April 23, 2006 – Most of the world is familiar with Palo Alto, California either by flagships like Stanford University or as the center of the VC (venture capitalist) world. Both pillars of ambition continue attracting deep pools of talents. However, another gold rush has been thriving there recently and is flourishing today. It’s not surprising with a city famous for more parks per square foot than any other in California along with its (normally) balmy weather and lulling but steep green hills, this is also the center of America’s cycling Mecca. The Bay Area at large no doubt also houses arguably the deepest reserves of female pro cyclists – former, current and future – on the planet today.
In the cream of the Bay Area’s crop is Nicole Freedman, 2-time U.S. National Champion, former member of the U.S. Olympic team, and the clinic’s main instructor. Freedman’s a small powerhouse coupled with a husky voice and accessible sense of humor. Her colleague, Brooke Kuhn, who organizes the clinics, was kind enough to invite me to this popular bi-annual cycling cyclone of talent; and despite my lack of credentials (male), the others were fine to permit me to shoot and tag along with this peloton of 20-odd females ranging from 13-43-years old. The only other males in attendance were Mike, a Health Net team doctor helping out with strategies and technical aspects like hill-climbing and pedal stroking, and Jeff, doubling as friendly food/wheel supply honcho and pace car driver.
After downing healthy Cali-carbos (thanks to Galaxy Granola & it’s cycling team), salads and sandwiches, the cyclists packed Luna bars and listened to the experienced journey-woman, Jacqui, explaining the essentials of packing for any emergency on the road. Her chocolate brown wool sleeves may have been considered old school at first glance, but as she confirmed, “wool repels water better than lycra and keeps you warmer”. Then they all hit the wet roads west for the first taste of hills right above the corner of the notorious nexus of hellish hills vs. fun and flat sprinting: Page Mill Road & Junipero Serra Blvd.
Another volunteer, Elis, who rides with Oakland’s Mellomint club, like a good shepherd stayed behind us strays, imparting her humorous nuggets of wisdom and making anyone forget they were about to be whipped into shape. And this public whipping took three stages:
Stage 1 (Attacking on hills): After Mike and Jacqui gave their ying-yang approaches of attacking on hills, each cyclist was then unleashed up a quarter mile sloping ascent on an impossibly beautiful road with horses flanking them. While Nicole demonstrated the bad and correct forms of climbing out of the saddle, she also gave them reasons why they shouldn’t look like hunter dogs pointing their bodies too far over the handlebars, and where their weight should be directed for optimal results.
Stage 2 (Intervals and hills): After the warm up on ‘horse hill’ the peloton continued up Page Mill Road, then veering off the main road to test their legs with short curvy hill intervals in and out of the saddle keeping proper form in mind. Strange but true, they all seemed to be enjoying this! I could see many of them transforming previously bad form into their newly-acquired skills, and get this, actually smiling uphill! That’s what happened repeatedly in this clinic under Nicole’s funny yet professional scrutinous eye and personal feedback. I was also realizing that I need this clinic as much as any of them. The last hill run was the widow maker, straight up the legendary switchbacks of Page Mill Road for 2 miles (where in previous years Lance Armstrong has been spotted while training intervals), and afterwards with a minutes apart split, surging downhill to regroup for their last dance.
Stage 3 (Sprints): This may have been the toughest part of the program with the rain kicking in and the split peloton rushing over the narrow bridge overlooking the 101 freeway, ending up miles away from camp behind the virtually vacant Google campus. After a brief car-side carbo chowdown after those hills, Nicole gave the riders free rein to test themselves in the flats, sprinting in the rain individually past her while shouting out encouragements and tips. Here is where the lone Canuck, Janet Brown shone. Interestingly, this is her second straight year at the BAW clinic, and unlike most others, Janet wasn’t coming just for pro racing tips-and in fact, she didn’t initially pick up a bike to compete. Until today, her claim to fame was riding to work and just about everywhere she had to through Canadian winters. Even her longest ride last summer from Prague to Vienna must have been a cake walk compared to suffering up north. Janet told me that it has been only since moving here three years ago that riding a bike became something more for her than getting to work or school – all her life it was for recreation. Moreover, in her words “this clinic has really made a difference on how I view cycling. I thought road cyclists were part of an elite sport that I didn’t see myself part of. These clinics really made cycling more accessible to me and made me more energized about improving my bike handling skills and test them out in the Oakland hills” (note from my own experience: the Oakland hills are STEEP walls of pain).
The other minority within the majority: Most of the peloton wore team/club jerseys (with previous training/clinics behind them) riding sweet chariots far beyond the normal bike clinic budget- $1-3k bikes were the norm here. However, two standouts in the field were also the least experienced: 13-year-young Maria, by far the youngest potential road racer with bandy long legs and stealth pedal strokes will someday soon be spelling trouble for her age group competitors; and Natalia Slastina, 25, my Siberian amiga, who rode a borrowed mountain bike with no clip-in pedals or real experience, and nevertheless rode equipped with a huge smile and strong pair of gams from power-hiking. Natalia had no idea that the calibre of cyclists would be so high (and it didn’t faze her a bit) willing to get on a bike with the pros and soak up what she could (telling me afterwards she now wants to join a cycling club). I suspect Natalia will also become a force to be recogned with as her small compact frame complements her tough will. Bravo to both bella velo-ettes!
Nicole and her assistants wrapped up the clinic matching up sprinters so that they could compete against each other to feel that lung and leg burn during mock-competition, then a relaxed ride back to base camp (Lucie Stern community Center) for a final round-robin Q & A. session. But before the clinic finished, Jacqui had one more piece of valuable info to impart to whoever was game: How to stay upright and clipped in during a red light-a feat not easily mastered.
A Northern note to the Canuck chix: Since you couldn’t make it down this time (though you CAN come this Fall if you’re jonsing for warm Cali-cycling-and bring your younger sister/daughter!) perhaps you’ll want to cull some gems from this top notch clinic and use it to start a clinic or race series for your girls/women. I’m sure BAWcycling.com would love to see more cycling Canucks in the field than Janet!
For further info Check out <http://bawcycling.com/clinic.html>