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Life After Cycling Is Like Life After Divorce

Bryn Lennon / Staff

I tell them all:

”Imagine that it’s a divorce.”

I say that because a) it’s sort true, and b) because people generally understand “divorce” decorum... and if they do understand it, then maybe, just maybe, they will be a bit more gentle when they ask me questions.  Cycling and I said our final good-byes at the Rio Olympics last summer so it hasn’t even been a year.  It all still feels a bit raw.

I have my freedom now, which is exactly what I wanted.  It turns out, however, that single life is actually a tough adjustment.  After so many years of devoted habits, it still startles me to realize that Bike Racing won’t be upset if I don’t make it home for 10pm bedtime, or that no one will miss it if I deviate from my fail-safe breakfast every single day.  I’m free, but honestly I often find myself following the same old rules anyhow, afraid of that final signature on our separation papers.  

It is so over, so over, yet somehow I can’t believe it is, we are… over.

I’ve never been great at the actual intimate relationships.  You know, the kind that involve other people.  Maybe riding elbow-to-elbow with a hundred other girls down a mountain descent was enough personal risk for me.  In any case, I do have friends who play with romance (and rebound) and they tell me their stories, and this seems like it’s pretty much the same thing.

Much like you swore that you returned his soft, old t-shirt that is hidden in the bottom of your drawer, I soft-pedal on the degree to which I admit my continued devotion to a morning workout.  You boldly deleted her number from your phone?  Well, tomorrow, I might just spurn oatmeal and flirt with yogurt.

I still look at all the cycling news websites, blithely feigning ignorance if bike news comes up in conversation.  Watching others race up my favorite climbs is probably like seeing him smiling with another girl in a Facebook feed - it’s not supposed to matter, but it does.  

Watching others race up my favorite climbs is like seeing him smiling with another girl

Cycling fans, they remind me I could still make a comeback - “you’re still young!”  I try to explain it delicately, with a smile: “We had learned all we could from one another.  We needed to separate to grow.  We were headed in different directions.”  Sometimes that makes them laugh, which distracts them, and then I change the subject.

This all is why I am scared to ride up Sunshine Canyon.  During my career, many liked to call me the best climber in the world.  Any physiological strength aside,  I considered myself an expert in the architecture of their curves, switchbacks and percent gradients.  I am passionately inspired with the artistry of canyon climbs - and Sunshine was my favorite anywhere in the world.  Some days I would just ride it over and over again because it seemed senseless to go anywhere else.  In 2011 when I burned out emotionally, ran myself out physically, and quit the sport for a year - right there at the end, Sunshine Canyon was the only ride I would do, up and down and up and down again.  

So, Sunshine has seen me on my very worst days, and also my very best.  The last time I rode it was the day that I left for Rio.  I knew intimately, after so many years of honing my physical intelligence - and analyzing it on those very slopes - precisely how strong I was that day.  I felt the power that I had on my bicycle before.  I had the form of my life.  I also knew, as Rio would be my last race, that this was in many ways our goodbye - that I would probably never feel that way again.  I know I’ll return someday, but I’m so scared to face it - the first cup of coffee when the love of your life is suddenly “just a friend”.

They ask me now:

“Is it such a relief?”  

“Do you miss it?”

Usually I don’t cry, because if I learned anything in cycling and my relationship, it was discipline and self-control.  I don’t doubt my decision. It is time to move on and I don’t wish to turn back the clock.  I just never realized separation would be this uncomfortable.

I just never realized separation [from my sport] would be this uncomfortable.

It’s complicated to disentangle assets - as a female cyclist, the financial element is actually quite minimal, yet I am dumbfounded by how tricky it is to unravel emotional attachment.  Think of the months built of weeks, weeks built of days, days built of hours it took to internalize my habits -  it will take time, this repatterning of self.  They tell me that I am still a champion.  My mom says patience can be my new training.  That, I think, is sort of a cheap shot.

Now, falling asleep at night my legs are still, they no longer spontaneously twitch with the memory of recent exertion.  I miss drifting off embraced by a halo of the potential - every day, stepping closer toward unbelievable dreams.  

I will heal.  I believe I will someday find a new, compelling passion.  But for now, sometimes I lie in bed and feel awfully alone.