On the rivet: Interview with Jessica Cerra

February 5, 2015 § 20 Comments

Jessica Cerra is one of those riders who has earned her spot in the peloton through skill, toughness, resilience, and force of will. She came to road racing via triathlon and MTB, and burst onto the local North County San Diego scene a couple of years ago as she was recovering from surgery to correct a severe case of iliac artery compression syndrome in her right leg.

By the time she had healed, she was thrashing men on the group rides, and from there it was a short hop to dominating the local road races, riding as the marquee women’s racer for SPY-Giant-RIDE. With powerful performances on the national stage, notably at Redlands in 2014, Jess was picked up for the 2015 season by Twenty16 p/b ShoAir.

It will be her first full year with a professional women’s team, and although she had calendared an ambitious season, a few weeks ago she learned that she was also suffering from iliac compression syndrome in her left leg. She’s had the surgery and is expected to make a full recovery, though she’ll have an obviously different racing schedule. Jess was kind enough to talk with me about a whole host of topics related to racing. Enjoy!

CitSB: What are your goals for 2015?

Jessica Cerra: My biggest goal was a stage win at Redlands and a top-3 GC finish. I don’t know that that’s a reality anymore [due to surgery — ed.]. An NRC stage win, a podium at nationals, definitely a podium at Winston-Salem or in Philly. Qualifying for the road world championship team, I guess that’s the biggest goal that I have overall.

CitSB: What kind of mental prep goes into a shot at making the road team for worlds?

JC: The more I try to hold back expectations the worse things go. The more I go in relaxed, remembering that I’m here because I like to race my bike, then the more instinctual decisions I make and things turn out better. This year I planned to go in being the strongest, most durable, fittest person out there because in those situations you can think more clearly; you’re not hanging on, you’re affecting the race. That’s how I want to race this year. I put in a huge base this year, 2,000 miles just in December, and I took good care of my body, got consistent massages, and have been working with a coach now, documenting sleep and weight, and taking a more professional approach. But my coach also likes me just being me; I like numbers and knowing my power but I also like doing the group ride with Thurlow on the front just killing it, and putting myself on the front, in the wind, so I know what my body can do in those super tough scenarios and then I can rely on those things to get me ready for racing, where those super hard moments happen all over again. Since I don’t have a lot of experience as a racer, the group rides are a huge part of my training.

CitSB: How does it feel to be the only woman in the first 25 wheels or on the entire ride when Thurlow and company are drilling it?

JC: It’s my favorite part about riding my bike. It’s pretty cool! After a while I don’t even feel any different from anyone else. I compare myself exactly to the peers I’m riding with. I’m hard on myself, too, I only see my weaknesses.

CitSB: What’s the hardest thing for women throwing their hat in the ring on the hard group rides?

JC: A lot of women are intimidated. There’s the fear of getting dropped, that everyone will notice, and it’s so embarrassing. I always try to encourage other women and make sure to compliment them when they do well or make it to certain points in the ride. I remember being nervous going to the Swami’s Ride, feeling exactly like I was going to a race! It’s intimidating and you don’t want to do something goofy and be “that person,” and you’re obsessed about training and don’t want to ruin your training by getting dropped. I encourage every woman to get out there. It’s the reason I’ve gotten as strong as I am; I’ve put myself in situations that are harder than what I have the strength for. You learn so much about racing and handling when you’re over your limit. It’s true, too, guys have better bike handling skills. You learn so much by racing with guys in a crit, about the lines that they take, and you start to see things, like how they can squeak through the inside of corners. It’s faster and more aggressive so there’s less time to think about what you’re doing. Most of the riders have the fitness to race but a lot of it is, “Why am I getting dropped when there’s five laps to go?” The more you do it, you realize it’s not fitness, it’s efficiency and awareness. You keep putting yourself in those situations, and it’s scary and you just do it. That’s how I learned.

CitSB: Now you’re a fixture on the North County rides and guys know that you can grind them up into little chunks of meat and they fear you. How does that feel?

