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The Gravel Road Less Traveled

A Conversation About High Level Cycling, Mommin' and How to Get it All Done.

Melissa Westergard, aka Gravel Girl, and Shannon Walsh, are two accomplished cyclists in the South Metro/Highlands Ranch area. As working moms and hard-core athletes, their time is extremely limited, so we chatted via email about their shared passion.

Melissa started cycling in her 20s. Road riding came shortly after in El Paso, Texas, where she was living at the time. She fell in love with how fast she could go up and down mountains and was hooked.

Since then, she’s tried many cycling disciplines, road, cyclocross, mountain, gravel, and determined that endurance gravel, or what some refer to as adventure, riding and racing is her passion.

“Gravel is anything from smooth dirt roads to washboards, ruts, sand bogs, and even exposed rocks,” Melissa says. “I love hearing gravel crushing under my tires. I love experiencing the elements, even the headwinds. It reminds me that my body has the strength to push through and overcome uncomfortable things.”

Shannon’s mountain biking began in college. It was the early 90's when many of the big-name mountain bikers were living in Durango like Missy Giove and Ned Overend. 

After graduation, Shannon taught at a middle school in Golden and rode the local trails after school.  It was then that mountain biking became a significant part of her life.  It served as her social circle, adrenaline fix, a tool to stay fit, and a way to access the wilderness.

Shannon is riding her first 100 mile race this summer in Leadville.

Many women find cycling intimidating.  Did you ever feel that? How did you overcome?

MELISSA: Cycling can feel intimidating if you let it. It’s easy to look at accomplished riders and think we should fit that mold. That’s what I did, and I quickly learned that was not going to work for me. I was able to overcome that by connecting with a local bike shop. Cyclists who meet at bike shops for group rides are of all different riding abilities. Beginners to seniors who’ve spent decades of their lives riding and racing. It’s a welcoming community of people who want to share the joy of riding with others.

SHANNON: I agree, but just about everything unfamiliar can be intimidating. It's not any scarier than learning any new skill. Once you hop on the bike a few times and get a few miles under you, you realize it's not as big of a deal. I tend to ride alone but agree group rides are an excellent way to get involved in the cycling community. It's a supportive group of people, and I agree with Melissa, it's about sharing the joy of cycling.

How much time do you estimate you devote to riding?

SHANNON: I don’t ride in the off season, I get my workouts on skis or the stair climber, being active three to four days a week. I just try to stay fit. When the weather is good, I ride as much as I can.  If my day is tight, I get up for a sunrise ride, or a headlamp ride in the evening. I ride three to four times a week, and I try for one long ride a week, up to five hours. 

If I'm not feeling strong, I push through, and I never regret it. A busy schedule makes it easier to not skip a ride, because you know the opportunities aren't always available. The balance can be tough. Sometimes I worry about not being fit enough to feel strong and finish these long endurance races. Then I remember most people in the race also have lives off the bike. Sometimes the opposite is true, I ride so often for training that I feel a little guilty for not riding more with my family.

MELISSA: My riding time is ever-changing. The race I have scheduled next will determine how much time I spend riding. When I was racing shorter road races, I would train roughly 10-12 hours per week. Over the past few years, I have been racing ultra-endurance gravel events, which vary in length from 100-200 miles. To prepare for these races, I train up to 20 hours per week for the few months leading up to the race. It’s like a part time job. Often that means a 4 a.m. wake up time

It isn’t easy, but I’ve learned that I’m not satisfied with easy. I like to move. One of the most difficult things for me about training are the rest days. As for balance, it’s a learned skill, and I attribute nearly all of it to my family. Before I sign up for a race, we all talk it over. Being able to be successful in these events requires help from every family member, even down to the youngest.

SHANNON: Wow Melissa, that training schedule is amazing. No wonder you’re a rock star!

Sometimes people feel like it has to be all or nothing, i.e.: If I can't ride at the level of Melissa or Shannon, why bother? How do you respond?

SHANNON: As adults, it's very difficult to start new hobbies, because in the beginning, we won't be good. We just won't. Talent comes with training, tools and technique. So, I let myself be a beginner. This year I wanted to learn how to paint watercolor, so I committed to painting every day for 30 days. I'm not an amazing watercolor artist, but I'm better than I was 30 days ago. Putting ourselves in vulnerable places makes us better people. My family makes fun of me for playing the ukulele and singing horribly. It brings me joy, even though I’m not any good, and the more I sing and play, the better I get.  

In relation to cycling, it's about just getting out there, having fun, and being healthy. Every ride grows your skills and makes you stronger.

MELISSA: Such a beautifully stated response Shannon!  Don’t set expectations. Just go ride your bike. You’ll find where you like to ride and where you don’t. Avoid getting upset over the less than ideal circumstances and use them as opportunities to learn. 

Tragically, a prominent member of the cycling community was killed while riding her bike in the midst of our conversation. Melissa shared this:

MELISSA: As cyclists, we are vulnerable on the road. I learned this the hard way when I was hit by a truck while riding my bike. I was extremely fortunate to not have any major injuries from this accident, but it heightened my awareness while riding. Since then I always have at least some anxiety when I ride on a busy road. If you see a bicycle painted white on the side of the road, that indicates a cyclist has been hit and didn’t survive. Bicycle Colorado is a non-profit organization that advocates for cyclists in many ways, working with state and local officials to make our roads more accessible to bicycles, improve safety for everyone who uses the roadways, and much more. Consider checking out their initiatives at bicyclecolorado.org.

Nearby Rides:

Short and Technical: Deer Creek Park

Easy ridin’ after work: Rooney at Green Mountain

All day rides: Staunton State Park & Buffalo Creek

Climbing and Mileage: High Grade Road above Deer Creek & City View Loop

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