While Erica Allar (Team Vera Bradley Foundation) and I have remained in touch over the years, it had been some time since we actually shared some decent face time. But that changed this past month as I was able to catch up with her in Arlington, Virginia, the site of her Clarendon Cup victory last year, for the 2010 Air Force Cycling Classic.
Kind and sensitive, intelligent and quick-witted, and easily approachable as well as to laugh, Erica has always surprised me with her uncanny ability to stay in the present. Whether it is a by-product of a good upbringing or something inherent in her personality, but as we switched from topics ranging from Lil’ Wayne’s grill to the complexities of being employed as a professional cyclist, there was never a question of whether or not Erica was engaged in those instantaneous moments that make up a conversation. In this overly processed and digitally connected world, it is a characteristic that is not only refreshing, but also serves her well in the trenches of the women’s peloton, where focus and staying attentive is vital to one’s success, and on this day in June, even one’s livelihood.
Lenny B (LB): It has often been said that “You have to learn to follow before you can lead.” Where do you see your development in that equation?
Erica Allar (EA): There is no doubt in my mind that, like many things in life and especially with cycling for an ‘up-and-comer’ athlete- we must learn a majority of our knowledge from those who precede us. I am lucky to have a coach who has been involved in this sport for a very long time. He has experienced racing from juniors all the way to the Olympics. His input and knowledge is very “learn to follow before leading”. He has had plenty of experience and has been through a lot of different scenarios. There is such an abundance of knowledge that comes from his own personal experience that he can teach not just myself but the other athletes he coaches as well, important lessons and vital details as we all climb the hill to success. I also believe that never mind the fact that I may not always be on the same team as some of the other women; I have had great opportunities to watch, observe and race against or with great racers like Tina Pic, Laura Van Gilder and Ina Teutenberg. By learning from my coach and observing these other great racers (even watching video of the Tour de France and other big races) I am able to learn from the best of the best. All of these things help me follow in the footsteps of the great riders I look up to. When I think about it, this sport is quite amazing. It’s a constant learning environment. Before I am in a position to be successful, give back and teach the youngsters of the sport I must learn, watch, observe, interpret and follow the most successful racers in the sport. It all comes full circle and I feel it’s a necessary component of success in cycling.
LB: What are your greatest strength(s) as a rider?
EA: It is no secret that in cycling the strongest, best, fastest rider does not always win the race. There are big races that are won in under-dog moments. Those times are beautiful in my opinion; and it is just one of the many aspects to this sport that helps make cycling the exciting and multifaceted sport that it is. I developed early on racing on the velodrome. I have good bike handling skills, am tactically smart and know how to be as efficient as possible in most race situations. I prefer a technical criterium but fancy some fun road races as well. My ability to conserve energy and stay out of the wind while maintaining position really allows me to (hopefully) be in the right place at the right time when the end of the race approaches. It is no secret that I am not the most powerful or strongest racer in the circuit; however, I have a certain level of strength and skill ability that makes me a threat in most race situations.
LB: Cycling, it has been said, is pain. Many like to serve it up, but few enjoy enduring it. Do you think that is what separates a good rider from a truly great rider? How do you cope with the pain during a race and what is your tolerance to it?
EA: In all honesty, I have firsthand experience when it comes to cycling and the amount of pain it takes to be successful. I don’t mean that I am great sufferer and accept the pain with open arms. On the contrary, when I first began riding I wasn’t very good. I didn’t understand that this sport was all about a racers personal pain threshold and how much hurt someone can inflict on their own body. Cycling can be a great weekend hobby or given the right amount of sting, it can be one of the toughest sports out there. There is a necessary amount of strength, skill and power needed to be successful; however, the pain cave and the ability to live in it day after day is most definitely a factor that makes a good rider, a great rider. When I am racing it is easier for me to accept the pain as part of the race. I look around the field and see my competition and know what I am personally capable of. As a race finisher and/or sprinter I don’t often chase down breaks or race as the much appreciated “work horses”, though knowing there are a group of girls who back each other up and in a field sprint situation are counting on me, it is simple to deal with pain.
LB: Bumps, bruises and scrapes come with the territory. You have had your fair share of battle wounds, is there an occasion that sticks out in your mind?
EA: There is one particular moment that I won’t ever forget. It was in 2008 when I was racing the Visalia Criterium with my first pro team Aaron’s. It was a great crit course and a crash in turn 3 on the inside caused a domino effect to the outside of the field. It took out at least half of the field, if not more! I was going around the corner and had girls sliding out in front me. In order to miss falling down I never turned. I actually went straight toward a curb. I somehow realized I was going to hit the curb and bunny hopped it and ‘end-oed’ right into a bush. I didn’t think I would be hurt but after I crawled my way out of the shrubbery I was in a fair amount of pain. The reason it was so memorable was because I went to the pit and had leaves and branches poking out of my shoes, helmet and my bike. I walked into the pit limping and my director at the time (Carmen D) didn’t think I’d be able to get back in. I pulled the trees out of my equipment and did a cross mount on my bike to get back in. I ended up going down again in the last turn on the last lap as well but that crash was a lot less eventful, mostly just disappointing. Jumping the curb into a bush despite the pain was really quite humorous! I can only imagine what that would look like on video!
