Editor's Note: Just how difficult is it to make the U.S. Olympic team? Does it require a lifetime of training and devotion? Would an average person with an athletic background have any shot at all?
E-ticket will find out the answers over the next two years. We've tapped Kathryn Bertine, a former ice skater, professional triathlete and accomplished author, to see whether she can somehow find her way to Beijing in 2008. She's settled on road cycling as the sport with her best chance to make the team.
Over the past 3½ days, I consumed the following foods:
2 large Domino's pizzas (Hawaiian)
4 Belgian waffles with syrup
3 bowls of oatmeal
1 Sara Lee banana nut muffin
4 Trader Joe's Thai peanut noodle bowls
2 La Salsa burritos
2 giant squares of lasagna
1 bowl of the pasta that looks like little seashells and is quite difficult to stab with a fork
½ jar of chunky peanut butter
27 peanut butter-filled pretzel nubbins
1 Caesar salad with Brutus-sized croutons
1 giant slice of garlic bread slathered with butter
1 buffalo burger
1 plate of fries cooked in duck fat
4 Clif bars (two maple nut, two blueberry crisp)
15 Carb-BOOM energy gels (chocolate cherry, caffeinated)
8 packets of Sport Beans (seven fruit punch, one orange)
8 salt tablets
12 bottles of Cytomax sports drink (apple berry)
4 gallons of water
I am officially one carbohydrate away from checking into a mental institution. While it may appear I've chosen sumo wrestling as my Olympic focus, the catalyst for this mass food consumption is road cycling, specifically for the Tour of the Gila road race in Silver City, N.M., where I'm spending five days racing more than 260 miles against some of the best female cyclists in the world. The objective of this sufferfest? To prepare for the national championships in July.
I'd heard the Tour of the Gila was tough, but somehow the pink entry form and the cute little cartoonish logos led me to believe otherwise. But five days' worth of climbing 15,000 feet, often at a 5 percent grade, quickly revealed the truth: Cartoons are evil. As is pink. I consumed more than 5,000 calories a day while trying to replenish the ones burned (we're talking three 75-mile stages, one 16-mile time trial and a 27-mile criterium race). Unfortunately, it turns out that 5,000 calories were not enough as I still lost three pounds while stuffing my face. Not a night went by that I wasn't awakened by hunger at 3 a.m. and forced to swallow spoonfuls of peanut butter to get me through until breakfast.
Culturally acceptable: I know a woman who
Jimmyism: "There's this chick ..."
Culturally acceptable: I prefer a woman with a natural anatomy.
Jimmyism: "I hate fake t---. They don't look right, man."
Culturally acceptable: Some cyclists have more body hair than others.
Jimmyism: "That guy has the ass of a Sasquatch."
Culturally acceptable: You are sure to experience some good competition at the national time trial championships, Kathryn, so we must prepare accordingly.
Jimmyism: "We gotta stomp on it, man, some a' them bitches can throw it down."
Yet I've entrusted my growth as a cyclist to this man. And good things have come of it. The final piece in my Olympic training puzzle: knowledge. How exactly does one get to the Olympic trials in cycling? Jimmy and I sat down and checked out the extremely dry, 26-page manifesto of Olympic cycling eligibility. Due to the confusing and slightly disheartening material, I believe the vernacular of Dick and Jane (and Jimmy) will best help me to explain our findings.
See Jane want to be an Olympic cyclist.
"Go, Jane, go!" says Dick (that would be my No. 1 imaginary fan).
"Hell, yeah!" says Jimmy.
See Jane smile. "How do I get to the Olympics, Coach Jimmy?" asks Jane.
"Dude, says here that USA Cycling picks their Olympic chicks from their Olympic Long Team, which is a group of eight freakin' strong chicks that are like previous f---ing champions and stuff," says Jimmy. "Then after they choose the eight women, they narrow it down to three just before the Games."
See Jane worry. "How do I get onto the eight-person Olympic Long Team?" asks Jane.
"Two ways, but the first way you don't have a chance," says Jimmy.
