The cover of The Wrong Side of Comfortable by Amy Charity – featuring the author in her Optum Pro Team (now Rally Cycling) kit astride her Diamondback – would lead you to believe it’s a book about bike racing. It is, but it’s not exclusively about bike racing or just for cyclists. As Charity says: “This book captures the key lessons of my journey from cycling as a hobby to racing on a professional cycling team. The principles can be applied to anyone who has a dream and is willing to take a risk and spend time on the wrong side of comfortable.”
However, for those who ride – at whatever level – you’ll be drawn in from the first chapter “Am I Still Breathing?” where Amy describes her attempt to break the women’s record of 16 minutes up Realization Point Trailhead, one of Boulder,. CO’s most well-known climbs. As the minutes tick by and her heart rates keeps climbing, it was a reminder of my racing days (a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away): pain is your friend. Although she didn’t achieve her immediate goal (she missed sub-16 minutes by a mere 3 seconds), Amy did something more important: she realized that to “experience anything worthwhile, you will cross over the line to the wrong side of comfortable.”
The wrong side of comfortable: time trialing at Redlands Bicycle Classic
And so we begin our journey with Amy Charity – a journey that would take her from being an everyday cyclist to leaving the comfort of a job in the “real” world to have a go at pro cycling, which would see her riding at the highest level in the women’s pro peloton, winning the women’s TTT U.S. National Championship, and racing the TTT at the Worlds in Richmond, VA.
National TTT champs, L-to-R: Leah Kirchmann, Jasmine (Glaesser) Duehring, Alison Tetrick, Amy Charity, Brianna Walle, Annie Ewart
2015 Worlds (Richmond, VA) TTT starting ramp, L-toR: Alison Tetrick, Amy Charity, Leah Kirchmann, Brianna Walle, Jasmine (Glaesser) Duehring
For those who are familiar with women’s pro cycling, you’ll recognize a parallel between Amy Charity and Evelyn Stevens. Both gave up careers in the financial industry to become professional bike racers. But the difference is that Stevens did so in her mid-20s while Charity jumped off her own “cliff of life” at 34 – married, a homeowner with a mortgage to pay, and with all the possessions that go with that stage of life, including a Boxador named Lucy. That jump is a reminder “that it is never too late to chase your dreams.” And for those of us who are … ahem … more advanced in years, Amy offers another important reminder: “today is the youngest you’ll ever be, for the rest of your life!”
Some other astute advice and observations from Amy:
“You have to start somewhere, and you have to start sometime. Since we can’t go back in time, we have to start now!”
“Everything in your life has happened to get you to this exact moment.”
“A bike ride fixes everything.”
As you would expect, The Wrong Side of Comfortable is filled with lots of cycling stories based on Amy’s experiences. One of my favorites is when she buys her first road bike (a decade before she ever pinned on a race number), knowing exactly zero about making a purchase that would consume the bulk of her savings: “Testing a few bikes in the parking lot, I commented how incredibly uncomfortable the saddles were. Why do they make their saddles like tiny little bricks, I asked the salesman with genuine curiosity. (Little did I know how much I would grow to appreciate a minimalist hard saddle.)” Sound familiar?
And in the never ending debate about Campagnolo vs Shimano (and now SRAM in the mix): “The salesman jested that I had selected a Rolls Royce due to the Campagnolo Record groupset. At the time, I had no idea if Campagnolo components were any good. Quite frankly, I didn’t know what bike components were.”
As it turns out, Amy Charity is a lot like the rest of us who ride bicycles as our hobby and passion. From there, she did what we all do: she rode her bike: “Cycling became my social outlet, my meditation, my commuting method, my calorie burner, my stress reducer, my boyfriend/husband introducer and my travel catalyst.”
Although, as she says, “I crossed over the line of what is considered ‘normal.’” As in deciding to ride the entire 2,130 mile 2007 Tour de France route with three other friends. How’s that for not normal and raising the bar for the rest of us? And at the end of that ride: “Sitting on the steps of Champs Élysées, my dear friend Kyle Yost asked: Amy, what are you going to do with those legs? Do you think you’ll even fit in women’s jeans anymore? You can’t waste them.” In an age of hyperconsciousness about body image, a refreshing take about how women should think about themselves and how men should look at women.
