July marks the traditional peak of the American cycling season: multi-day bike tours criss-crossing their way through the U.S., century-a-week and charity rides engaging their local communities, race calendars chock-full of competitive events to keep roadies and mountain-bikers alike occupied, and 2010 Tour de France contenders such as Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, and Bradley Wiggins on the television each day inspiring club riders to train harder on Tuesday/Thursday night hammerfests. But “whether you're a full-time athlete or a weekend warrior, avoid turning cycling into work,” National Track Champion and professional cyclist turned coach Kendra Wenzel advises. “Keep it as a fun part of your day by varying your schedule and continually reminding yourself of why you head out on the bike.”
BicyclingHub.com staff member Jennifer Clunie met up with Kendra just after her return from the 2010 National Road Race Championships in Bend, OR to discuss how to effectively balance training, work and family life, the growth of women's participation in the sport, and what keeps her cranking on the pedals season after season.
After racing professionally for eleven years, collecting 100 career wins on the road and track and an impressive assortment of medals earned at illustrious events such as the 1990 World Championships in Mabashi, Japan, the Pan American Games in Cuba, the 1994 Collegiate Road Championships and 14 National Track Championship events, Kendra helped found Wenzel Coaching in 1994. Venturing over to the dirty side of the sport and racing mountain bikes for Team Diamondback in 1995, Kendra returned to her first love and served as team caption for the top-ranked Seco/Timex road team from 1997-99 as they raced their way to podium finishes in the National Championships, Tour of Italy (Giro) and Tour de 'Toona. Retiring in 1999 to dedicate her attention to coaching full-time, she continues to fuel her passion by developing up-and-coming racers and encouraging elite-level cyclists to meet (and sometimes exceed) their goals.
When asked to describe her typical client profile these days, Wenzel states, she doesn't really have just one type. “I have elites, elite wanna-bes (some sort of regional up-and-coming racers), and weekend warriors. I have guys that work 40, 60 hours a week and want to make the most of their time to race their bike. And I like it that way. If I had all elites, I'd be so crazy—elites hinge so much whether they have a good or bad day on the bike, whereas people who are working full-time have a little more broader lifestyles, because they have so much more to juggle. I'd say my client profile is someone who has good energy and wants to learn.”
Wenzel credits the platinum-level bicycle friendly community of Davis, California as one of the main things that drew her to enroll at the University of California at Davis. Enjoying competitive team sports such as basketball, softball, track & field in high school, she initially wanted to play collegiate soccer—but it wasn't long before the addictive nature of cycling took hold. “I remember my first 35 mile ride with a couple of guys and came back to the dorm and I could eat more than I had ever eaten before and thought, 'Wow, this is the best diet in the world!'” She laughs. “There was no 'freshman 15' for me—I was too busy riding my bike.”
“Think of every workout you do as digging a hole. Longer or more intense rides dig deeply, as do work tension and emotional stress. Recovery time—relaxing days, massages, proper nutrition and self-care—fill the hole back in. The idea is to avoid digging a hole you can't fill back in, which is just what may happen if you train continuously, without proper recovery, on top of an already stressed system. Sickness and injury are usually the result.”--Excerpt from “Working Overtime” by Kenda Wenzel
Memories of Wenzel's racing days still have her itching to jump into criteriums on occasion—until she remembers she doesn't always want to train that hard. “The ones that always stick out the most are the ones that I had to work the hardest for,” she recalls, such as the 1998 & 1999 Nationals, the Tour de 'Toona. Another memorable experience was being able to absorb the “sheer energy” in the velodrome during the World Championships in Cuba when her counterparts in the US National Team won the men's pursuit—all while Fidel Castro was present and watching.
What are some of the most successful methods you've seen that encourage women to take up cycling?
Make it more social. “Most successful women's programs are based on social connections. They're not just out for a ride; they're a socially connected group, and they're getting more out of it usually than just riding the bike.”
Programs must be balanced, taking into account women often don't have as much time. “The reality is—and this is my experience coaching lots of people—is that if a guy wants to go out for a three hour ride, he doesn't say, 'Will you want the kids for 3 hrs?' Whereas when a woman wants to spend that kind of time on a bike, there's a negotiation that goes on with their partner or whoever who can watch the kid. So there's always that. And then there's a limited amount of time that they have—at least as far as elite cycling goes—an limited amount of time to make or break before they decide whether they're going to move on to something else.”
“I think that's one of the reasons cyclocross is so popular, esp here in Oregon. It's family oriented; you don't have to train hours and hours to have a good time. There's no real pack to get dropped off of, so even just finishing for a lot of people is an accomplishment. And it's fun. It's 45 min. people have 45 minutes. They don't always have 3+ hours to do a race.”
In your experience, what are some of the most successful ways to get more women into racing?
Host a women's series.
Make the races accessible—don't hold too many in the series.
Keep it local, so groups of women can attend. Ideally, locations where you have less than an hour drive/way to get there.
Devise courses relatively challenging enough so they feel accomplished when they finish it, and not so challenging that they're intimidated.
Referencing the weekly race series held at throughout the summer at Portland International Raceway, Wenzel observes, “The ones usually worried about getting dropped are usually the ones right there into it their first time out, because they're competitive. Finding a way to delve into that side because a lot of them have never realized it before.”
The Oregon Bicycle Racing Association (ORBA) continues to see incremental growth in the women's division every year. When Wenzel started racing Tuesday nights at PIR in 1985-1986, there might have only been one other woman in the Category 4 field; drop ahead to 2010, and between 20-35 women regularly race in the 1/2/3 Category—and another dozen entering the foray in the Beginner Women's Division.
“The big challenge now, I think, is not even can we get women into cycling, but can we get them to keep going to, say, Cat 3,where it's more competitive and not everyone's so friendly and we're all not just having a great time being in the pack, being sisters anymore. Where it's a little more cut-throat. I just don't know if there's not as many women cut out for it, or it's just not being presented to them?
“I think one way is to make it more appealing to women is to make it more team-oriented, so that any particular race might have a team classification. I think that would help the men, too...And it could even be co-ed...I think that's one of the reasons why women's collegiate racing has been so successful, because it's very team-oriented. And because the points for the overall hinge on the women's participation too, so you actually have men recruiting women.”
One piece of advice you'd give a novice who's interested but nervous about in tossing their helmet into the ring?
“Talk to any local racers in your neighborhood and find out where there's a beginner-friendly race in your area. And you just have to go try. The hardest part is just getting to the starting line. Usually once that gun goes off and everyone is rolling over the start line, they usually realize it wasn't as scary as they thought. It's just getting up there—just signing up and just starting, and not being all intimidated by all the clothing and the gear. Because in the end, even if you don't have the best bike, you can overcome that...If you have a good engine and you're fit and you've been training, you could do well in bike racing regardless what kind of equipment you have.”
And one piece of advice you'd share with a seasoned Cat 3 vet struggling to balance work, training schedule and family life in order to keep them from getting burnt out?
“One of the secret to staying motivated is to pick races that suit your strengths and weaknesses...Build a race schedule around races that suit them better. Everyone has a better time when they do better in a race. So that balance is also building structured and unstructured time into their race calendar, and building rest breaks into their programs. There's always this ongoing panic I see when people feel they're not getting enough training in, when they're running themselves into the ground and when they're trying to train too much. They're not recovering enough. You get stronger from the recovery from the training, not just the training.”
What's one piece of gear you never leave home without?
“I always ride in my black, yellow and red Wenzel Coaching jersey and bibshorts. As far as gear: a cell phone, and something to change a flat.”