JC: I don’t know if I look at it like that. I’m so focused on my own internal fears of what’s going to happen when I get to the power climb, and I know the women’s pro field is so strong and they know what they’re doing and are so good. NRC races are so different from local ones. I was supposed to go with the national team to do the spring classics which I’m not doing now, but I think of those situations on the local rides getting me prepared to be in those types of pelotons. When you don’t have a ton of experience in these races but you live in a place where there are 150 people on a group ride, you can apply the same things you know are going to happen in a race. If you want to be part of a race, then I go into a group ride practicing rotating through in the first 10 or 15 positions, gauging the effort to pull through, really what I’m doing is preparing myself to have to do those things in the peloton. It’s nice to ride with the guys; it used to be fun but now it’s more about completing a job. I expect them to make it hard and I expect them to look at me like I’m one of the people up there where it’s windy and not to make it easy because I’m a girl.

CitSB: Do you feel guys cut you slack? Or do they try to slaughter you like everyone else?

JC: They treat me like everyone else.

CitSB: How do you make the jump from racing Boulevard to the national or international level?

JC: Without my mountain biking background it would have been harder. I have lots of natural positional awareness and muscle memory where things happen in a race and I can read where to be, how to navigate through tricky situations, and how to feel confident about how I ride my bike. That’s huge. The second you don’t have confidence it’s going to be the worst day. When you’re riding scared nothing goes smooth.  You bobble and crash, and it’s the same in the peloton. Confidence is so huge. You take control and put yourself where you need to be. Combined with my fitness, I was lucky. I went into pro racing and figured I can handle a bike and am one of the best descenders, I’m fit enough to see what’s going on, to read how the lead-out will go, so in a lot of races I could freelance and observe and notice, and you know, I could also be focused on what I was bad at–I tried to practice those situations to get better because I didn’t have a lot of racing experience. I think the biggest thing about the transition was positioning and being efficient, and that same transition happens going from the national to the international peloton. It’s a whole different level. The courses are harder, the conditions are worse, the fight for position is constant, you have to keep putting yourself in position over and over and over again. I also learned that every time at end of a race when I decided to think through what was happening, I got my face kicked in, zero results. When I just “did” it rather than think it, something inside told me what to do and it seemed to work. It takes time to trust that inner feeling. I also didn’t feel I belonged. I was stoked with a top 20 at Redlands, and had no idea about my potential. I figured out that I was more prepped than I thought I was. It’s a hard balance, though. You can’t let it go to your head but you still have to be confident enough to trust your instincts to put yourself where you need to be.

CitSB: How are things going with Harmony Bar?

JC: We had a setback with the name. We filed for a trademark and then a couple of other companies filed for the same name and our application was denied. So now we’ve filed for a new name and have been in a year of a holding pattern because we can’t make our packaging and take the next step; without the name and the brand it’s hard to move forward. The good news is that we’re still consistently selling all of our inventory online and in the bike shops we work with. There’s no marketing except word of mouth. People say it’s the best they’ve ever had and they tell our story. The next couple of months will be quiet because we’re sorting out the name. We also signed up with SmartStop, which is a big opportunity for us. By Tour of California time we’ll be with SmartStop and ready with our new name, branding, and packaging.

CitSB: For someone not familiar with Harmony Bar, how is it different from the zillions of other energy foods out there?

JC: It’s unique because I never made it to market and sell. I made it because I have a master’s degree in exercise physiology, I was in the kitchen with ingredients, paper, and pen, and mixed them a hundred times over, over, and over until I got a bar that tasted like a cookie and had all the macro nutrients that I wanted for my training. This was something I was making for myself. I knew the research was there showing that bars higher in fat were good for endurance athletes. So basically, I wanted to eat cookies on the bike! I love food and eat a ton of calories on the bike and wanted to eat things that tasted good and were like real food. Everyone said “Holy crap, this tastes like a cookie and works so well and can I buy some?” It got popular on its own because, you know, athletes out there like cookies and like to eat!

CitSB: Do you see yourself as a role model for other cyclists?