My favorite chapter in the book? Chapter seventeen: “Don’t Be a D’bag.” I literally LOL’ed reading about Amy not having enough race food in El Salvador. She was surviving on sandwich balls made of “white bread, sugary peanut butter and some sweetened fruit paste (pretending to be jelly).” Then, “three days into racing, she [a teammate] offered to sell few race bars to me because she had a huge bag of them.” I laughed not because Amy’s plight was funny, but because it reminded me of a ride with my friend AJ when he was on the wrong side of comfortable fuel-wise, didn’t have anything to top off the tank, and we were miles from the nearest convenience store. I offered him an energy gel I had in my jersey pocket and said, “$10.” He looked at me: WTF??? I said, “Supply and demand. Do you see anywhere else you can get any food right now?” Lesson learned about going for a ride with nothing in your jersey pockets. We still laugh about the incident and it’s become a running joke on rides. [I told Amy about this and her response: “Love the supply and demand discussion regarding gels. Hilarious and oh so true!”]
For those wanting some serious training advice, read chapter nine “Be a Monk” and follow these rules:
1 – Six training days per week on the bike (check!)
2 – One glass of wine the night before a rest day (I’m pretty sure I fail this one on a daily basis)
3 – Dessert one time per week (I don’t have a sweet tooth, so this one is easy)
4 – Naps after all long rides (some of us don’t need long rides as an excuse to nap)
5 – Minimum of eight hours of sleep per night (right-o!)
6 – Recovery drinks after all rides (does a PEZ Negroni count?)
7 – One recovery ride per week (I think this describes all my rides)
8 – Minimal activity outside of cycling (does this include going to work?)
9 – Send cycling data and perceived health scores on a daily basis (I don’t need to do this because I already know I suck!)
Tour of Utah, Cedar City Criterium
And the next time you find yourself falling OTB – whether in a race or on your favorite group ride – you can draw on Amy’s experience racing in El Salvador for motivation to get back on: “We had strict instructions not to fall off the back of the pack during the bike race, because the country had one of the highest kidnapping rates in the world.”
If you’re feeling overtrained or a little burned out, some advice from Amy’s friend and former Vanderkitten teammate, Jenn: “Have a glass of wine, FFS!” And don’t forget to do what another teammate, Maura, calls “happiness watts,” which are “the extra watts (i.e., power) you get by doing activities that make you happy.” In other words, it’s not always all about the bike.
Amy doing happiness watts in her kitchen
Fun fact about Amy: during her time in the women’s pro peloton she was one of only two racers who were married. If you follow her on Twitter, you can tag her #prowife, a term coined by her husband, Matt. “To this day my former teammates still refer to me as ‘Amy Pro Wife.’”
Think you have what it takes to ride in the pro peloton? Here’s how Amy described racing the Spring Classics in Europe with Team USA: “The scene forever ingrained in m mind is riding at twenty-five mph, shoulder to shoulder with women on both sides, in a pack of 180 racers. Millimeters in front of me, the next wheel. I could barely grab a drink from my water bottle without touching someone. Did I mention that the group moved at a pace of twenty-five mph or faster? The unbelievable part was that some of these beastly giants [the Dutch racers] actually made their way up to the front of the group by riding through the middle of the pack. To be clear, there not room. By extending my arm, I could have easily made contact with about nine women. That is how close we raced.” I have riding friends who have a hard enough time being comfortable riding a foot away from someone.
In the gutter, Le Samyn des Dames Quaregnon, Belgium
Ultimately, however, The Wrong Side of Comfortable isn’t about bike racing and cycling. It’s about life and living your life, with bike racing and cycling as a metaphor for how to do that. To use a cliché, life’s a journey not a destination, and Amy Charity’s book is a great read about embarking on and navigating that journey.
