Redlands Bicycle Classic, Part 1

Words by Lindsay Wetzel Polin

Buckle up readers, we’re going for a ride...

About a month before this year’s edition of Redlands, Mary Maroon reached out with an open spot on her Jakroo team and the opportunity to race and take on some DS/mentoring responsibilities, which was awesome and I wasn’t about to say no to something like that, but whoa I had some processing to do. Because the last time I ventured to the Inland Empire for a bike race didn’t exactly go as planned.

Let’s throw it back to 2005 when I was a bright-eyed, bushy tailed, 24-year old cat. 1, ridiculously stoked to get a chance to guest ride with a real pro team at Redlands. I wasn’t feeling great when I arrived, but chalked it up to home in Iowa being cold AF and my body adjusting to the sudden shift to SoCal desert temperatures. So when things went sideways during stage 2, I went a little (ok, a lot) too deep into the “determined to finish/quitting isn’t an option” ethos and collapsed into a guard rail about two miles before the finish line in Oak Glen, went into shock, and was rushed to the ER. Tests showed that my kidneys were in some dire straights and the docs thought I was absolutely bonkers for trying to ride that far, especially since I was apparently quite ill.

Back home, my liver threw its hat into the ring and went on the fritz too, and eight months of doctors visits and what felt like a million lab tests later I finally had a diagnosis - extrapulmonary Tuberculosis. According to my infectious disease doc, healthy immune systems squish TB pretty quickly if we happen to breathe it in, but all the stress us elite athletes put our bodies through leads to some weak immune responses and in my case, it meant that the TB infection spread past my lungs and out into my liver and kidneys. Yay, sports! Cue nine months of meds, and then another year and a half on top of that for my liver to start functioning in normal parameters again (b/c those meds were also pretty hard on it).

All in all, it took three years for my body to physically recover from that one day in Redlands. I got lucky though - my kidneys didn’t shut down, and the only long-term physical impacts are some lung scarring and occasional asthma flare-ups. I figure losing a few ml off my VO2max and carrying an inhaler is a small price to pay for being able to wake up every day feeling healthy and well.

Fast forward to now, and a lot has happened in those 13 years. Many stories for another day, but through it all, Redlands has been... loomy. I don’t talk about it much on the socials, because that space seems better suited to all things kittens and pastries and #happinesswatts and who really wants to admit that one day so many years ago still has such an impact. But it’s been hanging on like a miniature thundercloud in the back of my mind clashing warning rolls of thunder every time I try to push past my comfort zone on the bike.

Road racing has been hard, like a never-ending fight between my body remembering what it used to be able to do vs. what it’s capable of doing in the moment vs. my brain yelling that going too hard could be catastrophic. Which is frustrating, and not overly helpful for maintaining motivation to train. Cyclocross has helped soften those alarm bells over the years though, b/c it isn’t road and it isn’t really a ‘cross race unless it feels like you’re dying as you attempt to gracefully dismount and sprint full-tilt up a set of stairs after your heart rate’s been pegged for 45 minutes. In that context, the past few years have seen a lot of progress in my ability to push myself and at least think about the idea of getting back on the consistent training game, but I haven’t quite been able to put all those pieces together yet.

So when Mary reached out, it felt a little bit like the universe was giving me a chance to take things full circle. Which was equal parts terrifying because all the feelings (and the fact I was in no way adequately conditioned for a five-day stage race) and exciting because I’d get to go back to Redlands on my own terms, with a focus on helping newer riders navigate the jump to that level of racing and a side bonus of putting a more positive frame to racing in the IE. And maybe some of those puzzle pieces I’ve been waiting for would fall back into place.

Check back soon for Redlands Part 2!