Libby Caldwell's 2020: New Decade, Same Me

This whole new decade thing seems to require us sentient beings to reflect on how we've spent the last 10 years. Analyze our mistakes, reflect on our growth, acknowledge our shortcomings, celebrate our accomplishments, and ultimately reassess our goals. 

2020 sees me seal out my first decade of riding and racing bikes.  In that time I also finished high school, started and completed college, got my first job, got my first apartment, got my first vacuum etc.. When looking forward it seems pertinent to first step back and reflect on the journey. 

Most kids learn how to drive when they’re 16. I learned how to ride a bike; and not just ride a bike, but like RIDE a bike, you know. Its baffling to think I joined the high school mountain bike team and only 2 months later I was zip-tying a number plate to my handlebars. That is not a lot of time to master a craft. And even more confounding is that 6 months prior to towing the line on a frosted February morning in Fort Ord is that I’d undergone major knee surgery to repair a blown ACL and meniscus.  

High school racing is a bit of a blur. I have fond memories of the comradery built within my high school team and within the field of strong young ladies I raced against. I started a complete novice, with little to no skill or muscle mass thanks to a summer of hobbling around on crutches, and ended a varsity racer and team captain.  The kids I met on bikes are still some of the best friends I have to this day. And those Norcal high school races are still some of the best events I’ve ever been a part of.

But that’s childhood for you; always blazing fast. When discussing one’s youth one couldn't possibly avoid the famous Ferris Bueller quote: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” As a teenager it felt like time was hardly moving and I couldn't get to the next step quick enough. I had, and in some cases still have the penchant for only looking on to the next step; never taking a moment to widen my scope to the “big picture”. So now when I reflect on where I've been and navigate where i want to go its always with fresh eyes.

After my last high school mountain bike race I started spending more time riding on the road. I wanted to go FAST. Rocks, dirt, big knobby tires slow you down.  That brings us to 2012-2013. A chapter of the last decade I’d like to call road racing, college and mild to medium disordered eating.

The freshman 15 fueled by alcohol, bad choices, and endless dining hall privileges was luckily offset by bikes and particularly my hatred for the Santa Cruz bus system (resulting in a mandatory 40 minute climb to get from town to my dorm.) The first year of school I was lucky enough to be sheltered with a tight group of folks on the collegiate bike team. College can be a rough transition for most, but the bike team was a family that made that transition manageable. 

Freshmen live on campus their first year, which meant I was close to food, a bed, and classes. And because this was Santa Cruz my dorm was a good 15ft from the famous upper campus trail system. And although my trail access was better than ever, I still gravitated more to the road (possibly because I couldn't stop getting lost and finding myself on highway 9 downhill trails...) The summer of my freshman year I made a huge jump on the road from racing cat ¾ to catP1/2/3. 

But unfortunately, most of the developments I made that summer were quickly washed away by the next spring. My first year living off campus was spent in a house with 6 other sophomore girls. As always it started out fun, but by the end of spring quarter none of us wanted to spend an extra second in the presence of one another. I thought I would feel comfortable living with ladies my own age but what I didn't take into account was their painfully sedentary lifestyle. I love to be outside and to be moving, it's not that my housemates didn't love those things, it was more that they could get away with disordered eating with less of a consequence to their daily life.

When we cooked and ate family meals, the disdainful stares shot my way were unavoidable. In some cases, my housemates would cook the meal and eat nothing themselves. And of course, I was used to eating large volumes of food to fuel my lifestyle.  It's not difficult to fall into certain mindsets in regard to food when it's suffocating you from every direction at home (where you should feel safe). But while my housemates cut calories or skipped meals and got into those skinny jeans torn straight off the mannequin, I lost my period, I lost muscle mass, I lost my power and endurance. Cycling was my distinguishing characteristic, but it didn't prevent me from developing disordered eating, in the end it aided it. 

When I showed up to race with my team that summer I got a lot of: “Wow you look so fit” “ You're starting to look like a professional” “Your hard work is paying off”. It reaffirmed to me that I had to be skinny to look the professional part. But I was not performing like a professional. I never had energy in the tank. By the time races would start to heat up, I’d already be off the back. It was a double whammy to not only have the expectations that being skinny would make me fast but also be so unbelievably miserable every time I got on the bike.

That misery paired with a new dysfunctional and emotionally abusive team had me quit the sport heading into my last year of school. Things had spiraled out of control quickly and change was required. It was time to focus on my studies and finish out that part of my life with my chin up. 

My last quarter at UCSC had me take an exercise physiology class. The professor was an infectiously charismatic woman in her mid 50’s who had taken a 2-year sabbatical to try out iron man racing. So a casual badass. It was in her class (and unfortunately not even mentioned in our dated textbook) that I learned about REDS and the female athlete triad.  The 2-unit laboratory in conjunction with the exercise physiology lecture had me do a lactate test in front of the class. I had me face my fears working in a group to measure BMI (hint: forceps were used to measure skin around the body) and acknowledge my athletic issues head on when writing my senior thesis paper on female athletics.