"Golly!" says Dick.
"OK, so five of the eight Long Team slots go to the top five USA pro cyclists who have the most UCI points which are gained when cyclists race in specific, internationally sanctioned events. Jane, being new to cycling and as an amateur, you don't have any f---ing points," says Jimmy. "You're just a Category 4, a beginner. Before you turn pro, you have to get enough points as a Cat 4, then Cat 3, then Cat 2 and then if you're lucky, you're picked up by a kick-ass team and you're good enough to turn pro/Cat 1. That takes a long f---ing time, man. Years, usually. As for the three remaining Long Team spots, s---, you would have to place top three at the World Championships in Germany, in the fall of 2007."
See Jane pout.
"Go, Jane, Go?" wonders Dick.
"Well then, Coach Jimmy, how do I get to the World Championships?" asks Jane.
"By winning the National Championships in Pennsylvania in July. Of 2007. Like, a few f---ing months from now."
See Dick wince.
See Jane's upper lip tremble.
"How do I get to the National Championships?" asks Jane.
"By qualifying as a Category 2 cyclist."
"How do I get to be Category 2 cyclist?" asks Jane.
"By freakin' racing every f---ing weekend for the next five months and getting enough wins and points to go from Category 4 to Category 2 which usually takes people three to five years," says Jimmy.
"You're screwed, Jane!" says Dick.
See Jane cry.
Through December and January, I cycled six days a week, alone or in a group, up mountains, through valleys and deserts. I lifted weights every other day, and practiced my rather inflexible version of yoga. Jimmy taught me how to calculate wattage and power output, how to sprint, draft, attack and be patient (by far the most difficult race strategy, at least for me). I went to bed early, ate well, hydrated well and did everything Jimmy told me it would take to stay strong, healthy and focused. Not to mention physically and mentally exhausted.
Pretty typical stuff for anyone who takes a sport seriously. But somewhere in the midst of it all, I made a few self-discoveries. Remember that proverbial Goody Two-shoes girl in high school that got good grades, didn't smoke, didn't drink, didn't party, didn't you-know-what, and didn't quite fit in? I remember her a little too well. All that teenage repression manifested itself in the strangest way. I like speed. No, not that kind. I mean I like to go really, really fast. At least by bicycle standards.
I find utter peace and euphoria when I'm screaming downhill on a bike going more than 40 mph knowing that my life hangs in the balance of an unseen pavement crack. I get a rush knowing a rogue acorn could end my existence.
I also have discovered I have something of an anger problem. Sometimes I just ride along, cursing. Tourette's on wheels. I'm not sure why. I have a great job, a big dream, a wonderful boyfriend, a roof over my head and life is generally swell. But here I am, pedaling along with my good friend the f-bomb. Clearly I have some deep-seeded issues. Yet I hope never to solve them. I like the f-bomb!
Plus, speed/adrenaline makes me utterly brilliant (only when riding; off the bike, it's right back to athleticoma). I have invented life-changing gadgets and written amendments to the Constitution while out on a six-hour ride. For example, I've decreed that all members of Congress, the president of the United States and his cabinet should be required to get on a treadmill or stationary bike for 30 minutes before passing any new law or declaring any war. Let that pesky testosterone settle down a bit. They should have this exercise equipment lined up right there in those hoity-toity wood-paneled chambers. I've also invented a new reality TV show called "Turn It Off," in which 10 reality TV show producers are placed on an iceberg with a female polar bear and its awfully curious cub. The last producer standing wins a prize, but I'm not sure what yet. Maybe an Oldsmobile. Or a trip to Acapulco. It'll be f---ing cool, though. And in an effort to find a fuel-efficient, ozone-friendly method of public transportation, I am working on a secret machine that is part ski lift and part Black Hawk helicopter. It's called the Chairhawk, and it runs on an ethanol derived from junk mail and
BAM! I crash into my training partner's wheel at a stop sign and fall over. A few f-bombs and I'm OK. Better than the time I was hit by a car and went all Starsky and Hutch over the hood. That hurt for a few days.
