Alison Starnes (Team TIBCO) is one of the fresh new faces of women’s cycling. Then again, it might be better said that she is one of the fresh new faces to the sport of cycling all together.
During her collegiate years, Alison’s notions of “spin” and “cycle” revolved more around forehands and backhands, and electrons and Krebs rather than of the two-wheeled variety. An accomplished tennis player and Biochemistry major at Abilene Christian University, she would be instrumental in helping the Lady Wildcats achieve a national ranking in tennis, while her own work on enzymes would garner publication in a prominent scientific journal.
It was only through a post graduate flirtation with the sport of triathlon that Alison would discover her true calling, and some might say her natural self, through cycling.
As a member of the Bay Area based Dolce Vita cycling team, Alison worked her way from entry level to professional in just three short months. Though her initial experience among the professional rank-and-file at the Nature Valley Grand Prix could best be described as “pieced together,” it would also earn her a contract with Team TIBCO.
This past year, her first full year as a professional, Alison experienced the growing pains that usually accompany such a brilliant rise through the ranks, but it was also one that was marked by some exceptional performances, both domestically and internationally as part of USA Cycling.
In my conversation with Alison Starnes, we compare tennis to cycling, look back at her first year as a professional, and discuss how patience is truly one of cycling’s virtues.
Lenny B (LB): You had quite the meteoric rise in classification. After your first full year at the professional level, what are some of the lessons that you learned? Was there anything that surprised you, either positively or negatively?
Alison Starnes (AS): I have learned so much this year it is hard to pick just a couple of instances or experiences. I was very “green” at the beginning of the year, yet I had the opportunity to work with the women of Team TIBCO and learn an incredible amount. Linda Jackson, the team founder and owner, really took an interest in my development and the team supported me throughout the year. The team was extremely patient with me as I made plenty of "rookie mistakes" but they allowed me to grow and develop as they continued to challenge me in each race.
A couple of things I learned this year:
1. Glasses are worn on the outside of the helmet straps.
2. Chamois time is training time.
3. You don’t always need a warm-up, so don’t stress, but it doesn’t hurt. Checking your BlackBerry prior to a race can count as a warm-up.
4. When it is important to stage before a race, and when it is not.
5. How to race really, really, really hard.
6. Respect all your opponents, but fear none.
7. Racing aggressively causes huge gains, and a lot of pain.
However, I think the biggest thing I learned this year, was racing in Europe, and learning how to race. Not just ride around in circles, but to race your bike, hard, race it aggressively and go for it. Team TIBCO taught me to do that, and although it can be painful and difficult, and you may not always win, you learn how to race. This year was a positive experience, acquainting myself with professional racing at its finest, both domestically and internationally.
LB: As a whole, Team TIBCO may just be the most intelligent cycling team around with some extremely accomplished women. If you were to compare brainpans, who would you say is the smartest among the group?
AS: We are a smart group of women, if I do say so myself… If you want to see who is the smartest, you should host a Team TIBCO’s jeopardy or something. Ha. Actually, I think it is common in women’s professional cycling to find many higher education degrees. I am very proud to be a part of such an intelligent group of professional women.
LB: Is that the biggest difference between racing in Europe and in the US, format of racing? Or is the difference deeper rooted as in the mental or physical makeup of the European riders…the culture?
AS: Racing in Europe is hard. That about sums it up. The format only differs in the way they approach the start of the race. They race hard, from the gun, and then they go harder until the finish. It is relentless. The fields are deeper in Europe. Therefore, the competition is hard, intense, and it stays that way. It is pretty incredible. I have been racing there saying to myself, “Surely, they will let up. They can’t go this hard the whole time…” Yet they do. You have to experience it to really understand. I think the deeper fields, and the passion for the sport there fuels the intense racing. These women are strong, and motivated. However, the US women have proven themselves to be some of the strongest riders in the world. We just need to keep gaining the experience of European racing to further our successes. All in all, I love racing there. It is hard, but it makes you stronger. I am ready to go back!
LB: Another rider who exploded on to the scene this year was Evelyn Stevens, who also had a tennis background. I read where her coaches felt that her tennis background may have helped her in a tactical sense while racing. What is your assessment of that theory and how has your own sporting background helped you in bicycle racing?
