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Finding a Balance Point Between Cycling and School

By Molly Hurford | June 4, 2018 | Rally Health

Balancing a full-time career as a cyclist is a challenge, both physically and mentally. Riders don’t just show up to a race and perform. Instead, hours of training are logged each week and meticulously discussed with coaches, meals are timed and nutrients are balanced, and the recovery — from foam rolling to core work — is considered as critical as the riding. All of that, plus travel to races, sponsorship commitments, and the drain from racing itself is easily a full-time job.

But for some women on the Rally CyclingSM team, racing is only a part of their life. The other part centers on academia, where they’re excelling in college as much as they’re excelling in sports.

Olympian Kelly Catlin focuses on the track while balancing her math major at the University of Minnesota and her grad school applications. Former national Criterium champ Erica Allar graduated from Penn State and is now studying for her master’s in early education from Piedmont. Emma White, the U23 National Cyclocross champion, is currently a full-time student in upstate New York, while Alison Beveridge is focused on slowly checking off classes on her way to a degree in kinesiology after winning 2017 road racing championships in Canada.

This tandem of skilled cyclists and academics isn’t specific to this team, either. Former pro racer and current director for Team Virtu Cycling Carmen Small says that in her experience, most college-age women will be in school while racing. She’s not alone, either.

“Women are not dropping out of school to pursue the cycling dream. They’re doing both simultaneously, and it’s awesome,” says Kathryn Bertine, pro cyclist and founder of the Homestretch Foundation, a house in Tucson, AZ, that offers young female pros a place to train in winter months.

While the training load plus schoolwork can be staggering at times, these women not only thrive in school and in racing, they seem to prefer it. But what keeps them in school, and how do they balance keeping up their grades and their power wattages? Here’s how they pull it off.

They Know Their “Why”

For all the women on the team who are still in school, love of subject matter plays a major role — but there are other benefits, too. School can keep them motivated and help them avoid anxiety.

It also means more time spent off their feet and recovering (while studying), which can be tricky for non-academic racers with too much time on their hands and not enough shows on Netflix worth binge-watching.

Alison Beveridge won the Canadian road racing championships in 2017. It was a great achievement made all the more impressive by her recovery from a blood clot and surgery that threatened her cycling career only a year earlier. And while she was recovering, she discovered she actually enjoyed being in school.

“It was a good chance to take my mind off of things and focus on something else,” she says. “Now, I’m just trying to take courses online as I can fit them [around training and racing], but full time then was a needed distraction during the healing process.”

Alison-Beveridge-studying.jpg#asset:71779Alison Beveridge hits the books during training camp.

Going to school “future proofs” the women as well — unlike many of their male counterparts, who opt to focus on just racing.

“I think part of why more women seem to be in school or working outside of cycling is the financial reality of the sport,” says track-racing star and Silver Medal Olympian Kelly Catlin. “It’s difficult to make a living. It’s scary. It’s possible to make a career out of cycling, but most women want a backup plan. A lot of men, it seems like it’s all or nothing.”

It’s not just the young women on the team hitting the books, either. At 32, National Criterium Champion Erica Allar is prepping for the end of her cycling career by heading towards that master’s degree.

“That’s for post-bike racing!” she says.

They Strictly Manage Their Time

In high school, Kelly Catlin noticed that most of the athletes on varsity teams were also very focused on their studies, because the large time commitment required for their sports meant they had to be.

“You’re forced to become specific with time management in your studying,” she says. “The same thing is true in cycling: It forces you to be efficient, and ultimately, better at the subjects you study and your quality of riding.”

Each rider has a different method to manage time. Catlin swears by an ultra-specific, regimented Google Calendar, while Allar prefers the tactile nature of a day planner. Each agrees that blocking time for racing, classes, and training allows them to stay calm and see where there’s time for recovery and homework.

“Having that structure is huge — I need to be busy,” says White, a multi-time national champion in time trial and in cyclocross. She loves quiet early mornings on weekends to get ahead in her work. “If I’m not riding, I’m doing homework,” she says. “I need to be productive, so school helps me. Without school, or without training, I feel like my day is all jumbled.”

The key to balancing school with training means choosing their courses carefully. Catlin, for instance, likes morning classes so she can train afterward, then have afternoons free for recovery, sleeping and doing homework.

They Laser-Focus

Given how busy these women are, multitasking seems like a no-brainer. It’s easy to imagine them balancing textbooks on handlebars of indoor trainers in an effort to save time, but that is absolutely not the case. With these athletes, school hours are for school, and training hours are training time.

“I focus on getting really good, constructive, effective training in while I’m on the bike,” says Allar. That doesn’t leave much time for pedaling aimlessly while reading for a class.

Erica-Allar-studying.jpg#asset:71780Erica Allar, just as focused on studying as she is on cycling.

White races nearly 10 months out of the year, but is still a full-time student studying computer science. She won’t touch the trainer for studying, but she does combine travel to races with her toughest homework assignments.

“I’m more productive on planes than I am anywhere else, so I look forward to flights,” she says.

Work/Life Balance Is a Work in Progress

Normal students usually have the weekend to unwind. Not these women, who are either racing or using the time for long training rides. But they all recognize the need for downtime to avoid burnout.

“I’ve always been rigorous with time management, but I’ve learned to give myself some flexibility so it’s not just work, not just training,” says Vancouver-based racer Sara Bergen. She discovered cycling after college but now balances it with a full-time job as an architect.

“You need a social life,” she says. “You can’t burn it at both ends, working or going to school 40 hours a week, training 25 hours a week. Your work suffers, your training suffers, and you’re asking yourself, ‘What’s the point?’”

Catlin plans her day down to the minute, and at first glance, this might seem excessive, or obsessive. But for serious athletes who are also in school, ultra-scheduled time actually helps to make space for more free time later on.

“It helps me when I see that I have free time, and can make that space,” says Catlin. “I know it’s important to have time away from school and cycling to decompress.”

Figuring out how to truly decompress is a work in progress — but mindfulness is a skill Catlin started practicing leading up to the Olympics.

“Being present in the moment is so important,” she says. “I’ve found that if you’re comfortable with the fact that you can’t accomplish everything, it can help improve your mood at the end of the day.”

They Know Their Seasons

Racing at a high level does require an intense devotion at certain times during the year, just like any other job with a major conference approaching or a project deadline looming. And in those crunch times — the height of racing season, for instance — these racers plan to dial back their schoolwork.

Now that she’s fully recovered and back to racing, Beveridge has opted to switch to an online program, with only one or two classes per semester, while she works back into fighting shape for the coming season.

She could have paused her schooling altogether, but says that homework can be a welcome distraction during a tough racing block, and she almost looks forward to having homework to take her mind off of racing occasionally.

“Flying to and from Europe, you have eight hours straight to study,” she says.

Similarly, Catlin has spent time focused primarily on racing — though school always slips into the mix. She even took a yearlong leave of absence from school before the 2016 Olympics and then took 12 online math credits through the University of Colorado during that time. For her, that felt like taking it easy academically and allowed her to perform at her peak when in Rio.

At the end of the semester, or the race season, it comes back to two things for the women of the Rally Cycling team: love of their sport and love of their studies. And they would be hard-pressed to trade one for the other.

“I’d go crazy without school, or without training,” White says. “With both, I can stay on track.”

Molly Hurford
Rally Health