This past season was not an easy one for running my team. Frankly, I hated it and in the weeks after crashing out of Tour of California, while hammering away on the trainer determined to come back stronger, I drafted multiple emails to other team directors letting them know I was on the market for 2018 and interested in just being a rider again. The very idea felt like throwing off a huge weight. But I couldn’t bring myself to hit “Send” quite yet, and then the whole baby thing happened.
The scariest part about being a pregnant professional cyclist (aside from the realization that you’re about to get fat, push a human out of a small orifice, and then manage that person for 18 years) is the fear of becoming irrelevant. Being a pro cyclist is a huge part of my identity. It’s the thing that makes me interesting at parties, the way I categorize myself in the world. Sure, there are other decently notable qualities about me (I can do the demon voice from The Exorcist, I’m great at crossword puzzles, my turkey chili recipe is damn good) but pro cycling is probably the most interesting thing I’ve done and my proudest accomplishment. Changing my cyclist body with a pregnancy and my life with the massive transition to motherhood represents a terrifying shift into the unknown: will I ever be this person again?
In realizing I might not have a 2018 race season (although with a due date in mid-February, I’m still foolishly determined to line up by June), running the team again was hardly a question. I couldn’t train or race the same way for a year, but at least I could stay engaged in the sport in a meaningful way. Planning Hagens Berman | Supermint version 2018 kept me from feeling like I was totally losing my identity and, on the days when pregnancy symptoms had me bedridden for hours, also kept me from losing my mind. I was so busy with emails, phone calls, contracts, and planning that it distracted from the depression that came with feeling physically terrible, missing training and racing, and watching my body expand despite no increase in cake intake.
All this to say I’m more than grateful for the chance to run this team again. Instead of seeing it as a burden, now it feels like an opportunity to be a better leader, run an even tighter program, and take everything I’ve learned so far and put it into practice. Jono and I worked so hard to start this two years ago and I’m glad something kept me from walking away, even if that something came with morning sickness and XL sports bras.
But holy crap, building a team is hard. I’m having an easier time building a small person than I am a cycling team. It’s been about two months since the 2018 planning work really started and all I keep thinking is the quote, “Surgery, when interrupted, looks very much like murder.” There is so much to do and everything is a work in progress: Hire staff. Hire riders. Lock down existing sponsors. Find new sponsors. Find more money. Each step takes a dozen phone calls and emails and even as I’m crossing something off the list as finally done, I’m simultaneously adding three other things to still do.
It’s exhilarating at times. Realizing I’m building a real organization with employees and sponsors and goals and commitments is awesome – women’s cycling desperately needs more professional teams and it feels like a huge accomplishment to lead this one into its third season. It still amazes me that I’m old enough to drive to the grocery store and buy all of the candy I want, so it occasionally boggles the mind to realize I’m actually making something real and meaningful happen. How crazy is it to build and run a whole pro team?
At other times, it’s so daunting I want to cry and give up, and the only thing that keeps me going are the promises I’ve made to everybody to deliver a great season. The cycling industry is a hard business with so much competition for resources and it often feels like everybody is already tapped out. Companies can’t afford to do sponsorships, are already tied to other teams, or just aren’t interested. If I send 10 emails pitching the team to potential sponsors, I get 11 rejections.
But the most meaningful lesson I’ve learned in the past two years of this business is how to take rejection in stride and not give up. It took dozens of rejections back in 2015 before I was able to convince Hagens Berman to believe in this team but it was worth every painful rebuff in the end. I don’t need 58 bike sponsors; I only need one. So if I get 57 rejections while asking companies to back my team, that’s fine as long as the 58th response is a yes.
This makes it sounds like I have my shit together on this subject, which is a lie. There are a lot of sleepless nights and anxious days throughout this process. My budget is tight and I’m constantly trying to figure out how to build the best season possible for the best team possible without spending cash I don’t have. It’s a relief when I get positive news – a sponsor says yes, a great rider signs a contract – but that long to-do list still looms and sometimes it feels physically hard to breathe. (That may also be the baby squishing everything in my abdomen.)
My goal is that by the time we have the first team camp in December, all of this will be sorted and the team foundation will be rock solid. Our roster of sponsors will cover what the team needs for success, our budget will be enough to pay the bills all season without scrimping and stressing, and we will have plans in place to return value to our sponsors all year.
That last piece is critically important in building a successful team, and one that seems to be frequently overlooked in cycling. It’s great to ask companies for free stuff. It’s even better to actually get free stuff. (Or money. I love money. Money always comes in the right size.) But if I ask you to give my team stuff in exchange for doing things for you and then I don’t follow through on my end, you’re not going to give me free stuff again. It seems a lot of teams and riders start strong with sponsor promotion and then forget when racing gets distracting. Then sponsors don’t see a return on investment and they pull out at the end of the contract. That’s bad for everybody in the sport.
From the beginning, Jono and I were determined to keep that from happening with our team. We kept the list of sponsors tight, learned what mattered to each company, and then tried to deliver noticeable value. As I’m rebuilding this team for another season, that’s still the driving intent – I will only offer what we can deliver. No sense in peddling bullshit and then disappointing a company that took a chance on my team. But that means more work on this end; I have to choose sponsor targets carefully, work harder to understand their business and what they need, and then develop a specific pitch to win them over. When the rejection comes, it hurts that much more and sometimes I start to panic that if my 100% best effort isn’t enough, then what’s it going to take? WHAT IF I HAVE TO RUN A PRO CYCLING TEAM WITH NO BIKES? This would drive me to drink if that were an option.
This is not unlike doing a stage race. Midway through you’re thinking there is no possible way to wring three more stages out of your dead legs, and then suddenly it’s all done and you’re drinking a beer reflecting on how it was all so awesome. I keep moving forward each day, plowing through the list, getting back up after taking hits, believing that it will all work out and the newest iteration of this team will be the best yet. And you damn well better believe there is a victory beer at the end of this. You know, after the whole birth thing is done.