“Wearing the Stars and Stripes” by Crystal Anthony

Monday evening the day after Nationals, I stood in the Verizon store with my cursed Droid phone in a perpetual loading cycle of exploding, kaleidoscopic red and white graphics.  USA Cycling was about to announce the selection for the World Championships and I had been cut off from all communication in my day-long travels from Boulder.  Jordan Dubé and Don Snoop, knowing my predicament and reading the news over Twitter jumped in their car and drove over to meet me at the Verizon store to tell I had made the selection!  They are good people.   They also surprised me by telling me they were making the trip over to the Netherlands.

I suppose the journey to Worlds officially started then, in the parking lot of North Beverly Plaza, but it had been a goal of mine for the last season and a half.  After a great start to the season in 2012 with 6 UCI wins, I made the effort to make the team by traveling to as many C1 races as my teaching schedule and budget would allow, and by traveling to Europe for Kerstperiode to race my first World Cups.  Despite a 5th place at 2013 Nationals I just missed making the team last year, and I redoubled my resolve to make the team this year.

As a kid, some of my most vivid memories are of watching the Olympics (a rare occasion that the Anthony family turned on the TV!) and dreaming of being in the Games someday.  At the time I didn’t even care for what sport but I thought that wearing the Stars and Stripes would be just the best feeling in the world.  Since cross isn’t an Olympic sport (yet), wearing the Stars and Stripes for the US in the World Championships is the next best thing and really a childhood dream come true.  For as much as cyclo-cross is an individual sport, the story of getting to Worlds for me is a family tale and for that reason it is all that more special to me.

Crystal jerseyMy two younger brothers Josh and Jesse raced Cross Worlds nine times between the two of them.  Both have been my cycling mentors growing up, naturally taking it upon themselves to hone my balance skills by purposely bumping me on the road and to toughen my character by leading me on adventure rides on ice and snow and through bogs and thickets and anything else that looked like the road less traveled.  I say this all with a huge grin of course because I loved that these two stars even wanted me along and had the confidence that I could ride with them.  Or perhaps they were hoping their older sister might actually not return and hence stop pestering them to do chores and to chew with their mouths closed and all that annoying stuff.  Anyway.  It was all part of growing up together in a family that loved to ride bikes and had big success doing so.

On the one hand I had a foot in the door with my younger brothers’ accomplishments and their recognition within the community, and I had probably more experience growing up than I realized at the time from being educated by them and other neighborhood pros like Shawn Milne and Tim Johnson.  In similar fashion, the kids I used to see living in Honduras who had a soccer ball at their feet from the time they could toddle developed unparalleled skills as a result.  There’s nothing that beats the talent you develop from doing something from the time you’re a kid.  On the other hand, it was a lot to live up to as the Anthonys’ sister, and I shied away at first to do my own thing in the marathon and triathlon.  But dabbling in cross over those years I became hooked.  It was the most fun I had on a race course and required everything from lung-searing effort, to finesse and skill, to tactics and good instincts.  There is no wasting time or second-guessing in a cross race.

Once I committed to focusing on a cross season, Jesse jumped in as my official coach and Josh continued to be my training partner when our schedules allowed.  My parents continued as faithful race supporters.  It is only fitting that this past season I joined my brother Jesse’s team Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefits to continue the family tradition.  Their financial and mechanical support has been invaluable to a successful season and it’s really special to be part of Jesse’s race family.

Learning of the opportunity to be on the 2014 team there in the parking lot meant a whole lot because of the story getting there.

After getting the news, it was time to go back to the other half of my life, my teaching job.  I was the midst of helping my 7th graders prepare for midterm exams, though it was pretty difficult to concentrate on that with the big race coming up.  The students were very enthusiastic about their teacher going to the World Championships, “Wait, like the Olympics?  That’s so awesome!  Congratulations!” They praised, and then without missing a beat continued: “Will we have a good sub?  And will you explain what we need to do before you leave?”

