By Ruby West, Professional cyclo-cross athlete & NextGen track athlete
It’s December 3, 2020 – I’ve just made it back from my ride to my home base in Oudenaarde, Belgium.
It’s three degrees and pouring rain, it hasn’t stopped raining in the past two days. I’ve just returned from what was supposed to be a three-hour ride, which turned to be four. The strong winds that often come with the rain weren’t taken into consideration when I planned an overly optimistic route and wreaked havoc on me for the last hour, which coincided perfectly with when I ran out of snacks.
I wash off my bike and stop at the door to strip off the three jackets I wore as an attempt to stay warm, that have now all been soaked through. With soaked socks, I crawl my way through the kitchen to make a recovery smoothie and eat half a loaf of baguette with Nutella in the process. I open my phone to 5 unread emails and an overwhelming amount of messages in a WhatsApp group chat about the schedule and testing plans for the upcoming weekend’s races. Dreading all the energy I know I’ll have to put into those plans later, I try not to let myself think about that essay that isn’t going to write itself either.
I drag myself upstairs to try to reheat. After waiting 15 minutes for my toes to thaw and let the hives I get from the extreme cold subside, I finally crawl into the shower completely exhausted.
Just another day in the glamorous life of being a professional athlete and student, living halfway across the world, alone, in the middle of a global pandemic. But what can I do, this is the opportunity I’ve been training for my entire life.
I have commitments to my team to stay in Europe and continue to race; and the commitment to myself to see the season through. This is what I signed up for – this is it.
Race after race of disappointing results, being so far away from home continues to get harder and harder. I’m an ocean away from the comforts of friends and family that I haven’t seen in months. It’s hard to be away when things are going well, but on top of that, a country-wide lockdown, and navigating the challenges of being the only North American rider on a new, European team – it’s all a lot easier said than done.
Throughout the season I laid in bed unable to sleep, thinking to myself “why am I here and doing this?” The only explanation I could tell myself is that this was the dream I’d been chasing since I started racing a bike nearly 10 years ago. “My younger self would be proud. Everyone at home is so proud.” It’s easy to tell yourself these things, it’s less easy to believe them and find comfort in them.
Despite the flood of emotions during these gloomy days, there are moments of sunshine, metaphorically and literally. There are 2 dogs around me, one I live with and one that belongs to my team manager. They act as a temporary relief from the stress and homesickness when they smile and roll over so I can pet their bellies.
There’s a local family that runs a rotisserie chicken stand I take my cruiser bike to and bakeries on every street corner. Some days it’s easier to find comforts in this foreign place; it’s the little things that may be insignificant to some, but that give me a sense of home, making all of this just a little easier.
As my trip goes along, I learn to find opportunities for good days. I spend more time slowing down to enjoy the small seemingly mundane tasks, like making coffee in the morning, or sipping a cup of tea in my pajamas while we watch the race replay. When comfort isn’t easy to find, you learn how to make it for yourself.
Even though some days feel the same, I know that I can make them lighter and worth everything I’m going through. It’s the constant reminder to myself that this is a dream so many others would love to have, and I’m lucky enough to wake up and strap my helmet on day after day.
I go for another day of training; I write that essay; I organize and show up for those COVID tests; I do the next race and the one after that and the one after that. Being here, I have to finish what I started and go through the motions, to put one foot in front of another. This may be a season like no other, being on a new team, in a different country, in a world where things can seem scary and uncertain, but I came here with goals to conquer and finish out a season in a sport I love and have been working my entire life for. I just keep chugging along.
It can’t always be rainbows and butterflies, and this year was far from it, but the perspective and lessons it provided will last a lifetime.