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Chasing Rainbows: What It’s Actually Like Racing Worlds

Interestingly, as I a sit down to write this, I just read an article about how marathon times are getting slower among young Americans—44 minutes slower since 1980 in ages 25-44. Of which I find reflective of how just competing and getting a finisher’s medal is often “good enough” these days.

There are no finisher’s medals at UCI World Championship events. Yes, you can take your number and frame it, but all that says is “I wasted time, money, and a social life, and all I got was a number to hang on my wall.”

You go to a World Championship event with one purpose, to win the honor of wearing rainbow stripes for the rest of your life. Period. But, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned in 24 years of racing, it’s that if you don’t have fun doing it, it’s not what you’re meant to do. My personal definition of “fun” parallels the definition of masochism, and even though that’s my definition, it’s been a bone of contention with friends throughout the years. Why is it that so few enjoy sitting at home watching movies (upside-down) while elevating compression-swaddled legs night after night?

The faster I got at racing the track, the harder that I pushed and trained. Luckily, I had a coach and training partner who fed that passion. Roger Young, my coach, never gave me a day off. He once joked that “some people need a 20-minute warm-up, KK (a training partner and world hour-record holder) needs a few hours, and Dena starts warming up the day before.” He was spot on with that one, which I guess is why he’s the best coach in the business.

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I had one goal for the week of the race, even though I was racing all five events (time trial, individual pursuit, scratch race, sprints, and points race), my goal was the pursuit. The 500m-time trial was the day before the pursuit. Track starts involve a gate, which locks your bike until the final count, so it seemed prudent to test the gate. Even a slight delay in the release can completely throw off timing. For perhaps the first time ever, I had no ambitions. As a true diesel engine, the 500 is too short for me to get up to speed. However, women don’t race the kilo, and it’s better to not get me started on that topic.

Only in track cycling do you spend more time warming up and cooling down than actually racing. So, when they announced the results, I was already on the rollers. A friend from South Africa came bounding over telling me, “You got it!” I just looked at her and said that there was no way that I won the 500. But, sure enough, I’d ridden my fastest time to date. That race set the tone for the rest of the week. One-by-one, five in total, I picked off competitors, which prompted a news website to remark on my “emphatic style.” I might’ve been more excited by the news coverage if the site hadn’t included a four-year-old photo of me in a yellow and pink fluoro skin suit on my sprint bike.

Everyday, the experience at the velodrome was superseded, but never eclipsed, by the culinary adventures of KK and myself. While other Americans were spending downtime at the local burger joint, we got rooms away from the crowds and insisted on eating the local fare of Anadia, Portugal. With guidance from one of the three generations of “Marias” who owned the B&B, we ate our way through leitao assado (suckling pig), feijoada (kidney stew), and the most heavenly pot of dessert, appropriately named Natas de Ceu—”cream of heaven.” We sat in the den in the evenings sipping wine and listening to a music collection that rivaled the entertainment on Hastings Street in Detroit back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Why didn’t we just eat familiar food and race our bikes? Because, in the end, if you’re so focused on racing that you avoid everything foreign about your destination, why not just stay home and ride the Saturday Worlds?

Over my career, I’ve raced in the ITU Long Course Worlds and at WTC Kona Worlds. Representing your country is an honor, but it wasn’t until Portugal that I’d heard my national anthem played. Standing on the podium is something you never forget, and I guarantee you that you will cry. And, just as importantly, you’ll also make lifelong friends.

I used to just roll my eyes at riders who buy the replica World Champion jersey—I was sure that somewhere in their mind, they thought that people familiar with the stripes would see them and think that they were looking at a World Champion. But now that I have my own, well, I’m the one that rolls up and asks, “Where’d ya’ win it?” Most people probably think that I’m being obnoxious. I prefer to think that I’m emphatic.