JC: I’m starting to. Unfortunately, as much as we’re trying to grow the sport of women’s cycling, coming from triathlon and MTB, I can say that road racing is by far the most intimidating to get into. Its very clique-ish, the teams and their kits and the people keep to themselves. I remember feeling like “Whoa! This isn’t like mountain biking where we finish a race and all have a beer together!” It’s hard to feel like you have a place in it. For me it’s important to change that atmosphere and for women to feel like the sport is approachable, the people are approachable, that I’m approachable. People come up after a race and they’re intimidated and I don’t like that. I’m open to talking to everyone. Lots of people are continually asking for advice about food and particular race courses and I spend lots of time answering questions on Facebook and getting to know people. I’m genuinely interested in people and their goals. After having my setbacks, the biggest joy for me is seeing others succeed. I gave a girl my racing clothes from SPY because she didn’t have any; the team kits weren’t ready yet. There’s more I can do than just racing and trying to win.

CitSB: How do you help people break into the secret society of road racing? How do you get them to take the step to enter a race?

JC: Maybe it’s different for women? I just go up to women and tell them how well they’re riding. For women it’s different. A lot of people wlll approach me and say, “My friend said you’d be on the ride,” and it’s someone new or who’s not in a club and I’ll be cool and tell them to keep coming out, and find out what they like, do they like climbing or sprinting, and the more you start hanging around the more you’ll learn. It’s in my nature to help. When I started cycling in grad school I was a a Fred, or a Frieda, I didn’t have any money for equipment and cool, nice people helped and supported and gave me pedals, for example, and had that never happened I would have never gotten to the point I’m at now. I want cycling to grow, and rides to grow, and races to grow, and people who complain about prize money or promoters are missing the fun–it’s about knowing people and being excited about seeing people you know, not avoiding the race because you don’t fit in and aren’t going to beat Monster Media and Surf City and SPY and not get a result. I try to imagine if I were a Cat 5 dude how tough that would be and how intimidating. But there are enough people who are cool and who have the same perspective that I do, who want to help. We want local racing and good group rides and an atmosphere of mutual respect. There are a lot of really good people on SPY, the team I rode with last year, people who are great riders and humble and who want to help. Without the opportunities given me by SPY and Michael Marckx I wouldn’t have ever gotten to race Redlands and then gotten the call-up to the pro ranks. MMX knew I wouldn’t be at SPY in the long run but he saw the potential and the opportunity to help grow and launch an athlete. He really put his faith in me and I couldn’t have done it without him and the support–the financial support, the logistical support of getting to races, and just a group of people who were always so cool and who believed in me.

CitSB: Tell me about your new team.

JC: The new team is amazing! It’s called Twenty16 p/b ShoAir, and we’re a UCI team this year. The director is Mari Holden and the GM/owner is Nicola Cranmer. They appraoched me and had watched my racing earlier and saw something they liked and it seemed like a great match. We’re a unique team. We have a lot of team goals and do a lot of big races but we also emphasize individual goals like doing ‘cross or track or the national team and racing in Europe. The theme of the team is “Women that race with continued education.” They encourage college and want us to have things off the bike to contribute and bring to the team as well. I’m 32, I did the reverse — went to school first and then found pro cycling!

CitSB: How many teammates live in SD?

JC: Only me. A couple live in Orange County, but we’re from all over the place.

CitSB: Has the team targeted any races this year?

JC: Redlands, which is big for women, and this year TTT nationals is a good one for us because it will be good prep for TTT worlds, which is in the USA in Richmond. One of the big sponsors is SRAM so having them support the TOC women’s race is a huge addition to our calendar and something we’ll focus on. Tour of the Gila is UCI for women this year, so it’s a focus for all of the teams, as well as Winston-Salem and the Philly race, and Philly is a world cup event. All the races are around the same time as nationals, which will be key racing for our team.

CitSB: Anything you want to add?

JC: The team has been really supportive so it’s scary being the new person on the team and I’ve been waking up every morning with photos and texts from team camp. It’s a pretty good feeling to not have really met teammates and already be included. They truly have my best interests at heart! I know that it’s going to be a good season this year–a bunch of bad-ass women with a lot of horsepower on this team!



