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Racing to Rio, Going for the Gold

By Ian Dille | June 30, 2016 | Rally Health

One is a veteran, a returning Olympic medalist, a team leader. The other found bike racing by default. But Kirsti Lay, 28, and Jasmin Glaesser, 23, share one thing in common. Before they could drive, before they could vote, before they could legally drink alcohol, they both dreamed of competing in the Olympics for Canada.

Jasmin Glaesser still vividly remembers the first time she saw a real, live Olympian—at the little cycling track near her home, in Burnaby, British Columbia. The national team would train there occasionally, and she would “get to watch them, get to talk to them, and even get to be on the track at the same time as them,” she recalls. She looked in awe at the team’s skintight suits, adorned with red maple leafs, and decided that one day she would be an Olympian.

Jasmin Glaesser at her day job racing for Rally Cycling, with team director Zach Bell, who is also a former Olympian.
Jasmin Glaesser at her day job racing for Rally Cycling, with team director Zach Bell, who is also a former Olympian.

Kirsti Lay, on the other hand, was supposed to be a speed skating champ. She grew up in Medicine Hat, in the province of Alberta, and there, she learned to soar across the ice, competing in speed skating at the junior world championships three times. She seemed destined to represent her country at the Olympics when an ankle injury and resulting nerve damage ended her skating career.

But then another Olympic path emerged. In 2012, when she arrived at talent identification camp for the national track cycling team, she had never ridden on a velodrome with its turns banked at 45 degrees, had never drafted another rider so close that she could smell them. She knew almost nothing of the sport, but, she says, “I grew to love bike racing.”

A rare shot of Kirsti Lay off the bike.
A rare shot of Kirsti Lay off the bike.

And now, in addition to the their day jobs as professional racers for Rally Cycling, both will contend for Olympic gold in the team pursuit in Rio de Janeiro. The national governing body, Cycling Canada, named both Kirsti and Jasmin to the country’s four-rider women’s team pursuit squad on June 29. For both women, who led the Canadian team that won the 2016 World Cup, the selection confirmed their dedication and success. But to win the gold in Rio, Kirsti and Jasmin will need to best the Canadian team’s main adversary — the United States, which beat them to the silver in 2012 and also won their most recent matchup.

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In track cycling’s team pursuit, four women work together to ride four kilometers as fast as possible, often averaging close to 40 miles per hour. They ride without brakes or freewheels—just a pair of handlebars and a single gear. It’s a simple equation: The faster they spin their legs, the faster they go. In their tight four-woman line, they take turns at the front, where pushing through the wind requires between 30 and 50 percent more energy. From the lead position, they swing up the track’s steep banking, and then back down, accelerating onto the back of the line. When they do this perfectly, they look like a metronome: tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…

At the start of their race, they line up on the opposing side of the track from the rival team. At the firing of a pistol, they chase their rivals and their rivals chase them—thus, the pursuit. From the stands, you can see who leads the race, one team making ground upon the other, passing their respective finish lines a fraction of a second sooner. Only the winner advances in a tournament-style format.

In countries like Britain, which has dominated this event for more than a decade, Jasmin says, “Track athletes are household names,” even knighted by the Queen. In Canada, where track cycling continues to emerge—and where the national team was once homeless, forced to train at North America’s only enclosed velodrome, in Los Angeles—mostly it’s only hardcore bike racing fans who follow track cycling.

But at this year’s Olympics, an emerging international rivalry has amped up interest in the sport. In 2012, the Canadian women’s pursuit team earned an unexpected bronze medal in London. In Rio, they will arrive as favorites, along with the U.S. team, the silver medalists from London. The two squads, and neighboring nations, race against each regularly. At the Pan American Games in 2015—on home soil, on a newly built, world-class track in Toronto—the Canadians vanquished a struggling U.S. team. But in 2016, the Americans struck back, and at the most recent World Championships, the U.S. women emerged victorious in a close head-to-head race.

In the run-up to Rio, each team has sought an edge. For Canada, Jasmin and Kirsti’s coach Craig Griffin has made team meetings with a sports psychologist compulsory.

“We’ve worked as a group to develop new strategies for overcoming challenges, goal setting, communicating with each other in a positive manner, and building mental toughness,” says Jasmin. “At major races, the competition is separated by tenths of a second. Physical preparation is a big factor, but to be confident and trusting in your teammates, to know how to support them, for example, if they’re succumbing to pressure, can be equally as important. The energy we put into becoming better teammates will be one of our biggest strengths in Rio.”

The Americans, meanwhile, unveiled a secretive new track bike, which the team claims is the fastest pursuit bike ever built. Kirsti admits she and her team were intrigued, but unfazed.

“Everyone has something up their sleeve. Everyone is playing mind games,” says Kirsti. “It’s the Olympics, there is always hype.”

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Like many Olympic athletes, Jasmin and Kirsti’s status as two of the best track cyclists in the world doesn’t necessarily equate to a lavish lifestyle. Critical to supporting their Olympic ambitions is their dual role as professional road racers for the Rally Health women’s cycling team.

The two different cycling disciplines necessitate different physiological demands—speed and power for the track, versus endurance and stamina on the road. It also requires careful balancing to ensure success at each. The track racing season takes place over the winter, during the off-season for road racing, which means that athletes like Kirsti and Jasmin, who compete in both disciplines, rarely get a break.

“I had been traveling for training and racing for five months, and then I jumped right into the road racing season,” says Jasmin. “That’s where having a really supportive team environment, like with Rally, comes in. The team supports my goals on the track, and also encourages my efforts on the road.”

“It really helps that we both ride for Rally because it makes the transition from track to road seasons more manageable,” says Kirsti, who’s older than Jasmin but has less experience racing bicycles. “You have a teammate that has had the same preparation and training as you, and knows you that much more as a rider. In the way she approaches training and racing, Jasmin sets the bar high and makes you want to be the best teammate back.”

Jasmin says competing on both the track and the road requires massive amounts of mental determination, “and is not sustainable long term,” but the power of the Olympics, and the thought of wearing a gold medal, delivers plenty of motivation.

“As an athlete, you’re always striving for the biggest stage on which to perform, and the Olympics provides that for us,” says Jasmin. “With track cycling not being as widely known, it’s always tough trying to tell people what you do. You’re not sure they always understand, or if they’ve ever even seen it. But when you tell them you went to the Olympics and won a medal? That’s universal.”

Ian Dille is a freelance journalist based in Austin, Texas. He has written for Outside magazine, Bicycling, and Texas Monthly, and is the author of The Cyclist’s Bucket List (Rodale, 2015).
Ian Dille
Rally Health