SheSpoke Racing: A Strong Women's Cycling Team from a New Captain's Perspective
By Haley Nielsen
SheSpoke Racing Road Captain
A few days ago, I stepped into the elevator of my office building in the financial district in full kit after a morning ride with teammates. There were a few folks in the elevator and a woman asked me “Are you on a race team? Are you a professional?”
I laughed and said, “Yes, I race on a team, but no, I’m not a pro. Maybe in a couple years!” The elevator doors opened and I got off and wished her a good day.
I used avoid going straight to the office from a morning ride because I got embarrassed walking in in spandex. I felt too exposed, too seen. At this point everyone I work with knows I ride (I may or may not talk about bikes and racing a lot) and it doesn’t bother me anymore. In fact, I was flattered that this woman asked me if I race. Racing has become a huge part of my life, and I’m super proud to tell people and excited to talk about it.
Until a few years ago, I had no idea that bike racing was something ‘normal’ people like me could participate in. I’d been riding bikes and doing gran fondos and organized century rides for years, but had assumed that racing bikes was for skinny armed men who had been cultivated to race since they were teens. And, while I loved riding, I still didn’t quite feel like I had a cycling community where I fit and could really contribute. I was the goldilocks of group rides: this one’s too slow, this one’s too fast, this one is only men. I had a couple reliable ride buddies, but what I wanted was a community.
One day I was riding across the Golden Gate Bridge and I saw this massive group of women with their bikes posing for a photo on the north side of the bridge. I stopped immediately, and ended up being the photographer. As I handed phones back to folks, I hungerly asked, who are you? What ride is this?
That’s when I learned about a social ride club here called SheSpoke. I met the founder, Erika, and signed up for the facebook group right away. For the next year, I rode with this group and met amazing people and felt like I belonged in new way. However, there was still this tricky part of me though that wasn’t quite satisfied. I had some kind of wanderlust. Long rides were fun, but they weren’t challenging and I was always buzzing for more.
In May 2015, nearly 30 women from SheSpoke all signed up for a women’s gran fondo event in Calistoga. We rented this huge compound and spent the weekend laughing and connecting with one another. Nothing like cramming 30 bikes in an airbnb! The ride was a gorgeous tour of wine country, vineyards, tree lined roads, and technical climbs. I soon found myself up at the front with Erika and a few others. We ended up pacelining, sharing pulls, and just trucking. For for the first time, I felt like I hit my limit riding, I couldn’t go any harder. I loved every minute of it. I got dropped on the longest climb, but was too happy to care.
The legs behind that ride came from a woman named Genevieve. G told me after the fondo, “you should race.” I was confused. I asked her what she meant. “You should try out bike racing.”
Still confused, she explained to me what a road race and what a criterium was. I was too freaked out by the suggestion that I didn’t really process it. Later in the year she brought it up again and asked me to join SheSpoke Racing. That’s when I met team director, Sarah. Sarah started SheSpoke Racing from scratch. All she had was a vision for a more welcoming and inclusive race team, and the name, borrowed with permission from Erika’s club (which is run separately).
Sarah had wanted to race her bike, but found the barriers to entry high, and racing alone just wasn’t fun. She saw the potential in racing though, and decided to take matters into her own hands. Thank you Sarah! At that time, the team was in its first year. Sarah and G told me about the Early Bird series here in the Bay Area. Every Sunday in January, a group puts on clinics followed by mock races with plenty of seasoned racers as mentors, guiding and talking folks through a real life race. It’s an amazing opportunity to get into racing, and learn proper basics, like drafting, pacelining, and cornering. I went to every Early Bird in 2016, I was hooked. I officially joined the team and we kicked off our season in February with eight amazing, inspirational, strong, smart, funny (you get it) women.
Since the road season basically starts before it ever ends here in Norcal, it was still wintertime when I joined and I was spending a lot of weekends in Tahoe. Sadly, I broke my wrist just as I was feeling the courage to get out and actually race. Note to self: beware of rental skis. I went and spectated at a few races, getting to spend time with my teammates and learning the lay of the land. I don’t recommend this...Just go out and race, watching first can often just heighten your sense of not belonging. And I didn’t feel like I belonged. I felt intimidated.
By March, my wrist healed and I decided to give racing a go. Most of my team was going, and I was developed real connections with these women and trusted their calls of “you should come!”.
So I got up at 4am for the first time and loaded my bike and drove to Turlock, CA… In a downpour.
The race was on rain or shine, so we layered up and got to the start line. There were about 25 women on the line for the women’s ⅘ race and the official asked us if it was anyone's first race. I raised my hand: I was the only one. The race official made a joke about how it was a great day for my first race and everyone laughed. I was incredibly nervous. He went on to explain the areas where our wheels may be half in water, and when to be careful. Then the whistle.
My nerves were at an all time high. I hung in the pack though, calmed by the presence of my teammates. I don’t even remember how the race played out, I just know I watched my teammate Amy Moor, covered head to toe and almost shivering, sprint to take the win. I saw her on that podium, and I hugged my team, and I knew I found my family.
Since then, I’ve raced my bike more that 70 times. SheSpoke Racing has spawned two sister teams, growing from 8 to 38 women. I settled in my first season, racing sporadically, but always with great joy. I fell in love with my teammates. I found something, and a part of myself I was coming out that I believed in without question. I started to change.
SheSpoke Racing also started to change. Our two recruitment rides yielded many new riders and we started the 2017 season with 22 team members. As I personally started the season, I was talking to my partner and after a long conversation of hemming and hawing, he helped me decide to just jump in and go for it. I raced my heart out weekend after weekend. It was a true second season, I was always coming in second, the big W eluding me. I managed so many top 5s and so many 2nd places that I ended the season with the NCNCA women’s series win and enough points to cinch my cat 3 upgrade. I was officially a bike racer. While I knew I was successful, and growing into my strength, I wondered if I ever could actually win a race.
Midway that season, I felt the loss of Genevieve when she moved back to her home state of Montana. G was a huge inspiration and person whose presence could both calm and excite you. She was always down to head to a race, or just get on mountain bikes and shred. She is whip smart, always spread joy, and created opportunities for real human connection. Her absence left a gap in SheSpoke Racing. That Fall, Sarah asked if I would fill that gap as team captain. I knew I raced a lot and participated in most team activities, but I didn’t realize I was also growing into a leadership role on the team. I took the leap and agreed.
Since being captain, I’ve taken the relationships I have with teammates more seriously. I try to honor that I hold that title, and can only hope to live up to what it entails. This season at the helm alongside Sarah has meant more to me than I can express. From a bad crash at our team camp, to art therapy sessions, to long car rides to races, we’ve come together as a team to ensure that everyone feels like they belong. Not only have I cultivated friendships that I could only imagine possible, I’ve elevated the sights of what our team can achieve together. We currently stand as the top all around team in Norcal for category 3 and 4 women, and come out in force to races. We’ve started professionalizing our pre and post race routines so that no matter what happens, there is space to process and come together. We share prize money and spend time together off the bike. I know I have something special with this group of women.
It’s from this trust and camaraderie that I broke away from my always-in-second streak. My coach assured me that my strength and smarts were there, and my team agreed to help me get that top step. In April this year, I got my first win at the very technical Kingsburg criterium. Since then, I’ve seen that top step several times, including today. In fact, today’s win gave me the win on this year’s NCNCA womens series for cat 3, and also the points I needed for my cat 2 upgrade.
I haven’t felt like goldilocks in a long time. I found the spot that is just right for me, and as our road season ends, I look forward to what next year will bring. We have big dreams together, on and off the bike, and I wouldn’t want it to be with any other family.