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SPY-Giant-RIDE training camp and beer sampling contest

January 12, 2014 § 16 Comments

I had really been looking forward to the weekend, that’s what I told myself as the whole fucking peloton exploded into wobbling, weaving fragments on the lower part of the Tramway climb, only I didn’t know it was the lower part because I’d never been there before or watched the finale of the Tour of California stage because if I had I would have known that the yellow sign and the modest bump-top I was sprinting for, far from being the top, was four miles from the top, and what was already the most miserable mile I’d ever spent on a bike was about to be most hellish five miles, not just one.

The leaders numbered about fifteen and I could count them, as they were plotted out in high relief against the ugly, featureless desert shitscape that spilled out like bad barf on either side of the roadway. The flailers numbered about sixty, riders who had, like me, thought they were coming to Palm Springs for a fun team bonding training camp, only to find out that as soon as they’d picked up their swag and put on their fancy kits that some sadist had planned the most miserable of afternoons for them in the high desert hell.

Slowly I moved up, latching onto the wheels of the decaying riders who, like me, were coming apart at the seams, but unlike me were coming apart slightly faster. My signature pant-gasp-hack-cough got into their heads along with the depressing reality that flashed across their minds as I sat on their wheels: “If Wankmeister has caught me and can hold my wheel, my fucking season is over. It’s like being caught by an obese child with short legs, only worse.” One by one they pounded as hard as they could, desperately trying to shake the stigma of having me ride them down, then pulled over in defeat as I soldiered on. This terribly painful, wholly unrewarding, ego-crushing climb ended with only a handful of the very best riders ahead of me. I calculated eighth place out of about seventy-five riders, with Chris Johnson, Brian Stack, John Abate, Paul Vaccari, Logan Fiedler, Dave Jaeger, and Taylor Vaccardi ahead of me.

This, of course, was a result so far beyond anything I could have ever imagined that it almost made up for the misery of the climb and the terror of the 60-mph downhill. When we all reconvened at the hotel, the consensus was general: On the very first ride of the very first day of training camp we had all destroyed ourselves so completely that we would spend the next two days sucking our thumbs, curled up in bed popping Advil and wishing we could go home.

What is a training camp?

I wondered this the sleepless night before our Spy-Giant-RIDE Second Annual Training Camp of General Awesomeness and Beer. There didn’t seem to be any tents, sleeping bags, or highjinks with the girl campers on the itinerary, so it clearly wasn’t a camp. And after wrecking all of our legs on Day One (various riders were so destroyed by the dry air and brutal climb that the following day they tucked tail 30 miles into the ride and slinked back to the hotel bar rather than complete the 103-mile death march across the desert), I couldn’t really figure out what it was we were training for, except perhaps for a graveside service.

Mrs. WM and I had in fact begun the whole thing in high spirits. We stopped in San Bernardino on the way out to get gas after the typical husband-wife car conversation, which began like this. “I gotta pee.”

“You’re fuggin’ kidding me. We’ve been in the car less than an hour.”

“I don’ care I gotta pee.”

“You can’t have to pee. There’s no way you have generated enough pee. You’ve drunk nothing. You can’t have to pee.”

“I gotta pee so let’s stop onna pee stop now.”

A few minutes later we were at a gas station. She came back to the car. “Can I get onna magazine?”

“Sure.” This was odd, because in 26 years of marriage she had read, maybe, four magazines. She returned to the car, smiling, with a copy of Cosmo. “What did you get that for? Don’t tell me you’re reading Cosmo for fashion advice?”

“It had onna cover story called ‘Fantasy Sex.'”

There was a brief silence as I calculated the possibilities. Team training camp was starting to look good.

Swag me!

When we arrived at the Westin Mission Hills Resort and Golf Nirvana our awesome team bosses greeted us with an assembly line of kits, caps, eyewear, and t-shirts. It was brain numbing to think that we, a worthless bunch of prostate-challenged wannabes were being showered with so much pro stuff. Our kits came in plastic bags with our names on them, and the kits themselves had our names on the side panels of the jerseys. We gazed in wonder, not simply at the awesomeness of it, but at the realization that all the other teams would be purple with envy when they saw our rad personalized clothing. Henceforth the pro masters SoCal masters cycling circuit would, unquestionably, be demanding personalized kits even as they gnawed their livers at not having thought of it first.

