Last year, I had the good fortune of meeting author Chris Cleave, who was in town for a reading and signing of his latest novel, Gold, which delves into the lives and rivalry of two female track cyclists. During the question and answer portion, a rather astute devotee questioned the reasoning behind his use of female protagonists in Gold, and for that matter all of his books.
While the question seemed to catch the Little Bee author a bit off guard, it was the method by which he arrived at his answer that proved most surprising. Beginning his research with members of the British Men’s Track Cycling team, many of whom would later be adorned with Gold through their exploits in the London Olympics, Cleave had every intention of writing a male lead. But after countless hours and miles in the velodrome and on the road learning firsthand about cycling at the elite level, Cleave ultimately arrived at the conclusion that the female riders were simply more interesting. It was an answer that certainly delighted the mostly female crowd, and it affirmed what I and others who have contributed to this site have long since known.
Leah Guloien (Colavita/Fine Cooking Women’s Pro Cycling Team) is a rider who falls easily into that interesting category.
Intelligent, strong and beautiful, the all-rounder from Port Moody, British Columbia currently has a degree in Kinesiology, and plans to become certified as a physiologist to work in the lab in Catalyst Kinetics Group, where she serves as General Manager of the Cycling Division. She is also an accomplished runner, qualifying for the Boston Marathon* in 2004, swimmer, triathlete, Xterra competitor, mountain biker and hiker.
On the road, Leah’s cycling career is highlighted by an 11th place finish in Stage Three of the Tour de Bretagne Feminine UCI 2.2 (2010), a 29th in the Sparkassen Giro UCI 1.1 (2011), and a recent top ten finish in the 2013 San Dimas Stage Race.
In my conversation with Colavita/Fine Cooking’s Leah Guloien, we discuss the adversity she has faced throughout her eight years in the women’s peloton, her passions off the bike, how she became known as a Shimologist, and why it might not be too far-fetched an idea to eventually see another Guloien in the women’s field.
Lenny Basobas (LB): It’s been documented that you started out as a mountain biker, what, if anything, specifically drew you into road racing? Do you still venture out on the dirt?
Leah Gulolein (LG): I started out mountain biking with my dad. However, his technical skills were way beyond mine and he was racing competitively at the time and needed to get in proper training. We decided to try putting slicks on my mountain bike so he could ride harder and more steadily while I drafted. I was hooked immediately. I loved the non-technical mountain bike courses he took me on and seemed to show signs of talent when I was pedaling consistently. From there, I got a road bike and became addicted. I still love mountain biking but am way too timid to try anything potentially risky. My plan is to work on it when I am done with road racing because I truly love the trails and I am from British Columbia, where there is some amazing riding. I would love to do the BC Bike Race one day.
LB: I met you back when you were racing for Vanderkitten. Looking back at the rider you were then to the rider you are now, what is the biggest difference?
LG: The year I signed with Vanderkitten was life-changing for me. I herniated my disc at the beginning of the season and was unable to race. Up until then, I was completely focused on cycling and training and pushing my body hard. It took me a long time and I made a lot of mistakes before I realized that rest is key to success and listening to your body is always the #1 priority. Even though it was one of the worst years, it made me realize that when things are going well, I need to enjoy it and not take it for granted.
LB: What has been your worst experience on the bicycle…best?
LG: I can recall a lot of disappointing days out on the bike but there isn’t one specific day or experience that sticks out in my mind. That’s probably why I keep coming back for more! I crashed last year with 500m to go in Stage 1 of the Exergy Tour and that was really disappointing because I was feeling really good and I ended up having a concussion and my season was over. My best experiences on the bike so far have been when I have won a race in a sprint. I wouldn’t classify myself as a sprinter, so in order for me to win, I have to be smart and make the right moves, or have a team making the right moves in support of me going for the win. I am excited to experience that feeling this year with the Colavita/Fine Cooking ladies.
LB: Given your growth in the sport and recent successes, what is your ultimate goal as a cyclist…in life?
LG: My goals as a cyclist have changed as I have gotten older and learned more about the sport and had more experiences. I am excited to return to the Colavita/Fine Cooking squad this year. My goal is to feel confident after every race that I did and gave all I could as an individual and as a teammate.
