Rachel Lloyd lives only a quarter of a mile up Iron Springs Road in Fairfax, but it is steepish, and narrow, and I know well that on an unseasonably bright and warm Friday afternoon, mountain bikers are apt to come ripping down the hill around the corner at any moment. I’m usually one of them. To be on this bicycle highway in my car makes me sweat. I survive the parking test without killing any comrades and descend the stairs to the house. Lloyd’s house is located in that Goldilocks zone in Marin, graced by wise and stately redwoods, but not so dense that sunlight is stifled. On a sunny day, the smell of the ancient trees is elemental, soothing.
Lloyd is a 40-year-old professional cyclocross racer. We chat on her front porch as her two-year-old naps, and her five-year-old watches something with robots that we later find out is “boring” from his half brother, Arthur, who is 10. Lloyd moved to Marin from Bellingham, Washington when she was twenty to become a mountain bike racer, and did well, but not well enough to make a living. Placing 13th, 14th, and 15th out of 77 in cross-country and downhill races with the occasional win did not a rich woman make–barely a fed and clothed woman did it make. While prize money for women is beginning to catch up, it was common for the men to win $1,000 for first place while the equivalent women’s race netted only $500. Lloyd became a masseuse to help support herself, as gardening and construction jobs were not providing enough time or money to allow for proper training. These days her husband Sam is the bread-winner, and is very supportive of her return to racing.
The most common origin story for cyclocross is that it was a way for erstwhile roadies to stay in shape during the off-season in early 1900’s Europe. Chaps and blokes would race each other to the next town with no set course, only the steeple of the church of that next village as their finish line. Fences, ditches, creeks, and cattle were obstacles to negotiate. Dismounting to portage over, around, under or through also served to warm the despairing limbs, as “off season” is more commonly known as “winter.”
Lloyd’s tall, thin frame clothed today in camo pants and a t-shirt belies impressive biceps and quads. How do I know? When one wins the Singlespeed World Championship, as Lloyd did in 2008, one takes great pride in receiving “the tattoo.” This reporter’s request for a viewing was met with an uncharacteristic giggle. As she bounced to her feet, unbuckled her pants and dropped her drawers to display the iconic double chainring encircling “SSWC2008” on her right butt cheek, her husband, Sam, appeared at the top of the stairs and with a bemused, quizzical expression, and asked, “Am I interrupting something?” before descending.
With her pants back on and the family emerging from their respective holes, I began to see the everyday aspects of domestic life. Henry, the five-year-old, is up from his nap and is fussing at his mother. Sam is working on his bike, using a generator to inflate a tire. Every five minutes or so, the voices of riders coming up the street slowly accumulate, and Rachel cranes her neck around me to see who it might be. Fully half of them look down and wave. She’s like the mayor of Fairfax. Henry gently head butts her and whines—she tries to maintain some focus for my benefit.
“Hey! Why don’t you help your dad with that tire? Remember that time when it blew up and he hurt his finger and you laughed and laughed?”
The sadistic memory does nothing to alleviate his post-nap angst. Rachel and I try to coordinate a ride, one that coincides with her training schedule and will allow me to keep up for more than 396 feet. In other words, a slow-as-molasses-in-January ride. However, as it turns out, professional bike racers spend less time hammering out speed laps and pointing at their chests than one might think from watching too many Tours de France. Rachel rides the road bike Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and the mountain bike Friday through Sunday. These she describes as “mellow” for now, with an uptick in speed workouts as the race season nears. Seated sprints on the road bike are gradually worked up to as the season nears, and the legendary steep-ass fire roads of Marin are her cross training ground. She only rides the mountain bike ‘“cause it’s fun,” and it sounds like her coach frowns on too much of that (as coaches are wont to do…).
We land on a time—9:00 Sunday morning—when Rachel will be needing a zone 1-2 ride. I agree, pretending I have more than the vaguest notion of what that means. Throughout the process of ride-date setting, I struggle to assure her that I don’t expect I’ll be keeping up, that really even just starting a ride with her will be something I can use in my story. In a curious turn, she responds like any amateur goof-around female rider I’ve ever ridden with when accused of being fast.
“Oh no, you might be too fast for me, really, my slow days are s-l-o-w…” This is not to suggest that Lloyd is overly humble or self-deprecating. On the contrary, our ride conversation is peppered with the names of riders she’s schooled, men and women alike. “Maria M? Dropped her. Stole all her QOM’s on Strava. Joe G? I stole his KING of the Mountain on High Marsh!” And I don’t care how evolved and modern he is, no guy likes being “chicked”—beaten by a girl.
Lloyd is one fast mother, there’s no denying it. As we roll out of her place down the hill, we decide on the Nicasio loop. In her USA Cycling kit, she is even thinner than I thought. There is a certain affect that a pro cyclist has, a clear dividing line separating them from even the most accomplished amateur. Their fluidity on and command of their machine is…elemental. With no cars behind us on a quiet street, we ride abreast and chat, our bars nearly touching. This proximity to another bike would normally make me nauseous, but she pilots it with a confidence that puts me at ease.
Riding into the West Marin countryside, Lloyd gives a “woot!” to so many riders she knows coming the other way that she begins to sound like a happy, if slightly disturbed, owl. I am pleased to be recognized riding next to (okay, behind) Rachel Lloyd by several of these folks whom I also know. I’ll get some serious street cred out of this sighting, though my eagerness for them to know it was me—expressed in dorky waves and overzealous “Hi’s!” “Hello’s!” and “Look-at-me—I’m-with-Rachel’s!” may have canceled out any cool that was due me. For riders she does not know, she also has a wave, a good morning. This is refreshing, as many of Marin’s roadies will not acknowledge each other’s presence, adhering to some unspoken rule that if you’re smiling, you’re not doing it right. I begin to wonder how many people we see know what the Team USA jersey means. I want them to know, to understand that they are in the presence of someone special.
Lloyd describes herself as idealistic. She will not drive her children the 3/4 mile to school even though the hike/ride back up the hill on rest days gets her heart rate out of the one/two zone, and into trouble with her coach. She doesn’t want her children thinking that reaching a destination means getting in the car. To this same end, she rode to all of her prenatal appointments, including the last where “Dr. Hymen” (she’s not quite sure this was actually his name, but it was real close, and that’s how she likes to remember it ‘cause it’s funny…), after chatting with her about bikes and being generally affable, informed her that she wouldn’t be riding home, and that in fact, she’d be going to Marin General via ambulance.
“I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. Baby Henry had an irregular heartbeat one week before his scheduled arrival. Labor was 48 hours and it was gnarly. I wanted to do natural, but instead I got induced, got an epidural, and was delirious and hallucinating from lack of sleep by the time Henry actually arrived. Nora was easier, but still two days of labor.”
Lloyd thinks that she is actually stronger after having children than before, and knows other pro athletes who think the same. Though it’s hard to prove, she did win the Tamarancho race six weeks after her second child, Nora, was born… with stiches still in “down there.” I ask her how long she thinks she’ll keep racing. She shrugs, “I dunno, til it stops being fun, or I stop winning.” She pauses and runs a hand through her short blonde hair.
“Which I guess are the same…”