AS: I had the privilege to race with Evie at La Route de France for the US National Team. She is a phenomenal athlete, and we have a similar story of collegiate sports and quick acceleration into cycling success. People always give me a confused look when they ask me my sporting background and I reveal, "tennis." Tennis is not known for its huge aerobic requirements, such as Nordic skiing, soccer or rowing. However, I will admit, although I excelled in tennis, it always frustrated me. I couldn't practice enough to get where I wanted to go. I felt like my experience was limited to hours in the day and the amount of times you can hit a little fuzzy yellow ball, yet in cycling, I have found my calling. I feel like my options are endless and I have opportunities to succeed and grow. Once realizing that cycling came "natural," I gained confidence in not only myself but my ability. I could never find that in tennis. Tennis taught me that nothing comes easy, and you must be mentally tough to succeed. I struggled to find that solace in tennis, and I have found it in cycling. What tennis showed me where my limitations were, cycling revealed to me my strengths. Tennis taught me hard work, dedication, strategy, and tactics, and I have been able to apply these to cycling. I do miss those skirts and dresses though...
LB: How would you characterize your tennis game…baseliner, serve-and-volley, finesse, power? Have you stepped out on the court since your collegiate days or since you started cycling?
AS: Power player. Yet, when that failed, I turned to a pusher who just tried to run down everything and win with my fitness. I hate to admit that. No power player ever wants to resort to becoming a pusher, but I did it. I had a huge first serve, and then I would float my second serve in and immediately find myself on the defensive instead of the offensive. Did I mention that tennis was a frustrating sport for me? In tennis, you find yourself having to repeat your same mistakes over and over again. Ouch. I haven’t played tennis basically since NCAA nationals...my knees couldn’t take the pounding anymore.
LB: One of the most understated elements of cycling is its mental approach. Each team goes into a race with a plan to execute. Are there any similarities in executing that plan, to say setting up an opponent in tennis for a winning shot?
AS: Strategizing and planning is an integral part in not only tennis, but cycling as well. As a team, we always have a plan that we will plan to execute for the race. It takes each member of the team fulfilling their role to make it a successful day. In tennis, my mantra, although it would not always work, was “Control. Hurt. Finish.” First, you must “control” the point. Set yourself up to then “hurt” your opponent by putting them on the defensive. When they are lunging for a ball, or off-balance, you then “finish” the point. I think this holds true in cycling, and emphasizes how one individual cannot accomplish this, but requires a team to truly dictate the race. Fortunately for me, as a member of Team TIBCO, I have a very strong team to help hold this mantra true in racing. As a team, we want to control the race. We need TIBCO riders in every move, we need to be initiating and covering attacks and in general, “controlling” the race. This takes a strong mental component because you need to be ready for whatever happens in the race. No matter how much your team strategized prior to the race, you cannot plan for the bike race. However, you need to be prepared. Once you are controlling the race, you can then start “hurting” the other teams. By keeping the race hard, fast, or whatever your goal is that day, it puts your team on the offensive, while the other teams find themselves in a defensive state.
In tennis, this may be a severe crosscourt backhand that puts your opponent off the court before you plan your down-the-line winner. Yet in cycling, this is sending riders off the front or developing breaks that our in our team’s favor, thus, causing other teams to chase. Once you are in this position, you can then plan for the finish. Just like finishing a point in tennis, there are a myriad of ways you can finish the race. Not every finish has to be in a break, or even a sprint finish. Team TIBCO is strong and has several cards to play in order to finish the race in our favor. Unlike tennis, where I only had a couple of tricks up my sleeve, in cycling, I can rely on my teammates to assist in “finishing” the race. As a team, we work together to execute our plan, and this can only happen if we first are controlling the race, and then setting our team up for the win. The same way you set up a point, you can set up a race to end in the result that you desire. Just think of the succession of a backhand cross court, angled drop shot, and down-the-line winner, as a lead out train. Thankfully, I have a team to help me do this, because in tennis, it was all up to me. I would find myself trying to “control” the point too quickly, becoming impatient, and then launching a ball over the fence.
LB: Do you sense some of that impatience creeping into your cycling? If yes, how does that bode for you in certain cycling disciplines?
AS: Of course! Patience is required in cycling as well, yet I often find myself “chomping at the bit” to animate a race or start a lead-out sooner than necessary. With my strengths as a cyclist, I like to attack early and often, and I like to make a race hard. Yet, sometimes that isn’t my job yet, or I need to wait. I have learned that sometimes you need to sit in and allow other teams to do some work as well. In a lead-out, you need to be patient and confident to start it when you need to, and not go too early. Thank goodness for race radios! I am learning to read the race better and to just respond, but sometimes it is very nice to be told when and where to be, and how hard to go.
Impatience also shows up in a time trial. You start the effort, and you want to go really fast, right NOW. Instead, I am learning to build into my efforts. I don’t think that impatience is that harmful of a quality to have in cycling, but you also need to learn to relax and burn your matches when they will have the most effect. Luckily for me, if I make an “impatient” move, I can still give myself a chance to recover.