Bike looking roughMy wonderful colleague Doris Ann was flexible enough to rearrange our whole exam schedule so that I could travel to the Netherlands for a few days and my department chair and principal were also very supportive of the opportunity.

It’s taken a good deal of discipline to have two “careers” and it brought a smile to know that the long days of traveling on a Friday after work to a race in Oregon or back from Europe on a Sunday afternoon to work on Monday, and the daily routine of rushing home from work and onto the bike, had paid off.

It was a busy several weeks at school while I also tried to get ready for Worlds.  Here my family helped a ton once again: Josh braved 35 degree weather and rain to go ride 3.5 hours of sand and trails in Plymouth with Kevin Hines and Sam Morse who were our guides.  They are masters at starting out at an innocent enough pace and just slowly, subtly pushing the speed until before you know it you’re in exquisite pain.

BreakfastAnd Jesse.  Well he is the boss.  He kept me focused and designed my training and made sure I had everything taken care of and had thought of all the little details like scheduling a massage and packing my race morning food.  What can I say, I couldn’t do it without him.

All week, my enthusiastic/academically focused students came in to class sneezing and coughing and snotting all over their papers, and I kept a strict Incredible Sulk sleeping schedule and guzzled Airborne and Emergen-C to fight off a head cold; I could feel the bug knocking at the back of my throat but nothing a good Transatlantic flight would cure.  Wait, maybe that’s wrong.

Heading into the AerLingus flight to Brussels via Dublin with Jordan and Don, I had some misgivings as the last time I tried to get to Europe I got stuck in a winter storm vortex in Montreal and arrived to Namur 2 hours before the race.  The last time I had had a connection in Dublin in 2010 I never actually left Ireland for 10 days as the volcano erupting in Iceland grounded all flights for days.

At Logan, our check-in attendant must have been Belgian: she weighed my bike case that I had meticulously packed to 68 pounds and said: “It is not possible.”

“Um, yes the weight limit is 70 pounds.”  I countered.

“No, it’s 50.  It is not possible.” She retorted.

“No, it’s 70.  It says so online.”  Jordan and Don backed me up.

“Here put it on the kilos scale,” she offered in a moment of generosity, as if that might help.  “Oh, no, it’s 32.  It is not possible,” she reiterated, realizing that the bag still weighed the same even in kilos.

“We all read that the limit is 70 pounds.”

“No, it can only be 23 kilos,” she argued, as if the restriction in kilos would make more sense or sound more official.

“It says overweight bags are up to…” and here she interrupted me:  “Ooooh, overweight, yes, ok.”

Once we had agreed upon the fact that my overweight bag was, in fact, well, overweight, things went quite smoothly.

On the flight from Boston to Dublin, we had an entire row of 10 seats to the three of us, and a 140mph tailwind got us there in a hurry.  The winds caused frightening turbulence and the plane plummeted and tossed.  One kid on the flight screamed delightedly “We’re going down!  We’re going down!” as her mother hurriedly shhh’ed her.

Arriving an hour early was enough time for me to leave my passport in the bathroom.  We were sitting with our heads resting down on a table in a café in Dublin Airport in the 4:30am quiet when suddenly I bolted up and jumped out of my chair, frightening Jordan and Don.  “I don’t have my passport!”  Weird how it suddenly came to my brain that I’d never picked it back up from beside the sink.  It wasn’t in the bathroom when I returned to check.  What an idiot.  Even the flight gods had been so good to us and I was about to sabotage my whole trip.  We rushed around frantically to the gate and tried to find anyone who would know about a lost and found.  Luckily, someone had turned my passport into the duty free shop next to the restrooms.

All our luggage made it successfully, and Jordan and Don caught a train to Antwerp while I headed off with the team to Hoogerheide.

We did a course preview and settled in at the hotel.  The course was a good mix of everything, mud, flyovers, twisty punchy woods, grass, run-up.  After dinner and a massage, I slept like a rock.  We kept a similar schedule the next day, meals as a team at the hotel and a trip to the course to pre-ride.  After dinner we got our numbers and got ourselves organized for the race.