I cannot say Santa Cruz is where my disordered eating started and ended because it is an ongoing process, but I can say it is where the problem started and where the healing began.

The summer after college is when my love for riding returned. Paired with a healthy and balanced view of food I found my stride again, or… pedal stroke?  It was my way of putting off the inevitable of starting my adult life.  While taking some additional classes at my local community college I was handed an opportunity to race on an unconventional team. Joining the team would push me out of my comfort zone (I’d like to say I am a decently organized person) and also give me a chance to race on a huge stage. 

In the end it was not all that I had hoped. It was a toe in the door. It allowed me to realize a dream of mine-to race in the Tour of California and other international events, but it also made me realize my dreams lay off the road. It was time for me to return to my dirt roots. 

I took on the new frontier in 2019.Gravel Racing. It was mixing everything I loved about road racing and mountain bike racing and giving it the scale to be recognized on the world stage. I put my heart and threw my body into full-fledged training. But despite all the training that “little voice”, the one that can prevent you from getting on that rope swing over a sheer cliff, or remind you 3 donuts is enough for a day; that voice can also be detrimental. It breeds doubt that becomes fatal to your drive. Any little fear can become debilitating with enough negative self-talk. And if you don't end up voicing your doubts with others the only one who hears the doubts is the person who is most critical of yourself. You. 

Despite the limitations I had in 2019, the highlights were of course the races I took part in. At the Truckee Dirt Fondo I was in full race mode. But one of the most unique aspects of gravel and adventure racing is that a girl I met on the start line, and immediately thought to myself “Ohhh she looks fast, watch out for her,” became a great friend I still cherish to this day! The friendship was built DURING the race, not after, or before, DURING! We were both having incredibly tough days on the bike, I was dying from the altitude and she was coming off a snowy winter of limited base miles. We talked periods, nutrition, Stacy Sims book and everything in between. I waited for her on the descents and she waited for me on the hills. She was THE reason I made it through that race! And the friendships that I built on the bike are probably the greatest motivators to get to more races.

Yes of course I strive for GRAVEL GLORY, but glory only lasts for so long, whereas friendship lasts forever, as sappy as that sounds...  

As I complete my first training rides of 2020 and begin to set my goals for the year I remind myself that every day I am stronger than the last. Every day I am smarter than the last. Every day I move forward. Every day starts a fresh, with new perspectives and new motivations.

2020 brings new partners, new goals and new ventures. One huge change is my new role as a high school mountain bike coach. If you've made it this far in my story than you know how much my start in the Norcal High School Mountain Bike League means to me. And to return to the league, 10 years after I started as a rider, is a perfect way to bring my journey full circle. 

It brings a huge sense of perspective when you take kids out on the trails you’ve ridden hundreds of times. They come in with bright eyes and no expectations. Always start at a fast sprint and always end begging for the climbing to stop. But each practice they arrive with more fitness and more skill than last week. Little goals are set and met; making it up that steep pitch where they’d previously had to huff it on foot, letting off the brakes a little more before a corner, staving off an epic bonk. Their progression is staggering! 

I’ve found that language is so important when it comes to coaching. The way one phrases a tip or any direction can be essential to how kids absorb information. As an athlete working with a coach, a coach that I’ve had for almost 2 years, it took up until last winter for me to finally understand and absorb what he was trying to tell me. A lack of communication on both of our parts caused me to misjudge my workouts.

Rolling into 2020 and looking at my own training and racing, I come in confident. Now that I have clarity in my training, I am starting to see improvements that I’d been striving for in years past. But all of those long miles and painful workouts don't go unused. Every training ride is a learning experience. A way to make oneself a better athlete.

Now, I know it’s not “cool”. I know for most people on the outside looking in, it does not seem “fun”. But I take training very seriously. Going on a ride where you try to hold the same low power for hour after hour after hour, is not fun. But I know I will be better for it. It is always more Fun to go ride in a group and pin it up every rise, or take turns pulling a hard pace into a deadly headwind. It’s always more fun. But I believe if you put in the hard work (not necessarily hard in speed or power, but mentally challenging) you will reap the benefits. If you seek to be the best, then you must do the things your competitors aren't willing to do.

Armed with 10 years of racing experience at various levels and in various disciplines, I welcome the 2020 race season with gracious arms. I will be headed to some of the biggest events on the gravel calendar. To start the season, I begin with my local and infamous grasshopper adventure series. Then moving into the season, I will venture out of the confines of California to Colorado, Vermont, Utah and Oregon. My schedule is still wide open, and I am also hoping to get an international race in there as well! 

My spring will be all about coaching and honing my skill at local races. My summer will have me test my grit and determination against the best gravel racers in the country. I am both excited and intimidated by my prospects, but I am reassured by my own personal growth in the last decade. A lot of changes in 10 years and for better or for worse, I still feel like I am the same person I started the decade as.  Just smarter, stronger, more stubborn, and of course better hydrated… 

Follow Libby’s ongoing adventures on Instagram at @libdawggg

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