Certainly, in the current era and environment, it’s an important book for women because it’s about empowerment and achievement. But her lessons and advice go beyond gender. They’re for everyone: woman or man, young or old, cyclist or not. And the next time you’re out on a ride, remember this: “We [Amy and her husband, Matt – who hails from Nottingham, England and is a former bike racer] were in the last twenty minutes of a seventy-mile ride. I was riding about twenty mph on the flat road and Matt rode around me and told me to hold his wheel. I was watching my speed tick up to twenty-one mph, twenty-two mph, twenty-three mph and finally twenty-five mph. My heart rate increased, my legs began to burn, and I told him to knock it back a touch. He said, in his charming British accent, ‘Darling, you’re just on the wrong side of comfortable.’’” Maybe that’s actually the sweet spot where you want and need to be … on the bike and in life.
The Wrong Side of Comfortable: Chase your dream. Discover your potential. Transform your life.
By Amy Charity
212 pages, Grit Publishing, 2017
Amy Charity website: https://www.amymcharity.com
# All photos supplied by Amy Charity. #
After reading her book, PEZ was able to chat with Amy.
Given everything that’s going on in the world surrounding revelations about sexual harassment, it’s impossible not to ask if you think it’s an issue in women’s pro cycling or pro cycling in general?
I’m thankful to say that it was never an issue for me. That said, every year there are rumors of certain directors to avoid and stories of inappropriate comments, actions, etc. within teams.
As someone with a financial services background, what do you think needs to be done to infuse more money into women’s pro cycling and grow the sport so that it’s more on the same level as men’s pro cycling?
There are some powerful grassroots efforts underway (e.g., Homestretch cycling house, VOX women, etc.). The more media attention (e.g., live footage of races) that women’s cycling gets, the more opportunities for growth. Women’s cycling is fast, dynamic and strategic, and the depth of talent has increased exponentially over the past. My situation notwithstanding, women are starting racing earlier. I had a 14 year old girl attend Grinta Cycling Camp last summer, and she could tear the legs off of most men! Now that gives me hope for women’s racing. The women tend to be intelligent, educated, and diverse. The more that mainstream media understands cycling in general, and female racers specifically, the more interesting spectators will find the sport. With this interest, sponsors will find even more value-add in supporting female racers and women’s professional racing teams.
What do you think of having both men’s and women’s teams as part of larger team, such as what Sunweb has done and Movistar is doing?
Having men’s and women’s squads under one umbrella is a huge step in the right direction for women’s cycling and for moving towards equality. In the Sunweb example, not only did they share resources (equipment, staff, buses, etc.), but the synergy from each team worked in the favor of the other. They both unexpectedly won the TTT in the World Champs.
I raced for Optum in 2015 and had a similar experience. At Nationals and Worlds we were able to share the team bus, trainers, team cars, etc. Staff supported both of us, so there was definitely some economic benefit. We also spent time with the male team, so we were surrounded by additional experts to learn from and share experiences with. It’s a great model.
How would your journey and experience be different if you had decided to pursue pro cycling in your early 20s?
Ahhh … tough one. I would have had more racing experience and therefore likely would have become a more tactically savvy racer. This skill would have been particularly beneficial in positioning, timing, and reading races. However, I believe that starting a racing career later in life allowed me to find moderation, have an extra decade of endurance, and appreciate the sport for the pure passion of it (rather than as a career).
Any particular advice for junior racers with aspirations to go pro?
Find key mentors that are supportive of your aspirations. Find a good coach that you trust unconditionally. Have patience and understand that you will have good and bad days, races, and potentially even seasons. Keep focus on your goal of racing professionally and let that guide your decisions.
Highest high and lowest low as a pro cyclist?
Highest high – racing for the US National Team in the Tour de Feminin in Czech Republic. The US team took the overall win with beautifully executed tactics. Our GC contender (Bree Walle), race director (Jack Seehafer), and the rest of the team were clear on our goals and the plan of execution. I will never forget the feeling of wearing the stars and stripes cycling kit and standing on the podium with my teammates.
Lowest Low – racing in El Salvador having contracted some El Salvadorian flu-like symptoms. Attempting to race 60 miles, over mountains, in a severe state of hunger and dehydration, while fearing the prospect of real danger if dropped from the rest of the peloton.
Ronde van Drenth (World Cup), Drenthe, Netherlands
How did you think about and plan for life after pro cycling, especially since you had a life and a career before pro cycling?