“Remember, it’s just another bike race, but it just happens to be the biggest ‘just another bike race’ that you’ll ever do.”  Bruce Fina said it best!  That meant trying to keep all preparations consistent with what I know works for me and conserving as much energy as possible for the race, but also being sure to use all the experienced riders around as resources for guidance.  Thanks to Meredith, Tim, Marc, Geoff, Zach and all who offered advice.

All in all, preparations couldn’t have been better.  I luckily managed to avoid being sick after Nationals, and had been able to get in a good enough mix of outdoor long rides and mixed it up with some indoor intervals using Jordan’s powertap as most season I ride by feel.

The warm-up went well, and USA Cycling took good care of us and all six of us got to the start without incident.

As last call up to the second row, I had a decent start position.  At Hoogerheide, a good start was crucial due to the sharp left-hand turn and drop into a sticky rutted mud pit that promised mayhem.  The light turned green and we were off, and suddenly I felt swarmed.  Women pushed me left and cut in front.  They didn’t look for holes, they made them: Lesson #1.  By the left turn I was mid pack, still in the race and ready to do battle, but as I plunged into the mud pit I got slammed from behind and suddenly couldn’t pedal.  I hopped off and tried to push my bike but the rear wheel was jammed.  In the pandemonium of the moment I assumed it was the derailleur and hefted my bike up and began to run to the pit.  By the time I got there I was DFL.  Hopping on my second bike I could still see the rear group of riders slipping away down the twisty descent and I set off anxious to make up time, pushing it just a bit too hard around one of the downhill turns and careening so hard into the metal fencing that I ripped off my right shifter: it dangled from the handlebars when I extracted my bike from the fencing.  There was nothing to do at that point but calm down and just keep fighting, even as the sinking realization that the race for results was over brought a lump to my throat.

I put my chain back on and then had to gingerly balance the ripped off shifter on the handlebar as I pedaled around using only my front chainring to shift.  Still I caught three riders by the time I grabbed my original bike back.  Turns out it had been the brake rammed under the rim, something that I probably could have stopped to fix on the course, even though it would have taken time it would have been more efficient than running all that way: Lesson #2.

Crystal ridingI passed at least 12 riders altogether, and I left it all out there, but the tears were ready when I crossed the line.   My awesome team Optum Pro Cycling presented by Kelly Benefits, my family, my friends, all the USA Cycling staff have all given me so much and that is not lost on me.  Riding well is my way of showing gratitude and also makes all the discipline and sacrifice worthwhile to me.  Making mistakes is the hardest part of bike racing, not wanting to let people down and miss opportunities.  Making mistakes on the “biggest ‘just another race’” and the season finale is even harder.  Sure bad luck happens, but I also believe that we have a hand in just what kind of luck we set ourselves up for.  You can bet I’m going to be like the kids in that book “Holes”—I’ll be practicing making holes a lot this year and I hope to be back next year to have something to show for it.

As I process all the emotions that come at the end of a season, so many of you have offered encouragement and kind words.  Thank you.  One story I must share from my good friend Natalie.  She had been watching with a 10-year-old she was taking care of and when the boy saw her get upset as she was watching inquired: “DID SHE DIE????” When she told him what happened he said, “Don’t be upset. She’ll get to try again next year. It’s okay.”  Sometimes kids have the clearest way of seeing things and putting them into perspective.

Jesse talks a lot about grit and resilience, about doing the best you can with the situation presented to you, and never giving up.  I want to share his perspective too because I think it’s also really wise and simple:

“Learn what you can and digest everything that you’ve been through this season.  These experiences will make you even stronger and faster in the future.”

I actually wrote the first half of this blog prior to the race, and that part of this story race day cannot change: the love of my friends and family, and the character and spirit we bring into an event.  The hard days make the good days all that much sweeter!

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