Grace Williams shares her experience from the Clasica de Almeria
The Criterium Nation Chronicle 2023 Feb 21 by Grace Williams with intro by Rob Kelly: We have a soft spot in our hearts for Midwestern bike racers. It’s the Chicagoan in us…well in at least two of us (Allan is on his own being from the Pacific Northwest). Grace Williams came to our attention last year via her connection to Indiana University (Céline’s alma mater). The 23-year old Grace has had quite the rise up the cycling food chain in just 2 years of racing. She joined the bike racing world after her time as a endurance runner at IU. She was very much a cat 3 last year at this very time; but progressed quickly, catching the eye of the right people along the way (a 5th place at Unbound 100 will do that for you).
Over the offseason she signed with the new Indiana-based UCI Continental Pro Team Cynisca Cycling. For those not versed in ancient Greek lore, Cynisca was a Spartan woman who defied societal norms, and all the odds, and became the first female Olympian in 396 and 392 BCE. So when you see the laurel wreath on the team’s kit you know exactly where it comes from now.
We hope this year to share her journey with all of you as she very much enters into unknown territory going from racing at Momentum Indy to Spain, Belgium and beyond. Her frank and honest takes are what drew us to her and we hope that you enjoy seeing a slightly different side of the top level of the sport.
By Grace Williams:
We stood on the line for 30 minutes. The spanish race directors, the mayor of Almería, our team cars, and us. All 100 or so riders, nervously staring ahead, waiting. And then — the race began.
After only racing for one year, jumping into a pro contract, and finding myself at a UCI race in Spain— this was a pure, rip-the-band-aid-off moment. No more thinking, just a leap into the unknown. We took a sharp right turn into a “neutral” rollout, and everything was chaos. The first thing I see is a roundabout, and five girls hop the curb, sail over the middle, and pop back over into the front of the peloton. Immediately realizing this is normal, I laugh nervously and snap back into focus. I cannot spare a moment of distraction. There’s a gap – and then there’s not – there’s a wheel wobbling – someone is slamming on their brakes, I have to move – oh that girl is screaming at me – oh no is Movistar attacking? – I guess I’ll let that gap go – no wait, remember – be aggressive – hold your position!
But by the time I have to remind myself to hold it, it’s too late, I am at the back of the pack. The struggle through the war zone begins again. Crashes on the right, on the left, bumping and bodies and tense yells. And this is… only the neutral rollout? Oh boy.
It takes me until 15K to begin to *sort of* feel okay in the pack. Floating through the middle through magical open lines, fighting for wheels that are moving up along the sides, I start to read the movement of the peloton. It’s a living, breathing monster. It’s a wave. A cycle of fighting your way up, finally reaching the front, reveling in a few moments of bliss, before you shoot back to undesirable positioning again. My job for the team is to patrol the front of the pack and hop in on any early breakaways, so being at the front is my main concern- because you can’t catch a breakaway from the back. Just before 26K, I hear our director ordering everyone to the front NOW via radios. We are about to go through a town with some gnarly turns.
I’d like to say I went to the front to follow directions, but it was also motivated by innate fear. I did not want to be anywhere near the middle of the peloton for this sketchy section. In past races, I’ve always hesitated to go to the very front- I never feel like I belong. I have this irrational fear that the women will laugh or I will embarrass myself or do something wrong while leading the entire group. Yet, for the first time, I go all the way. I find myself with Movistar on my right, EF on my left. We absolutely blast through the town, and I follow the solo Movistar girl in front of me. I am doing my job. I am about to be in a break, if Movistar decides to make the move. I am in another dimension. Holy. Shit.
And then, they don’t go. The magic fades. The pack comes back together. I am swallowed up and spit to the back once again, and my moment is gone. But for a split second, flying down the tiny streets through the Spanish town behind that one Movistar girl, I felt like I belonged. I was doing exactly what my team needed me to do, and that felt incredible.
And then, out of nowhere I hear brakes screeching, bikes piling up in front of me, and I feel myself flying over my bars. I land, immediately stand up, grab my bike, and jump on while halfway registering what a miracle it was that I didn’t break my collar bone. As I try to catch the group, I suddenly realize my bike won’t shift. I immediately call our team car, pedaling in my hardest gear up an incline, wobbling, trying my best to keep the peloton in sight. Luca, our mechanic, leans out of the team car as I am riding and hugs my torso with one hand, fixing my derailleur with the other. Again, another absurd moment accepted as just part of the pro world. I decided to roll with it. Eventually we had to stop, completely swap to a different bike (that was unfortunately way too small), and I began my chase back to the peloton. I sailed along behind the bumper of my team car until I reached the caravan, TT-ing my way from car-to-car, until I hear my director over the radio “EF is taking a pee break, GET ON THEIR TRAIN!”
Another moment of confusion for me: EF is taking a pee break? Huh? In the middle of a race? Turns out the entire peloton decides to wait on EF, crawling at a chill pace. I approach EF just as they are zipping up their jerseys and I hop on their pace line behind their team car, all the way back to the peloton. I am laughing aloud. I guess this is another norm out in Europe? I finally arrive to the peloton, ride up to my teammate, wide-eyed… after all of that, I am only 50K in to a 141K race. That’s when I start to realize my hand is most definitely not okay. The adrenaline helped initially, but now my braking power is much weaker, I can’t stand on any climb, I can’t descend in my drops. I can’t reach the food in my jersey. So I stay in the back of the peloton, unsure what to do, not trusting my ability to react in the group, but not wanting to drop out of the race.
Soon, I am dropped by the peloton. I hear myself thinking over and over: no amount of fitness can make up for bad positioning. I’ve learned the lesson before, but I am learning it again. I had all the excuses in the world to be out of the race- but in the end it was all mental and I knew it. I made the conscious decision fueled by fear to stay at the back of the peloton, and I regretted it. Maybe it was smarter, and safer, but it did not make me proud. I rode my bruised and beaten body and too-small bike to the finish line with a line of stragglers. I could hear bits and pieces of news from the radio, cutting in and out- my teammates were in a breakaway? No, they got caught. No- they didn’t? I will myself to be done as fast as possible so I can hear what happened.
When I finally arrive at the finish line, I am 12 minutes off the peloton, second to last rider in. But that doesn’t seem to matter when I look up and see my teammate, Emilie Fortin, standing on the top step of the podium. The crowd behind me is in a frenzy. We won. Emilie won, and I am smiling from ear to ear. I can’t wait to do it all again.
Luckily, my wrist is just sprained, and l get to travel to Belgium with my team for more of this insanity in March. I have so much to say and process, but at the end of the day this experience brought equal parts fear and exhilaration. European racing is absolutely, undeniably, some of the most insane shit I have ever done. But, at the same time, there is something captivating about looking fear in the face, and pushing your limits in every way with a group of incredible women from all over the world. All with the knowledge that this novelty and overwhelming uncertainty about every aspect of racing is simply part of the jump into Pro Cycling. It all takes time. Onwards to much, much more learning.
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- February 21, 2023