LB: You’ve done exceptionally well in time trial events. What are your ultimate goals…Nationals, 2012 in London, World Championships?
AS: My specialty so far has been the time trial. I really hope to focus on this discipline throughout the year as I continue to develop as a complete cyclist. My goal is to win time trial nationals, then on to the rest of my goals… I really hope to compete at the World Championships and eventually the Olympics. One step at a time, and with a great support team—I will get there.
LB: Some would say that time trialing is in your genes. Who is the better time trialist, you or your grandfather?
AS: My grandfather, has over 12 national time trial jerseys, and he is 79 and still racing! If that isn't impressive, I don't know what is. I think he is probably still the better time trialist. He knows his stuff. I can't reveal any of his secrets, but trust me, he is the real deal. I am still working towards my first National Time Trial jersey... My grandfather is one of the main reasons I am in this sport, and I am truly inspired by him.
LB: What type of time trial course best suits your talents (fast and flat, hilly…short prologue or long)…of the ones you have ridden, do you have a favorite?
AS: Being relatively new at this, I actually haven’t done all that many time trials. The ones I have excelled in have all had a variety of terrains and distances. I like power climbs, I like the course short, I like them long, and I like them difficult. So really, I don’t know what I prefer? I got 5th at the prologue at La Route de France, which was 4.4k long. I loved the short effort and the technical nature of the course. That was my first prologue I had ever done, and I loved it. However, I also loved the TT course at Cascade, which I got 2nd at, because it a long steady climb and a fast downhill. Ultimately, I like time trialing, and I find out to take any course and make it suit me. If you are having “fun” while competing in a time trial, you aren’t going hard enough.
LB: Cycling seems an awful long way from Biochemistry, or is it? Have you been able to apply your analytical skills to the road or in training?
AS: I am a huge science nerd. I love Biochemistry and all it involves. Actually, that is a part of what attracted me to endurance sports, such as triathlon, and now cycling. I love the science in it all. If your training has science involved and you can get really dialed in on what your body requires and how to structure your training around that. That being said, of course I am a "data junkie" when it comes to my training and racing. Even though I don't like discussing that with the general public, I like knowing what I can do and how I can improve. I am fortunate that my coach, Charlie Livermore, at Endurance Performance Training Center uses physiological testing to determine my training plan and needs. I love plotting the graphs and drawing the molecular structures...oh wait, should I admit that? Although science is not the golden standard, it is a valuable tool to use. I use biochemistry not only to clarify my training, but I am not going to lie, sometimes I draw chemical structures in my head to get my mind off of the pain of interval at times... You should have seen me when I went over my nutritional analysis with Dr. Rich Stagliano at Live Fit Medicine when he showed me my personal glycolysis and electron transport chain diagram...can you say science nerd? I loved the information, but I also loved the reminder of that Biochemistry final...
LB: You do realize that you are about one mention of the electron transport chain away from me forever labeling you as “The Big Mitochondria?”
AS: Very funny. I will leave the further ATP generation to oxidative phosphorylation.
LB: At this moment, what would you say is your greatest strength as a rider...weakness?
AS: My strength this year has been my time trial, but I also have had the opportunity to work on all my weaknesses as well. I have loved learning how to perfect a lead-out, how to be a good teammate, how to attack, and how to climb. I have so much to learn, but the good news is, I have the time, the support, and the dedication. I will leave the discussion of my weaknesses for another time....
LB: I have always been a big proponent for women’s cycling, yet like other female sports for every big step forward it also seems to take two steps back, so to speak. What is great about your sport…how would you improve upon it?
AS: What I find the most fascinating about women’s cycling is the opportunity that you can discover there. Cycling offers not only an outlet, but a career for those who have excelled in sport at the collegiate level. You find former soccer players, Nordic skiers, cross-country runners, and maybe a couple of tennis players. It gives us a chance to find a sport that we were meant for, it gives us a purpose, a place, and limitless opportunities. What was frustrating about tennis was that I started tennis when I was a freshman in high school, and I was always behind. I was always struggling against time. I never had enough time on the court to make up the deficit against my opponents. It was an experience issue, and I didn’t have enough time to gain the experience. It was a losing battle. However, cycling gives a chance to aspiring athletes. In endurance sports, women have time to get good educations to live, and to still excel in the sport. Yet, even so, there is so much room for the sport to improve. It is so behind the times as far as equality in sports. I won’t get on a soapbox about this, but the women need increased opportunities, increased visibility, and increased importance. We would love the chance extended to us as well. Equally.