After returning from our horrific Day One training ride, I realized many things, and chief among them was this: Just because I have a fancy kit doesn’t mean I’m any good. This was really depressing, as I’d been hoping, deep down, that by wearing the nicest kit I would somehow be a better rider.

SPY had reserved a giant room with a bar, restaurant, and conference area for the afternoon presentations. We began with the most important one, from SPY Optic, called “Why You Are Here.” This was important because from the moment we were showered with swag and set up for the amazing weekend, each of us wondered the same thing: “What’s a wanker like me doing to deserve all this?”

To the relief of many, the answer was NOT “Go forth and win bike races.”

Instead, the answer was something entirely different. It was, “Go forth and live a good life, and a happy one. If you win bike races as a result, good for you. If you win nothing at all, you’ve still won everything possible.” In shorthand that every bike racer can understand, we were treated to the SPY motto, “HTFU.” Yeah. Happy the Fuck Up.

A few of the new recruits may have been puzzled, but I wasn’t. Anyone who thinks that winning bike races, or winning any kind of race, is the key to a good life well lived, hasn’t read the fine print that comes Life. Crushing the souls of your competitors, or marking up their FB wall with boasts about how you’ll destroy their hopes in the Aged People With Prostate Issues Category is important, and fun, and, perhaps, fulfilling in some strange way. But the key to getting your foot onto the next stepping stone in life isn’t “winning.” It’s being the kind of person who is kind, and it’s happily accepting happiness as a completely self-fulfilling way of doing the journey.

Of course none of us bought that bullshit for even a nanosecond, and all we could think about was training harder, racing smarter, and beating the snot out of the guys and women we race against, hopefully humiliating them in front of their small children, but at a minimum making fun of them for cherry-picking crits and avoiding anything with a hill in it.

How the team was fitted

The next morning we staggered into breakfast, inhaled everything on the buffet line, and sat down to a presentation from Harmony Bars, a San Diego company that makes what is unquestionably the tastiest in-your-jersey-pocket-treat ever created. However, no one in the room was able to concentrate on the caloric and nutritive aspects of the presentation, since it was being done by Jess Cerra in a pair of mesh white tights. We had all spent the previous day having Jess ride us off our her wheel on the Tramway climb, not terribly different from the times she had ridden us off her wheel on the Swami’s Ride, on the SPY Holiday Ride, on the Belgian Waffle Ride, or, frankly, every other ride we’d ever accompanied her on.

Jess’s strength and unrelenting power on the bike, and her unparalleled ability to litter the roadside with smashed male egos, was equaled only by her presentation in the white tights. Every man in the room died a little bit that day, heaping jealousy and hatred on the shoulders of John Abate as we watchd, er, listened, to Jess’s presentation. The Harmony Bar story can be summed up thus: This shit tastes good, is locally made, and was designed by people who crush on the bike. Okay?

Next we heard from our StageOne sponsors, the dudes who designed and manufactured our kits. Joe Yule and Jon Davy had a glazed look in their eyes, and it was clear they’d put together their presentation after a detailed sketch on the back of a napkin. Davy’s every third word was “Uh,” and with good reason: StageOne had designed, manufactured, delivered, bagged, and tagged the entire team kit in less than ninety days. This had involved multiple designs and product tests, trips to the manufacturing plant in Holland, and an eye for detail and execution that no one but Davy could have ever delivered. Joe Yule’s lifelong mission to beautify the highways of California had come, yet again, to fruition, as our SPY-Giant-RIDE kit was so beautiful that grown men wept while taking selfies of themselves in the mirror and posting them to their mothers’ FB pages.