Clearly, I'm ready to race.
Yet something strange happened.
By two minutes. Which is not a small margin in cycling.
Of course, these were all fellow beginners; it's not like I was pitted against Lance Armstrong.
Then I raced Valley of the Sun, a three-day stage race in Phoenix consisting of a time trial, a road race and a criterium, which is kind of like a near-death cycling experience (a short loop consisting of lots of speed, lots of corners, lots of women who have no problem throwing elbows). Somehow, I won again. Weird!
Then came the Copper Valley Stage Race. After winning the time trial, I got to wear the leader's jersey, which I thought would feel like an honor and a privilege. Not so. Wearing that damn shirt is more like being dunked in soda and shoved in a beehive. Everyone's out to get you, and if you don't have any teammates to help with drafting, chasing and setting the pace, then the leader's jersey means you're in for a world of hurt. The other women will do what it takes to wear you out, cut you off and steer you toward potholes. Cycling, the original roller derby.
See, cycling likes to give the impression it is an individual sport. It isn't. I didn't really get that when I told ESPN I would pursue cycling toward the Beijing Games. I asked ESPN to buy me a bicycle. I should have asked them to buy me six teammates, preferably large-thighed women with triple-digit VO2 maximums. Instead, I got bees. And lots of them. Cycling also calls for intelligence. While I never considered cycling to be physically easy, I did think it was, at its most basic, a simple concept. Sit on a bike and pedal. Train hard, pedal faster. Pedal faster, win races. Win the right races, go to the Olympics. I didn't think there would be so much to learn. And learning is especially hard when you're constantly in the mind-numbing stupor of athleticoma.
As it turns out, the race isn't always won by the fastest but by the smartest, which obviously leaves me at a disadvantage. In triathlon, the biking theory is to go as hard as you can from Point A to Point B. In road cycling, there are tactics. You have to know when to sprint, attack, hold back, lead or follow, and one tiny miscalculation could end any hope of a win. Cycling is like a sweaty version of chess. I was never good at chess. Small figurines creeped me out, especially the pawn. What the hell's a pawn, anyway? And why is it always shaped like an earplug? But I digress. Deceptive sport, cycling. Yet, by the end of March, some basic tactics began to sink in.
In addition to winning a nifty trophy at Copper Valley, I won $30 in prize money. (That's three large pizzas!) Even better, I had scored enough points to move up to Category 3.
Then came the Tumacacori Road Race and the Tucson Bicycle Classic. Could it be? No way. Two wins. Somehow, I gained enough points in 10 weeks to get my Category 2 license
which meant I had qualified for the national championships in July.
And to prepare properly, I found myself consuming entire grocery stores at some of the hardest races in the country.
So there we are. I am headed to Seven Springs, Pa., on July 13 (a Friday, of course) to take my shot at the 30K time trial and the 92K road race national championships. No teammates, no ranking, no laurels, no fame. Six months from when I started training for road cycling, I have the same things I started with: a bike, a coach, a plan and a pocketful of jelly beans.
Maybe that's enough.
Maybe it isn't.
I'll have to win nationals against a field of the best professional riders in the United States which would qualify me for worlds, in which I'd then have to medal to be considered as a solid "maybe" for Olympic contention.
These are long shots, which do not favor me, which bring doubt, which, in turn, motivates me.
This is my Olympic Trials, Part 1. Although the process of qualifying for the Olympics in cycling is complicated, multitiered and ultimately subjective, there is comfort knowing I have earned the right to race among the best. These longtime pros and seasoned veterans will have more experience, skill and savvy. Yet when we all roll up to the starting line in July, I get to have the very same thing as every other athlete there: a chance.
See Jane try.
Next episode: THE race.
Kathryn Bertine is sponsored by Team Sport Beans/NTTC, Trisports.com, and Trek bicycles. Send her your thoughts at ESPNolympian@aol.com. She'll respond to readers' e-mails in an upcoming installment.