Cycling is a tumultuous sport at the best of times. Since transitioning to the European peloton I've experienced many highs. At my first World Championships in Innsbruck I finished 5th in the time trial- a handful of seconds from third. I have won some smaller races, and stood on the podium at Strade Bianche. I have developed long lasting friendships with my team-mates and experienced a new culture. I’ve seen growth as an athlete which motivates me to reach for more.
But I have also experienced heavy lows. I have suffered injuries and sickness at the most inopportune times. I’ve felt sad and lonely having to be far away from the people I love. My team folded this year — twice! — forcing me to find a new one just two weeks before the signing deadline.
With all that has happened in my short career, I have been asked how I deal with the ups and downs of cycling. The truth is the lessons I have learned that have allowed me to adapt to uncertainty and keep pushing forward were learned long before I entered the sport. And the lessons I learn from cycling will help me succeed in whatever I choose to do upon retirement. As I’ve reflected over this past year and my life from childhood, four key lessons come to mind that have helped me hold my head up throughout my cycling journey.
Lesson 1: Work hard
When I was a little girl, I lived and breathed gymnastics. I was one of those seven year-olds who went to bed in their leotard. I would do cartwheels all the way to the smoothie shop, or I would put flip-flops on my hands and see how far I could walk down the street in a handstand. While I did gymnastics because I loved it, it also taught me some very important lessons, the most important of which was to work hard. Full stop. Gymnastics requires a level of discipline and perseverance from an extremely young age. Being exposed to these lessons normalised hard work and instilled in me a solid work ethic that has continually served me in all areas of my life - from school to sport.
In 2019 I was riding well until a crash at the Boels Ladies Tour. That led to nerve pain and a bulging disc that would cause my whole right leg to go numb. If I tried to fire my glutes, I would squeeze my right quad - essentially, my butt muscles had been completely shut down. After a successful 2018 Worlds debut, I had built the second half of my 2019 season around being ready for the time-trial at the World Championships. I hadn’t taken into account the possibility of injury and finished a disappointing seventh in Yorkshire.
I felt dejected. Although I didn’t get to show all the hard work I had put in, I knew that I had to get back up and get to work. First with diligent physical therapy exercises to get my nerve signals remapped, and then on the bike to rebuild all the fitness I had lost as a result of the injury. The willingness to work hard even when things are not going my way has contributed hugely to the results I have achieved since.
Lesson 2: Listen to your gut
After I turned 17, gymnastics was no longer a place of joy where I was challenged and stretched to grow as an athlete and person. I knew something had changed and I knew I was unhappy, but I was unsure as to why. Knowing nothing else, I threw myself headfirst into the gym again. I was always the first one there and the last one to leave, but that feeling of unease remained.
One night I was driving myself up the winding mountain road to my home following a fairly normal practice. During the drive, something clicked and I began to sob. I parked, walked through the door, and sat down, crying, in the hallway. My dad asked me what was wrong and I told him I was quitting gymnastics. He had been a good runner himself but had always felt that he had left running prematurely and worried I was doing the same thing. The reality was my gut had been telling me for some time that I wasn’t happy, that something wasn’t right.
Finally figuring out why had hit me hard. All I had known in my young life was gymnastics and stepping away from the familiar was terrifying. But I also knew I was dreadfully unhappy and could say with absolute certainty I was done with gymnastics. In that moment, not only did I listen to what I was trying to tell myself, but I found the courage to act on what I knew to be true and to be accountable for my own decisions and actions.
In cycling, I have used lesson two most when it comes to choosing teams to race for. Am I staying on a team because I am comfortable? Am I choosing a team because of the prestige the name holds, or because I think they will help me develop into a better rider? Do I fit with the culture of the team? Does the team’s racing style fit my strengths as a rider? Finding a place where you are stretched and challenged, but also supported is a major key to my success and have relied heavily on my gut to guide me in these decisions.
