Revisiting the Past - Athlete Journal by Clara Hughes

It must seem to my speed skating teammates that I know people in all parts of the world. Wherever we go, I seem to hook up with a ‘cycling friend’ and, I have to admit, it’s really nice when we’re on the road to interact with people out side of skating. If I were to go back to cycling one day, which I am sure I won’t, I would appreciate coffees and dinners with the friends I made in speed skating in the same way.

This year has been an interesting one because I have gone on a few cycling camps with the skating team. In the past, I was either racing my bike or, like last year, just needed a break from riding after thirteen hard-core years spent as a racing cyclist. Coincidentally, the team has gone to a few of the places that I frequented in the winter months whilst escaping the brutal Canadian winters in search of sun. Buelton, California was the first samp in August, and Tucson, Arizona, is where I returned from only yesterday.

As a cyclist, the camps in Buelton were part of my regime while racing for an American professional team. Two weeks each winter were spent riding, meeting, doing photo shoots, and preparing for the early-season races. Some years I would hammer up the mountains with the guys, fit and ready to roll at any pace, and other years I would creep along the undulating vineyard-lined country roads, counting every minute knowing how far behind I was in terms of fitness compared to my other teammates.

This past August, the speed skating coaches chose the second day of our camp to race up one of the more famous climbs in the area, Figeroa. It was a climb I knew well from the camps where I was fit and able to race up the steep slopes with the guys on the team. It was a climb I would not attempt without a lot of fitness, and there I was, now a speed skater, unable to remember the last time I climbed up any kind of hill after training in the flatlands of Calgary for much of the summer.

Orders are orders and we set out, with only me knowing (or at least thinking I knew) what lay ahead. From the bottom of the climb, it was a race. I managed somehow to keep the gap minimal behind our strongest guys, battling gravity and wondering if, somehow, the climb could have steepened since my last ascent back in 1999. No, it was the same climb, and it was me who had changed. My legs felt huge against the cruel gradient and I settled into a grinding pace.

I survived the climb and was left with the realization that I am truly no longer a cyclist. I am far weaker on a climb like this, not so much in terms of my capacity- I am simply no longer trained to do this kind of thing. I began to think of all the things I can do now that I can’t climb mountains on my bike that well: run, lift weights, jump, do torturous skating imitations, sprint, and most importantly: skate. Not a bad compromise.

It was the same feeling being back in Arizona. The southern city of Tucson was one of the first places I traveled in the winter for a cycling training camp. We used to drive the 36 hours straight (maybe it was even more) with a mattress set in the back of the provincial team van so that those who were not driving could sleep. Upon arriving, usually at dusk, we’d eat at Pizza Hut and then find the cheapest hotel around before searching town for a cheap but safe condo to cram into for the next two weeks.

I remember the first trip, when our coach unknowingly went in to inquire on rates at the ‘No Tell Hotel’. We laughed hysterically when he came back, telling us he had inquired on a ‘room for nine people’ before noticing the rates were based on one, two or three hour ‘sessions’. We stayed in some awful, wretched places back in the day, and I was grateful to have a better set-up as a skater. Though my legs were killing me after the flight, I still remembered how ruined we would be after that endless drive from Winnipeg. Sometimes it helps to have a bit of perspective.

The cactus jungle I remembered so vividly was thankfully intact and I savoured each push of the pedal under the hot desert sun. The sights and sounds in that magical landscape brought back not only memories of my days as a racer, but more recently the month this past spring when my husband Peter and I bike toured the desert state, beginning and ending in Tucson.

What makes Tucson really special, however, is the tight-knit cycling community. From some of the best professional racers to the hard-core weekend warriors, Tucson must have one of the highest per-capita levels of bike riders. People who love to ride thrive in this area and we were so lucky to be welcomed in with open arms. It was especially fun to re-connect with a world I am removed from now that I skate and only skate.

I realize what a special group of giving people the cycling world holds, and how people open their homes because homes have been opened to them. They want to help out because they have been helped. And me, I guess I will always be a part of this world, and it’s this world that has made me who I am today.

I may not be as strong as I once was on the bike, but I will always be a cyclist.