If home is where you go when you run out of places to be, the bike is my home. I’ve run from a lot of locations, but I always come back to my bicycle.
I was never supposed to be a success. I was never made to stand on a podium, never meant to see the world, certainly never meant to shake the hand of Maria Fernanda Espinosa, the current president of the United Nations General Assembly and to speak before the UN.
I suspect I won’t ever lose the gigantic chip that has wedged itself onto my shoulder. It seems the odds have always been stacked against me, and I like it that way. No matter how far I climb or how successful I become, my motivation has always been as much about proving others wrong as it has been about cultivating a better life.
My bike could fly.
I remember the Christmas morning when my dad gave it to me. There were two feet of snow on the ground. I had a wad of Christmas cash in my right pocket and a fistful of candy in my left. I jumped the curb, and I was free.
Even in the cold and the snow, I had this big-wild smile across my face. I had nowhere to go, nothing to do, no worries. I remember coming home to find my mother standing over a holiday goose with a cigarette dangling from her lips as she yelled at my father to finish getting the house ready for company, and my dad, snapping back with his fists. I remember wishing I could ride forever.
Less than a year later, my father would tell me that we were going to lose our house. I didn’t know what that meant, actually. I was 14. My mom was dying. My infant sister was sick. All I knew was that we were packing up everything we owned.
Most of our possessions couldn’t fit into the tiny space of the Will Roger’s Motel, but I brought my bike, anyway. My dad had moved us six hours west, into a dilapidated structure on the outskirts of town, next door to a massage parlor and a truck stop. I was just trying to go with the flow, trying to be adaptable. The room would get cold from the thread-bare walls, and you could hear everything happening in the neighboring units. I remember the beds because there was no boxspring. It was just a thin mattress on top of a metal frame. You forget about what it’s like to sink into a soft bed at night until you no longer have one. Every time I jump into a nice hotel bed, I take a second to be thankful for the boxspring.
I was flying. The feeling of riding away from that place is hard to put into words. I was never in a hurry. I’d let cars and bikes pass me, turn down random streets, admire little things along the way. My tires were still so new that they had those little hairs on them, and the handlebars still felt tacky under my grip. It was magic.
I wonder now what kept my dad going forward during that time. For all his faults, my father is one of the hardest working people I have ever known. He worked three jobs, hardly sleeping between shifts. He worked as much as he could to get us out of there. He would tell me that “adversity builds character,” and daydream about what would happen when we finally had a home. He talked about planting fruit trees in the back yard, and bookshelves in the living room.
Eventually, we moved from the motel to a beat-up old rental house behind it. The walls and floors were rotting, and there was no heat. We had to try and warm the house using a tiny pellet stove in the living room. Our utilities would get turned off at random. The threads of family had snapped, unraveling over months and years of desperation. Everyone was existing in their own lonely sphere.
I kept riding away. Sometimes, I didn’t return. Nobody achieves success by themselves, and I was lucky enough to find people who would take me in for a night or two. They fed me, gave me a real bed, let me sleep in a place with heat and food and running water.
And then, one afternoon, I came back and the house was empty, except for my room. It’s telling that I didn’t know my dad had bought a home – a double-wide trailer on a lot in the country. I was, by that time, so removed from everyone that I had no idea they were moving. More importantly, they had left me and all my things behind.
I was fifteen. I remember first being afraid. There was no real food left in the pantry, and I had no idea when the landlord would show up and evict me. I had nowhere else to go.
That was the first time in all those years that I stopped riding my bike. Instead, I sat in the middle of the living room all day long, with nothing to do. I slept in a ball on the floor instead of retreating to my bedroom because I was afraid that my dad might come by and not realize I was there, asleep, and he wouldleave me again. As much as I knew they didn’t want me, I wanted them. Or at least, a place to go.
I found that in the Chinn family. Eric was my friend, and his dad was a local detective. Eric’s mom, Janine, was a quiet, gentle woman who has a kind of ease about her. When they realized what was going on in my life, they took me in. At a time when the whole world rejected me, they embraced me. They were strangers who treated me like family. And man, that bed was comfortable.
