© 2023 State Bicycle Co..
words: Céline Oberholzer / photos: Alex Roszko
Each day during the week leading up to RedBull Rio Grande Gravel, I obsessively checked my weather app hoping the forecast would change for the better. A record breaking heat wave was tyrannizing West Texas; temperatures were projected to creep into the triple digits on race day. No hint of a miraculous cold front on the horizon. Instead, the temperatures crept higher every time I checked the forecast.
Lead group starting off the race..
Earlier this season, I literally cooked myself at the Valley of the Sun road race to the point of vomiting repeatedly post-race. My confidence, in my capacity to gauge my efforts, and in my heat tolerance, was at rock bottom. Nerves and general stress about being out on the notoriously exposed West Texas roads for 80 miles in searing temperatures on race day were at an all-time high.
On race day, I woke up unsure as to whether or not I even wanted to start. Would it be safe to put my body through that? And for what? Would I be letting my team down if I did not start? Would I be letting myself down? I was deep inside my own head, the doubts overwhelming. I stared into my coffee, desperate for it to give me some guidance.
2022 has been filled with the darkest personal battles I have experienced in my 25 years on this earth. Although I can say with some certainty that I am safely on the other side of those struggles, I am still not entirely myself. Not too long ago, I thrived on doing what some might call, “stupid shit”. In 2017, I Everested while going to school in Indiana just to see if I could do it. This meant riding the same half-mile hill over 115 times to crack 29,000 feet of elevation in one ride. In 2019, I rode Unbound (206 miles) just to see if I could finish the event. In both cases, I did. But depression has a way of making something as mundane as getting out of bed feel like an impossible task… let alone riding 80 miles. On paper, RedBull Rio Grande Gravel was not even close to the longest, hardest, or hottest race I had signed up for. But at that moment, it sure felt like it.
Wildebeest of the course
My fellow bike racer and travel compadre, Allan Schroeder, could see me spiraling as he sipped his coffee from across the table. Aware of my history, and almost certainly a world-class therapist in a past life, he knew exactly what to say. He helped me to see that I had managed to get out of bed, sip some coffee, and ingest some food. These were already victories. If I could just make it to the start line, the rest would be bonus. All I had to do was give it my best try. With that mindset, I gathered my things and we loaded up the car to drive to the start.
I was pleased to see some old friends and my State Bicycle Co. teammates at the start; familiar faces have a special way of settling the nerves and lifting the mood. To my surprise, I received a call-up to the start line. Things were looking up… temperature included. Standing on the line at 8:58am, the temperature was already 80*F.
Riders navigate the 2nd "gravel" section of the course, with fine dust.
The group was off. Dust from the gravel roads kicked up in spectacular fashion as the stampede of racers plowed their way through the first sector. I made my mind up to take this race one lap at a time and to settle into a sustainable pace early on. As the group charged up a steep kicker, I recognized the unsustainability of the effort I was going into, let off the gas, and kicked it into my “all day” gear. The course eventually turned onto a sandy section; the dust that kicked up in the wake of the riders dramatically reduced visibility.
Smiles for miles :)
The group got ripped apart and stayed that way going forward. On my own, I kept my pace at my “all day” gear. Throughout that first lap, small groups would form and then dissolve again. That was a theme based on the nature of the course. As soon as the course presented some more technical features, groups would flake apart. On smoother, faster sections, people drew together like magnets, eager to maximize their efficiency with numbers. And just like that, one lap was ticked off. As I crossed the line, I was told that I was in third place. No way? I quickly dumped my three empty bottles and replaced them with three fresh ones. Onwards.
Celine trying to cool of for a few seconds before going back out for the 3rd and final lap
The temperature was noticeably hotter on lap two. Rather than taking it one lap at a time, I adjusted my mindset to “one aid station at a time”. The race organizers luckily had the foresight to stage aid with water, gatorade, and snacks every 12 miles. I spent much of lap two all by myself and just stayed in the same rhythm. I drank as much as I could, and poured water on myself to try to stay cool. Little by little, one pedal stroke at a time, the miles ticked by. At the second aid station, I stopped to fill up in preparation for lap three. I crossed the start/finish line and knew I was still in third place. One more lap.
Team Rider, Chris Tolley crusted with dried sweat and dirt on his 3rd lap.
By this point, the familiarity of the course was a benefit. I knew what to expect and when to expect it. I looked forward to the cool water and gatorade between each of the aid stations. At this stage, I was drinking a bottle every 15-20 minutes. My bike computer started glitching in the heat, so I spared some of my cooling water to pour on it. When I analyzed my files later, I saw it read 115*F. I came across a lone rider about 12 miles into lap 3; having a companion after so much time alone gave me a boost. We shared turns taking pulls into the wind, pushing our bikes through the sand and gravel to get to the end of the lap one last time. We did not say much, but it was clear that both of us were relieved to have company in our suffering. Our bikes, on the other hand, were creaking their complaints, our components dried out from the sand, dust, and wind. Just make it to the finish in one piece…
Team Rider, Scott Piercefield kicking up dust
The smiles and cheers from my friends and teammates as I crossed the line filled my very being with so much joy. The gravity of what I had just done soaked in. I felt proud of myself for lining up, finishing not one, nor two, but three whole laps of the RedBull Rio Grande. I am proud that that monumental effort was enough to land me on my first gravel podium. I later found out that very few people had finished the event, due to the extreme heat, sun exposure, and altitude. Knowing what the experience was in its entirety, I applaud anybody who dared to line up. What a day.
Massive thank you’s to my sponsors, especially State Bicycle Company for providing me with a bike that has never let me down during a gravel event.
Enormous thank you’s to my family, friends, and teammates who have never given up on me and continue to push me to be my best self - you are what keeps me coming back.
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