I maintained contact with previous colleagues, managers, etc. I continuously thought through my next plan and how to optimize my potential. The ideal is to find what your strengths are and to combine it with a passion. I am running cycling camps in the summer in Steamboat Springs and I’m the Director of Bike Town USA, a non-profit focused on making Steamboat a cycling destination. I find both to be very fulfilling in combining a passion for cycling and Steamboat Springs.
Do you still ride? What kind of riding do you do? What would it be like for a “weekend warrior” to go out with you for a ride?
I hope to ride a bike until I’m in my 90s. It’s part of me and something that I still crave almost on a daily basis, albeit fewer miles nowadays. Now that it’s winter, I’m riding a fat bike on the single track trails around Steamboat. I’m discovering a love for gravel riding and will be racing the Dirty Kanza 200 this summer.
I love riding with “weekend warriors” and rarely attack anymore! Just kidding. Now that I’ve been “retired” for a couple of years, I can keep my competitive nature in check and genuinely enjoy a ride for the sheer enjoyment of being outside on the bike, at a modest pace.
When you were racing, which was harder: being away from your husband, Matt, or your dog, Lucy?
Now I’m on the spot! That’s a tough one. Lucy is the most unbelievable snuggler and companion on the planet. That said, I must admit that having Matt behind the scenes with unconditional support, racing expertise, and a gentle boost whenever I needed it was priceless. Don’t tell Lucy!
Amy with her Boxador, Lucy
Since you used to live in the DC area, for our PEZ readers in DC, what was your favorite training ride?
For a weekend getaway, I spent endless hours riding Garrett County roads in Deep Creek. The grade of the narrow roads never ceased to amaze me. Another personal favorite for weekend riding, and closer to DC, is Skyline Drive. I developed a love for climbing and endurance in my early 20s along those epic miles.
Is there a right side of comfortable?
Yes! The contrast from being outside of your comfort zone (e.g., suffering on a bike) to settling into a pace (e.g., knocking it back a few mph) is the sweet spot. Having been on the “wrong side of comfortable” is what makes moments on the “right side of comfortable” all the more enjoyable. Just don’t stay there too long!
Campagnolo or Shimano?
Now that I’m not spoken for (regarding components!), I’d have to go with Campy. If money weren’t an object, every bike in my fleet would be equipped with Campy Super Record!
What are your favorite “happiness watts”?
I am 100% convinced that Happiness Watts is a real thing. Because suffering is such an integral part of bike racing, we become accustomed to self deprivation, often unnecessarily. My favorite example of Happiness Watts is a quality meal with friends where the conversation and wine are flowing well into the evening. While traditionally this isn’t ideal for a bike racer, the mental and physical break with an occasional indulgence far outweighs the downside.
What do you miss most about bike racing? Do you see doing something with racing – like maybe managing a team – in your future?
I miss the thrill of racing. There is nothing like standing on a start line, especially in a European race, with 150+ of the best female cyclists in the world. At that moment, absolutely anything can happen. I love the sheer rush of being in a break with the complexities of thinking through how to win the race tactically and how to manage the mental side of being at the absolute limit of my physical capabilities. I miss the feeling of being at the pinnacle of fitness where I am so in tune with my body and knowing exactly what I can endure. Finally, and most significantly, I miss the camaraderie with my teammates. There is nothing like being in sync with a teammate and knowing exactly what she needs during a race and how you can help one another.
I’ll always be involved in the sport. I run cycling camps in Steamboat in the summer (one for juniors and one for adults) and find it to be incredibly rewarding. I loved having 13 year old, future Peter Sagans, on my wheel during a high-speed descent. It’s incredible to teach them about going through and off in a paceline, or various racing tactics, and watching them execute what they were taught.
PEZ contributor Chuck Peña is a former weekend warrior racer who now just rides for fun, but every once in a while manages to prove Fausto Coppi’s adage true: Age and treachery will overcome youth and skill. He lives in Arlington, VA with his wife (who is his most frequent riding partner), his daughter (a junior golfer who takes great joy in beating him all the time), and their dogs. You can follow him on Twitter.