When I graduated high school, I left…and I never went back. I never saw the Chinn’s again, never returned to that town. I took a job in Washington, DC, and eventually made my way to college paid for, in part, by a cycling scholarship. I stopped even thinking about my family and my past. When people would ask about my history, I told them I didn’t have one.
The last month has been a blur. It began with a trip to New York, to speak before the United Nations in honor of the second annual World Bicycle Day. I walked through the sliding doors with a visitor’s pass, feeling oddly out of place wearing a team jersey in a space filled with flags from all over the world and giant stone structures. I passed through security, and watched as the two team cars made their way through iron gates for inspection. The team VP of Marketing, Fitzalan, took me aside and asked if I was ready. We’d done a brief run-through at breakfast over a bowl of sweet potatoes and poached eggs, but both of us understood the magnitude of giving a speech in this place.
I stood there, shaking in the sun with photographers and teammates at my side, and talked about how the bike haschanged my life and given me a future. It has been my escape, my sense of self, a source of empowerment and opportunity. The sport of cycling has taken me to five continents and to places I never imagined. It has given me family in the form of teammates. The bike elevated my profile as a woman, and taught me persistence.
One particularly tough season, the team released a roster of professional women who were picked to attend training camp in Spain. My name wasn’t on it. I was on a roster of “elite women” who, basically, hadn’t made the cut to race at the highest level. I did what I always do. I watched the other women who hadn’t made it pout about the situation. Some quit altogether. I just went to work, getting better. I was used to having the chips stacked against me, and I knew that if I kept my eye on what I wanted, I would get there. I did, too.
My teammates and I were like little kids when the event finished, walking the UN grounds and snapping pictures and relishing the moment. We made the team mascot pose on bicycles and do push-ups. I struggled to remember regional etiquette as ambassadors from all over the world came up to me. Do I shake his hand? Is it ok for me to touch her? I ran through a list of cultural norms with every interaction.
And then, I hopped a plane to San Francisco for another team event. And a week after that, I flew home to Colorado in just enough time to work as a brand ambassador for Primal Wear at Ride the Rockies. I was driving from town to town supporting the ride and our partners at Flexential and the Davis Phinney Foundation, and doing a bit of riding, too.
To be honest, I was tired. The travel schedule was wearing on me, and I was ready for a break when, driving a big Sprinter van, I hit the outskirts of town and saw the lights of an old motel.
It was no longer the Will Rogers. Now, it is the Blue Pine. It looked just the same. I passed by it and said nothing, but somewhere, I felt my heart break just a little. The woman in the passenger seat and my dear friend, Shelley, saw it, too.
“I used to live there when I was a kid,” I explained. “When my family was homeless, I lived there. I’ve never been back to this town or that place.”
Shelley perked up. She didn’t ask any questions, but quickly demanded we go back. “You should have pictures of your past,” she said.
I circled back and pulled into the lot. I took a long breath. I snapped photos, but none of them were any good…mostly because I was too overcome by the weight of being there to worry about how the pictures looked.
I made it out of that motel, which is a miracle in itself. Studies show us that even short periods of homelessness have devastating effects on children. I will tell you that I never overcame that history, but learned to live with it. I am a top-ranked cyclist. I own a business that grosses over a million dollars in revenue annually. I have the two best kids on the planet, and a husband I love so fiercely it hurts. Two weeks earlier, I spoke to the United Nations. But in that moment, I was a 14-year-old homeless kid all over again, trying to escape on two wheels.
In some ways, that’s who I will always be. At 14, you think you can ride away from it all. At 41, you realize you never escape your history.
Shelley and I got back in the car, and stopped in Crested Butte. She asked if I wanted to ride with her. I didn’t. I just wanted to push the pedals for a bit, and process things to the cadence of my feet. I rode alone for a long time.
Any success I’ve had in my life isn’t my own. I had people looking out for me. I had people who taught me to work, that my own effort is 100 times more important than any excuse. I had people tell me that struggling isn’t the same as failure, but just another part of the road. I had the CEO of Team Novo Nordisk, Phil Southerland, give me a bike and a chance.
It’s easy to look at the “success” and only see the end result. People would tell me over and over again that it was “meant to be like that.” That’s not true, and that’s why these stories matter.