The 2018 national mountain bike championship was a 25-mile circuit that was to be run twice. It was relatively flat, which meant only that the cyclists had no opportunity to slow down, instead having to maintain a high speed and intensity throughout despite the blisteringly hot weather. It was at this race, in Arkadelphia, Ark., that senior Abbey O’Brien became the 2018 age group champion in the mountain bike event.
O’Brien’s strategy in marathons like these is to pace herself, to conserve her energy so that even if she starts out behind, she can make up ground as the race wears on.
“It was a little scary because the first climb I got dropped by everyone,” O’Brien said.
However, she stuck to her plan by maintaining her rhythm, drinking every 15 minutes and eating every 20. Slowly, she built up speed and cut her way through the pack. She didn’t know that she was leading until she crossed the finish line and heard her name announced as the first-place finisher.
“It felt really really good, but it was also kind of weird… I am the same person, but I also won a very important race and get to wear stripes on my arm for the rest of my life,” O’Brien said, “So, it was just this awe-inspiring thing.”
O’Brien has been bicycling for most of her life but started to do it seriously after she moved to Omaha when she was 13. She started going to nationals for Cyclocross, a type of event in which cyclists race for 45 minutes in difficult conditions. Later, she started doing marathon races as well when she realized she was better at them. But her accomplishments haven’t come easily—to keep improving she has had to sacrifice much of her personal time to follow an intense training regimen.
“It’s very time consuming, so you have to figure out how to balance how you’re living person-wise and then bike-wise,” O’Brien said.
On Tuesdays, she practices short, high intensity intervals, making sure to warm up on the ground before getting on her bike. Then, on Wednesdays she practices longer intervals, leaving as soon as she can so that she doesn’t run out of daylight. Thursdays are either another high intensity day or a recovery day, and Fridays she spends doing openers in preparation for Saturday—race day. On race days she makes sure to eat at least three hours before her event, so if it starts at 8 in the morning, she is up by 4:30 cooking breakfast. If the race is a two–day event, she spends Sunday racing as well, but otherwise she gets the day off. Mondays she spends resting and recovering in anticipation of another week of training.
The grueling nature of her training routine sometimes makes it difficult to stay committed, but she keeps herself motivated by watching races, appealing to her own competitive nature and making pump-up playlists consisting of old school punk, 90s hip hop and a single K-pop song. More than anything, she says, it’s the biking community that keeps her coming back.
“The race community here is small but mighty,” O’Brien said. “It’s super cool; there are like 300 or so people who ride bikes and race bikes here, and it’s really cool because almost all of those people end up at every local race… They’re all goofy and loud and obnoxious, but fun.”
Even though there are no mountains in Nebraska, O’Brien says that there is an active mountain bike community that builds and maintains trails. The group THOR (“Trails Have Our Respect”) has built two new trails in the past three years.
“What I do with them, and what I have done in the past, is just go into those trails with weed–wackers and lawnmowers and make sure nothing’s growing on the trails and nobody is leaving trash around,” O’Brien said.
But as supportive as O’Brien feels that the biking community is, she says that there are still many young women who are discouraged from participating, partially due to a toxically hyper-competitive atmosphere surrounding the sport.
“I think that it’s important, especially in the cycling community, to realize that you don’t have to race, and you can just go enjoy riding bikes,” O’Brien said.
Another factor that O’Brien says keeps young women from starting to bike is the sexism ingrained in many of the sports’ institutions. Sometimes, this takes the form of categories that are available to male cyclists which aren’t available to young women.
“I had to fight for the category to be added for the nationals that I won,” O’Brien said. “I had to make a couple phone calls and a couple emails like ‘Hey, why do you have a dudes’ category for my age, but there’s no female one?’”
O’Brien also says she experienced this institutional sexism at road Nationals in 2016, when they combined the girls’ 15 and 16–year–old group with the 17 and 18–year–olds. When the distance between the two groups closed, the administrators made some of the girls stop while others, O’Brien amongst them, got mixed in with the other age group. No such combination was made with boys’ groups.
A similar scenario occurred at Cyclocross nationals when the boys and girls were put on the same course due to inclement weather, and once the boys caught up with the girls, the girls were pulled from the race, meaning the winner that year only completed one lap.
“They don’t give us equal opportunities and it screws up everything and makes girls not want to race bikes at the national level, and therefore they don’t ride bikes,” O’Brien said.
As professionals and young women fight for more equal treatment, O’Brien has said things have started to improve and expects them to continue to improve in the future.
As for her own future, O’Brien says that she wants to continue biking, but does not want to go pro.
“You have to be a superhuman, and I’m not a superhuman. I like doing other things too,” O’Brien said. “[Fort Lewis] has a cycling team, and I might end up there, but if I don’t, I’ll just keep riding because bike communities are everywhere, regardless of how big or small they are. Bike people are good people; I’ve never met a mean bike person, so I’ll just bond with them and ride bikes with them. I’m never going to stop.”