievement or does the bar of success just continue to rise in a never-ending ladder?
“The Olympics has always been the backdrop for everything for me,” Olds said. “It's the ultimate thing for an athlete to do and especially in cycling as it is now.”
Like Olds, Beth (Newell) Hernandez is also a product of Hellyer Velodrome. In some ways she is the most unlikely of the three women to be an Olympic candidate. Newell ran track and cross country in college, but was focused on her career when she moved to the Bay area with AmeriCorps in 2005. Newell did not start riding to rehab and injury or fuel an unquenched competitive fire. She started riding as a way to get to work. At first, cycling meant transportation and not sport.
The story of her first bike is legendary. After moving to California for her AmeriCorps job Newell’s car died unexpectedly. The 22 year old college grad was low on money and needed to get to work. She put her Midwestern can-do attitude to work and scrounged an abandoned bike out of a dumpster. Newell hadn’t learned to ride a bike as a child so she quickly taught herself, gave up on the car, and started riding to work every day. The story was immortalized in the East Bay Express.
Newell began to ride more with different groups in the East Bay and eventually found her way to Hellyer Velodrome where she began her racing career. She wrote about her racing exploits in a blog, covering the culture and aesthetics of racing in a velodrome as if she were a self effacing anthropologist. Her opening to a post about discovering chamois cream succinctly conveys the confusion and horror that can be involved in getting started racing.
The blog was funny, direct, insightful, and filled with humility. It masked her potential as a rider and which progressively became more obvious. She made national news in 2011 after winning the Omnium and Points US National Championship races. Her achievements did not get her on the short list of contenders for a spot at the 2012 London Olympics but it did land her a job on the Now-Novartis professional cycling team.
The blog posts slowed down and Newell's focus on racing increased. Then, in 2013, she medaled on the track at both the Pan-American Championships and the Manchester World Cup. Newell’s journey towards a possible Olympic spot was just getting started.
There are few ties between these riders. Guarnier, Olds and Newell know each other in passing. Their racing styles and skills are drastically different. Olds now lives in Spain, Guarnier spends her time traveling between Europe, New York, and California, while Newell is still in Oakland. Their connection to Northern California loosely binds them together but I see a similarity in their re-invention as cyclists and athletic ambitions. They each found something new in cycling, something they didn’t have before, and used it to follow a dream.
I was always aware that being a professional woman athlete required talent, sacrifice and compromise. Three years into this project I began to see that making it to the Olympics would require an additional level of commitment and luck. It required everything a person could give physically, mentally, and emotionally. It required a leap of faith I cannot even begin to describe. Watching the process unfold has been both exciting and painful...and we have yet to reach Rio.