LB: You were featured in an ESPN.com article last year with your sister Krista, who as part of Canada’s Eights won a Silver Medal at the London Olympics. Have you ever tried rowing? Conversely, with the success of someone like Rebecca Romero, who medaled for Great Britain in both sports, has Krista ever tried cycling?
LG: Funny you ask if I have tried rowing! I actually rowed for 2 years as a lightweight before my sister joined the Simon Fraser University team. I had a lot of fun but the lightweight program wasn’t very developed at the time. I started to lose interest and then the calluses and open wounds on my hands became a serious issue. So I got involved in the master’s swim program and started running and swimming instead. As I transitioned out of rowing, my sister joined and became the “superstar” rower. Being 5’11” and super strong, I knew she was going to excel.
This past winter, I took Krista out on a couple of my training rides. I was focused on riding in specific zones and told her she had to either keep up or just sit on my wheel. I knew she would be able to keep up but I didn’t realize we were going to be working together in a rotating paceline! Krista needs to learn a couple of basic skills and get more comfortable at higher speeds and then she will be an amazing leadout rider or time trialist. Krista’s strength is her pain threshold. She knows how to suffer and dig deep!
LB: Speaking of Canada, before Ryder Hesjedal’s victory at the 2012 Giro D’Italia, Steve Bauer held up the mantle of Canadian cycling. Synonymously, on the women’s side it has been Clara Hughes. With riders such as yourself, Tara Whitten and Gillian Carleton, where do you see the future of Canadian cycling?
LG: I think Canada has a lot of talent so I hope to see a lot more podiums and medals. Women’s track cycling has been getting a lot of attention with their bronze medal at the London Olympics and their recent bronze at the World Championships in Minsk, Belarus. As of this year, all of the track girls have signed with a pro team, including my Colavita/Fine Cooking teammate Laura Brown, and will be racing the NRC circuit as well as several European races so I am looking forward to great results from them on the road as well. It was great to see fellow Canadian Gillian Carleton win the criterium at the San Dimas Stage Race last week.
Off the bike, I am working as General Manager of the Cycling Division of Catalyst Kinetics Group. Catalyst Kinetics is the title sponsor of DEVO, a development program helping younger riders progress to the next level. With our facility, I truly believe we are going to help identify and develop some seriously talented riders in Canada and provide them with the tools they need to reach the highest level in the sport.
LB: You have had the opportunity to race abroad for the National Team. What was that experience like? What, if anything, did you take away from those races?
LG: Racing abroad has been a love/hate relationship for me. I love the challenge of racing with such a large peloton on such narrow, windy roads with obstacles everywhere you look. But I hate being pushed around and having to constantly fight for my position. I found the races over there to be mentally draining, especially when I was given the same orders on a regular basis, “MOVE UP!” Some girls are good at getting their elbows out and standing their ground. I have come to realize that I like my space and prefer to not be touched or pushed! I think I’ve said at least 100 times that I would never race in Europe again and yet I kept going back for more. To be honest, I would go back again today. Even though I never showed huge improvement in my ability to navigate through the peloton, I definitely learned some important skills in Europe — and most of them the hard way. Specifically, I learned a lot about the wind, where to position myself to conserve my energy, and how to ride through a caravan. On several occasions in Europe, the caravan was my best friend and it motivated me like no other. I knew that if I couldn’t get through the caravan and make it back to the front group, it was going to be a long day in the saddle! Lessons like these have definitely helped me be a better rider in the US.
LB: What are some of the biggest (or funniest) misconceptions or stereotypes that you have encountered about Canada and/or Canadians?
LG: One of the biggest misconceptions that I’ve come across is that Canada is always freezing cold and always has snow and that we live in igloos. The funny part is that there are parts of Canada that can be warmer than areas in the US.
LB: As a Kinesiologist, you have an intimate knowledge of your body and its movements. Do you think that knowledge base is an asset or a hindrance?
LG: As a Kinesiologist and being very in tune with my body can definitely be a hindrance at times. A former teammate gave me the nickname “Shimologist” because I overanalyzed my cleat position and shims and shoes to the point that I drove everyone crazy. I would ride around with a Philips head screwdriver in my pocket and make minor, and I mean MINOR, adjustments every 10 minutes. I am very happy to say that I no longer make adjustments to that extreme. However, I am still a bit of a fanatic with my bike position and fit. I envy the people out there that just hop on a bike and put on new equipment and don’t even hesitate, and say everything is perfect!