LB: You have ridden for and with some of great cycling people. Do you have any cycling role models?
EA: I love Lance [Armstrong]. [Laughs] Well, Lance is great. He is a voice and a recognizable entity in the sport of cycling. He is great; though we’ve never met in person! In all reality I really appreciate Rebecca Twigg and the success that she experienced on both the road and the track. I also appreciate watching Ina Teutenberg race because she is so unrelenting and I think what Evie Stevens has accomplished between last season and this season is just awesome. Her personal success and the impact she has for women’s cycling is really fantastic.
LB: You have been on both ends of the spectrum in the ever evolving world of women’s cycling. What do you think about the current state women’s cycling? Are there things that you would change?
EA: These are all very good questions. I don’t have just one simple answer when it comes to my opinion about the current state of women’s cycling. I do believe that as women we train and race just as much, as hard and as passionately as the men do. As a 24 year old (racing age 25) in this sport I find it shocking that women’s cycling lacks the amount of support it takes to develop the younger riders. On many of the men’s teams there must be a certain number of U27 riders to fill the team roster. The lack of support straight across the board in women’s cycling does not allow our field to have many of those young riders. When there is not much support for the developing girls and the time comes to choose between cycling and college, college may take precedence. The well-established, already promised riders who have been around and are a guaranteed investment for teams and their sponsors receive the support. I will be forever grateful to Carmen D’Aluisio for being the first director to take a chance on me and sign me to my first pro team in 2008 (Aaron’s). I was an unknown rider who in 2007 was trying to prove herself worthy. Carmen saw it and took a chance. I would not have been able to accomplish the results I got in 2007 without the help of Pat Marzi and James Carney. They made it a point to support not just myself but a few other young riders and help us develop the potential they saw in us. I’ve been very lucky and I know not everyone has the same opportunities that I did and that is really sad to me.
LB: Some would argue that it’s not the product but in how you market it. As it pertains to women’s cycling, how would you market the sport? Along those lines, what is appropriate?
EA: In terms of how I would market this sport? Women. I am a woman. I race against women. I relate to other women and as a member of Team Vera Bradley Foundation I am now a voice to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer- something that affects so many women every day. I feel like I am a role model to young girls and I personally, can have a positive impact on women. The relationship between cyclists like myself and other women is a huge factor. I believe that a lady who wants to ride will be more motivated and more accepting of the bike if she can connect with the other women who ride. Men’s cycling already draws the attention of females. Other males want to be like the male cyclists to attract females. Women need to relate to the sport in a way that is not intimidating. There needs to be an association attached to the sport that allows what can be interpreted as a masculine activity to maintain some level of femininity for women. I think Vera Bradley getting involved in women’s cycling is a great way for women to relate to the sport in away that relatable, motivational, not intimidating while being accessible and fun.
LB: What are your short-term goals as a cyclist…long-term goals? What are your goals in life, outside of cycling?
EA: I want to learn how to rap. I learned how to do a track stand a few years ago so I’m pretty satisfied….
My short-term goals as a cyclist consist mostly of me continuing my development, to keep learning and grow exponentially as a cyclist. I want to put a stamp on domestic racing and become a consistent name in the results. After that, I see myself doing some of the big Euro races and maybe even pursuing some world level events. I came into the sport racing on the Velodrome so track racing has a special place in my heart. It’s where I learned all my skills (as well as skills learned in our top secret ninja class). I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t think about World Cups, Worlds and the Olympics.
In life – I want to be in a position to give back. Not just in cycling though it’s a major focus- but in general. Cycling has a tendency to be a selfish sport and offsetting the self-absorbed nature by giving back to others is something I believe in. Not to be completely cheesy, but the merit of Team Vera Bradley Foundation is one that is so beyond all of us, I find it to be the perfect place to start! I’ve had my own version of Mr. Miyagi in life. I’ve had a good example of what it means to give back. I want to be the karate kid.
LB: What is one thing that most people don’t know about you?
EA: I think that feet are the most disgusting, appalling, nasty, horrific things in the world. I don’t care who you are or how pretty you think your feet are; your feet are gross. They aren’t cute.
LB: Ten things you currently cannot live without?
EA: 1. Ricky Martin, 2. Chocolate Cake, 3. My Dad and Mom, 4. Cats, 5. Music/iPod, 6. The Sun, 7. 111, 8. Laughter, 9. Red wine, and 10. Food and sleep (I get really grouchy when I don’t have those 2 things so it’s better for everyone if I don’t live without them! It’s all about giving back! [Laughs]
Photos: Leonard Basobas/LB Photos