Lesson 3: Push past your comfort zone
Quitting gymnastics ended up being one of the best decisions I ever made. I ended up working in a local restaurant and befriended many of the cooks there, which exposed me to a completely different culture and lifestyle from my own. That experience caused me to explore different components of immigration and its effects on identity, and so I found myself in the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico living with a host family for a year studying abroad. The problem is that the Yucatan was not the Mexico I was expecting to find. Instead of tacos I found hotdogs. Instead of huaraches, I found big wheels of Dutch cheese covered in ground beef and olives. Even the Spanish, in this case sprinkled with Mayan words, caught me off guard. I wanted to find the “real” Mexico - the Mexico the cooks in the restaurant had told me about, and I was certain that the Yucatan was not it.
I called my dad and confidently told him I was moving study abroad programs. I had found one in Oaxaca that seemed more in line with my interests and that seemed to more closely match the Mexico I expected. To my surprise, my dad flat out told me no. He said, “Get off the phone, go inside, and connect with your host family.” Confident Yucatan was not where I was supposed to be, I was more than a little annoyed, but his words marked a huge turning point.
Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I decided it was up to me to make the best of my experience. I did more things with my host family, spent more time with my classmates after school, and ended up having one of the most profound years of my life. I grew so much as a person that year and learned that growth really happens when you adapt to your situation and persevere through discomfort. I discovered I had a team around me to support me as I challenged myself but, most importantly, I had a team that could broaden my perspectives and help me push through when I felt like I was at the end of my rope. I couldn’t just give up and come home when things got hard. Being forced to push through a difficult experience taught me that things don’t stay bad forever.
After racing in the US for a couple years I took the leap to move to Europe. This transition was hard. I was far from my family and what I knew, and in a different culture. I was the only American on my team and at times felt lost and overwhelmed. But I knew from experience from my time living abroad that if I kept at it, I would get better - as a cyclist and a person - and the discomfort would eventually fade. I would adapt and find my way. My first season in Europe had many lows but also many highs; both caused me to become better. Coming back for a second season showed how much I had learned and grown as an athlete in 2019.
Lesson 4: Beat yesterday!
Upon graduating from university, I began teaching on the Navajo Reservation. If you’re not familiar with Native American history in the US, most tribes were sent to live on specific plots of land doled out by the government in the 1800s as pioneers began to move west. These plots, or reservations, tend to lack clean water, quality education, and job opportunities.
To put it mildly, first year teaching is hard. I was teaching sixth grade science but, because I had never done it before, I lacked the ability to see the whole curriculum and how the pieces fit together. How are we going to build on what we are learning now later in the year? No idea! Furthermore, I had no understanding of what my students’ prior knowledge was. Things I would assume they knew- like what language they spoke in Colombia, or how much fat was in skim milk, were things they had actually never been exposed to. I was caught completely off guard.
Enter lesson number four. There is no way you can become a good teacher overnight, so rather than focus on all the things I couldn’t do, I decided to concentrate on the small things I could change each day. If I could anticipate my students’ needs a little better, offer more engaging activities, encourage collaboration, my classroom would run better and my students would learn more. Each day I entered the classroom with the goal to focus on one small thing to do better than the day before. As I looked back at the days, I could see the growth that these small steps brought me each day.
This is my biggest lesson that I apply every day to my career. What can I do today that will help me improve on the day before? Do I need to rest and recover? Do I need a long ride? Do I need to work on my tactics? Do I need more sleep? Does my mind need a break in order to endure the long season? Deciphering these questions can be difficult, but beginning to have honest conversations with yourself and your coach can help make small, consistent improvements that add up to big time gains in some of the biggest races! I found myself applying this lesson full-heartedly when all the racing was cancelled at the start of the pandemic, and saw tremendous growth throughout those few months. I came back to Europe stronger, more confident and rode myself onto the podium at Strade Bianche.
Cycling is a hard sport but life had already taught me many of the lessons I would need to endure cycling long before I had ever even touched a bike. Even better, as I continue to try to be the best cyclist I can be, I know the lessons I learn along the way will not only help me become a better athlete, but will prepare me for whatever comes next.
Leah Thomas rides for Movistar Team