LB: What is one thing that people don’t know about you, and might be surprised to find out?
AS: I am a cowgirl at heart. I grew up on a ranch in Santa Barbara County, then moved up to a ranch in Shasta County. I knew how to ride a horse before I ever knew what a tricycle or walking was. Although I live in Marin now, I am still country at heart.
LB: Does that mean you are a country music fan...if so who are your favorite artists and are they in the queue for training or pre-race warm-up music?
AS: I LOVE country music. My favorites are the classics, like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard... But, I love some of the new stuff too, like Taylor Swift. Yet, that music is saved for the "base" miles... For an interval or warm-up, I have to go with Lady Gaga or the Black Eyed Peas...
LB: Stage Races or Crits?
AS: Of course my instincts are screaming, “Stage Races, Stage Races, Stage Races!” I love the difficulty of stage racing, and the new battle each day holds to ultimately win the war. May the strongest team win. I love it. However, I have learned to like crits, and even dare I say, have fun doing crits! Crits used to make me cry, seriously, and now I love them! It helps to have such a strong team, and it is fun to be able to race them with no fear. To race hard, fast, and aggressively, knowing you can win the bike race. Although I adore the variety of stage racing, crits are adrenaline full and spectator friendly. Ultimately, I would have to choose stage racing over crits, but I have a new appreciation for the criterium and look forward to becoming more accomplished in them…
LB: Top 5 things you cannot live without?
1. Peanut Butter. I have tried on multiple occasions to give up the stuff, but I must have it. Maybe we should have it put on the banned substance list?
2. My CrackBerry, I mean BlackBerry… It is my only connection to the world at times…
3. My cat. I happen to adore cats more than one person should…
4. Daily dose of Vitamin D. I love being outside and even on a rest day need to get out there and enjoy God’s creation…I get grumpy if I don’t get that…
5. My family. They mean the world to me.
LB: Best experience on a bicycle, to date…worst?
AS: I have so many good days, and so many bad days on the bike. I think when you ride as much as I do, that happens. However, the day that comes to mind was both my best day on the bike and my worst day on the bike.
It was Etape 1 of La Route de France, after the epic prologue where I found success. This was my second trip to Europe for the US National Team, and I was 5th in GC at the start of the stage. Positioning is key in European races, yet it is the most difficult skill to learn. With narrow roads, and large field sizes, moving around the peloton is nothing like you have experienced in the US. The major difference between my first trip to Europe and my second, was that I felt like I belonged there. I was no longer looking for survival, I was looking to race.
When the peloton slowed just for an instance, I saw the perfect opening. It was like the proverbial seas had parted. I launched an attack, and launch I did, right out into the French countryside. Who is with me? No one. Oops. I proceeded to spend the next 60k off the front of the race, solo. I was not just finishing a race in Europe, I was racing! It was an instinct attack, and it was confidence to keep going. It was an exhilarating experience to race through the hills of France with the cheers of “USA” resounding and being the bike race. I wasn’t just settling to be a filler, I was the bike race. I couldn’t believe it. This was the best day on my bike.
Although I put 3:30 on the peloton, I was caught within 10k to the finish. The effort caught up to me, and I was cramping through the finishing circuits. I ended up losing time on the peloton, and was completely demoralized at the finish. I went from a severe high to a relentless low. I needed help getting off my bike, and my body was destroyed. Then it happened. The French came up to me to get me for the podium. They had awarded me, most aggressive rider, or as they translated it, “Miss Combatitivity”. I went from barely being able to turn the pedals to standing on the podium, wearing the USA jersey with pride, and receiving flowers, kisses, and a trophy. My best day on the bike, turned to the worst day, and was transformed into a solid conclusion of recognition not only for me, but for Team USA for racing aggressively, racing hard, and representing. Best days, worst days, it’s all good…
LB: You are in your off-season right now, when will you start to get after it again…any cross or track in your near future?
AS: I have already started to ramp up the training again. I started around November 1st. I would love to get on the track, and who knows, you may see me doing a little cross! Since I have never ridden in the dirt before, I might keep this time and location a secret to spare embarrassment! If you have a chance to catch my inaugural attempts, I am sure it will be entertaining to say the least.
LB: It is a bit early, but what are your goals for next year?
AS: It is early, but I have my goals. I have steps and benchmarks to reach in order to make my ultimate dreams a reality. I want to be a strong rider, and teammate for Team TIBCO and do the roles necessary for our team to have a successful season. TT Nationals is also an important goal. I will keep working hard, get faster, and hopefully attain my goals, one step at a time.
Photos: Courtesy Bob Cullinan (CycleTo)