LB: As an athlete that type of mindset must be difficult. Thinking back to some of your best races or best results, have they come when everything is just perfect or did the competitor in you choose to ignore your brain, so to speak?
LG: My best results have come when I have turned the brain off and I have gone into the race feeling confident, but not pressured. The mind is so powerful and it can really affect how I ride my bike. I am still learning to relax and to enter every race with no fear and no negative thoughts. My dad recently told me that if I smile, I will have a good day on the bike. It sounded ridiculous at first, but I think he might be on to something!
LB: With the Exergy Tour being cancelled recently due to sponsorship issues, and with a multitude of varying opinions on the state of women’s cycling, what would you personally like to change about the sport? Does it need changing?
LG: The Exergy Tour was a very impressive race and I felt like women were treated like equals to men, with the prize money, the media coverage, the organization, and the hospitality. I wish there were more races, specifically, more women’s type tours and more exposure for the women’s peloton. The first question people always ask me is if there is a women’s Tour de France. I always reply, yes there has been in the past, but on a much smaller scale. The Olympic road race was a great opportunity to demonstrate that women’s racing can be engaging and exciting to watch, just as much as the men’s race.
LB: Along those lines, what is the responsibility of the race organizers, sponsors, teams, or even fans to make sure that there are more races, better prize money, media coverage, etc.?
LG: Honestly, I don’t have any expertise in this area, so I am struggling a bit with this question. I think it is the responsibility of the race organizers to put on good races and ensure that women are getting decent prize money, especially for the top 3 winners. In return, it our responsibility as racers to help support these promoters and be positive role models in the sport of cycling. The ideal would be that media coverage would occur if there is good competition; however, I think this is more challenging and I am not sure what can be done to improve it. As for fans, I am noticing and have been experiencing a great, loyal fan base, especially while being on Colavita/Fine Cooking. In order to increase this fan base on a greater scale, there would need to be more media coverage on a greater scale.
LB: What is your greatest strength…weakness?
LG: My greatest strength is that I am driven and set goals for myself and I am always striving to do better. My weakness is that I am too passive sometimes because I am not confident in myself and my abilities. I am working on changing that weakness because I realize you need confidence in all aspects of life and if I am going to work so darn hard I might as well be confident in what I am doing.
LB: What do you enjoy doing when you are not on the bike?
LG: I love hiking. There are so many beautiful trails in British Columbia and there still are a handful that I would like to conquer. It is such a rewarding feeling at the end of a 6-8 hour day in the woods. I find it very calming to get away from the chaos of life and just enjoy being outside and getting in a good workout with some close friends.
LB: Having barely explored the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, what is your absolute must see or go to place for those who have never been?
LG: The Sea to Sky highway leading up to Whistler, BC is amazing. The view is amazing along the water and the mountains are always dusted with snow and when the sun comes out, it is spectacular. I love riding my bike on the Sea to Sky up to Whistler and the best part is finishing in Whistler. Whistler is full of action whether it be skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, hiking, socializing and you get to meet people from all over the world there.
LB: Better Redwood forest, Stanley Park or Redlands?
LG: Stanley Park! There is always so much going on along the Seawall and people are always out running, walking, rollerblading, or riding their bike and enjoying the beautiful sites. There are a lot of great restaurants, a water park for kids, hiking trails, and so much more. It is another must see/experience if you have never been to Vancouver.
LG: I feel like I am an open book!
LB: Name one thing that you cannot live without?
LG: My family.
LB: Habs, Canucks, Flames, Oilers, Maple Leafs, Jets or Senators?
LB: Favorite Canuck player?
LG: The Sedin Twins (inset), they count as one player right? (Laughs)
*At the time of this writing, the events at the 2013 Boston Marathon began streaming across the air waves. We would like to extend our deepest condolences to the friends and families who lost loved ones on April 15th, and our thoughts and prayers to all those who have been injured.
Photos: Jonathan Devich (top & middle)