To make matters more intense, StageOne replaces SPY-Giant-RIDE’s previous kit manufacturer Squadra, and riders are nothing if not bitchy little pricks about their kits. Whatever concerns people had about leaving the top-line kits of Squadra for the as-yet-untried-new-kids-on-the-block-StageOne were dispelled after our first team pedal. Sporting innovations that include a zipper garage, back grippers on the jersey, and farmer-john straps for comfort when you’re not wearing a base layer, the StageOne design and production received rave reviews, which is good, because if anyone had dared complain they’d have had a 210-lb. Jon Davy to deal with.

Following the StageOne presentation we heard from Giant, our bike sponsor. I wish I could explain to you in detail why the new Giant Propel is the most awesome bike since someone decided to make a bicycle with a chain … but I can’t. The Giant presentation explained lots of details about the Propel and about the concept of aero road frames and about how it improved on what most already considered the most perfect bike ever made, the Giant TCR, but it was all in one ear and out the other for me as I was still stuck on the Harmony Bars and the white tights. One of the problems that Giant has with its bikes is that each new model improves on an already incredible model, and the people like me who are completely in love with the current model can’t imagine something better than what they’ve already got. But the situation appears pretty simple, in that the Propel will propel you faster.

Let my people go

Once the presentations finished we saddled up for a leisurely 103-mile ride in the desert. It was going to be a friendly, two-by-two affair until we hit a nasty sidewind going up a long grade and the young punks turned on the gas and shredded the field. Suddenly our 75-person peloton was split into multiple groups of desperately pedaling flailers who broke up into echelons as they tried to avoid getting further behind. The young punks pulled away as I sat back in the second group watching the end of the day happen at about mile twenty, because there was no way the leaders were coming back. As we toiled into the most miserable of howling sidewinds, the guy in front of me exploded into pieces and I lunged ahead in a last-ditch effort to bridge.

Leaving entrails, my soul, and copious quantities of spit and snot on the road, I somehow made it across. The only rider to go with me was, of course, Jess, who then went straight to the front and took a pull even as I hung on the back and prayed for a land mine. Happily, Andy Schmidt flatted at Dillon Road and we all stopped, giving the broken, dropped, crushed, and defeated remainder of the group time to catch up to us. People looked so ill and sad and sick and unhappy that it was clear to me the training camp was a total success.

For the remainder of the ride we rotated, hammer-tated, flail-tated, and generally gasped our way back to the hotel. Massive beerdration ensued for those of us who had not had enough water, and after an even more massive pizza feast we sat down and listened to another slew of evening presentations. The one that impressed me the most was MRI Endurance, our team’s presenting sponsor who is a manufacturer of training supplements. They impressed me not because of the presentation — I was too drunk to understand any of it and kept falling asleep on F-1 Jim’s shoulder, awakening only to wipe off the drool — but because of the following day when MRI handed out the team product.

Have you ever seen a shark feeding frenzy? People were practically gnawing each others’ arms off to get their share of the special supplements. Eyes were gouged, crotches were kneed, and medullas were rabbit-punched in the melee. Judging from the enthusiasm of the riders, this stuff works wonders.

Ending on a high note

On Sunday morning, we were so trashed from the beer, the riding, and the presentations of the night before that a few shameless wankers left early (after collecting all their swag, of course). Those who stuck around got to enjoy yet another morning of great food, camaraderie, and a series of excellent presentations from Skins, RIDE Cyclery, SRAM/Zipp, Lake cycling shoes, Razer keyboards & mice, and Clearwater Partners. Skins provided a detailed scientific review of the benefits of their full line of compression gear, but Mrs. WM had only one question: “If you compress onna chin-chin, it’s gonna make it bigger?”

I didn’t know what to say, or even what product to order. The compression tube sock, maybe, in size XXXXS?

The other sponsors helped us better understand the benefits of working with an awesome local bike shop, of racing on SRAM components and ZIPP wheels, of using Lake shoes and the Boa locking system, and of investing all of our money with Clearwater so we can retire early and race our bikes full time like true SoCal masters professionals.

We took a fine group picture  and called it a day. My 2014 season is officially a success, thanks to the excellent job I did riding around the resort looking splendid in my new outfit and (barely) beating Jess up the Tramway climb. Looking forward to lots of great racing in 2015.

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