What's Cool In Road Cycling

Summer Read: Kathryn Bertine’s As Good As Gold

The new book, “As Good as Gold,” by Kathryn Bertine, is the entertaining tale of a dedicated athlete, who had a singularly peculiar opportunity to try and make her dream of participating in the Olympics a reality.

Every four years the Summer Olympics rolls around again and the mainstream media is suddenly all excited about sports that it has studiously ignored for 48 months. There are articles and profiles and interviews that focus on the skills and dedication needed to achieve success, especially where your country stands a chance, no matter how distant, of a medal. The new book, “As Good as Gold,” by Kathryn Bertine, is the entertaining tale of one of these dedicated athletes, who had a singularly peculiar opportunity to try and make her dream of participating in the Olympics a reality.

While watching a televised luge competition, executives of a major US sports broadcaster debated whether a) luge was even a sport and b) if it was as easy as it looked. To answer their questions, a less-clueless person, a professional athlete who could write, was sought and given the challenge of getting to the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, then two years away.

This person, professional triathlete Kathyrn Bertine, accepted the challenge, which included coverage of her training and travel expenses as well as a monthly stipend. She was enthusiastic about taking on the job since at that point she had $200 in her bank account and was sleeping on couches of friends and acquaintances. Although her performances may not have been setting the triathlete world on fire–one year her prize winnings amounted to $380.00—it is clear from the book that she is a dedicated and not untalented athlete. And one not adverse to problem-solving, as the first problem that presented itself was which sport to focus on.

As an Ironman-distance triathlete, Ms. Bertine believed that the much shorter Olympic distance would be unsuitable for her so instead her strategy was to focus on sports that were so obscure in the United States that perhaps she could get onto an Olympic team that way due to her fitness level and athletic dedication, thinking that the competition might be less or, better yet, non-existent.

That turned out not to be the case but her descriptions of participating in training camps for pentathlon and team handball are very funny and it is clear that she admires those who labour in total obscurity and without a chance of financial reward because they love their chosen sport and the joy of competition so much. She wants to be seen as an athlete who just happens to be a journalist as well but did she really believe that at the age of thirty she would demonstrate the kind of skills needed to make the pentathlon team?

It is hard to imagine that in the first instance the team is very large but how likely would somebody be chosen who could, yes, swim and run (although not quite fast enough), but had never fenced or shot a target pistol and was leery of horses? The team handball goes somewhat better but although highly entertaining, Ms. Bertine does show her George Plimpton side here. Her attempts at ocean swimming, rowing and racewalking also suggest that they are more food for her articles for the broadcaster’s website than real attempts to get on an Olympic team.

As a triathlete, Ms. Bertine has plenty of experience cycling but none of it beyond time trialling. Through her efforts at track racing, she comes to realize that her best chance to make the Olympics (and time is running out quickly at this point in the book) is through bicycle racing on the road. And her efforts to accomplish this are, to me, the best part of the book. As a cyclist, I can relate to the demands of training, but as an amateur, I am impressed by just how hard the pro races are, both in terms of the actual racing and in terms of the surrounding conditions.

Ms. Bertine is staggeringly unflappable and every setback just spurs her on for the next round. For example, it is quickly obvious that she won’t make the US women’s cycling team, whose ranks are filled with seasoned professionals, so she creatively finds another solution. And, stung by the broadcaster’s taunts, the US luge team invites her to experience if luge, indeed, is something requiring athleticism.

In terms of results, the author seems to be a good cyclist indeed. Within a year of focusing on road cycling, she moved from the beginner class of Category 4 to Category 2, allowing her to compete at the national level. She wins the Arizona state road race championship, and is second in the time trial, among other impressive achievements. She is justifiably proud of these but they are not enough to get her to the very top but still she get on her bike and rides and rides.

She gives us insights into an athletic life very different from that of the kind of sports coverage her supportive broadcaster provides, which seems pretty much entirely devoted to US men’s pro baseball, football and basketball (well, probably men’s college basketball too). Instead of million dollar contracts and thousands of cheering spectators, we rejoice with Ms. Bertine as she counts out her $20 in winnings from a thirteenth-place finish at Venezuela’s Race for the Life of Jesus (seriously). At least there are lots of spectators in China, a great novelty at a women’s race, although I am certain I would not want the masses watch me apply chamois cream.

Between the bumps and bruises accumulated and reported on over the two years, both in sport and in personal relationships, Ms. Bertine entertains us by releasing some of the bees in her bonnet. As a male reader, I found it enlightening to read about the yogafication of sports bras, a trend unknown to me, as well as about hydration, nasal surgery and How to Love a Female Athlete (which apparently, in most situations, consists of telling them how hot they are). More seriously, there is a great deal in this book about motivation and the need to accomplish. And how to effectively give out jelly beans.

Ms. Bertine’s style is self-deprecating, direct and fresh and she clearly has given a great deal of thought to athletics and what competition has meant to her. The book has made me look again at my own time trialling efforts and how I too might do better.

An annoying quirk in the book is that it appears to have been edited with a computer spellchecker, so we have a number of words used incorrectly, such as “breaks” for “brakes,” and “sites” for “sights,” for example. Publishers of the World: stop doing this.

It is hard to make a go of it in sports, and particularly in women’s sports. The road to Beijing may have taken unexpected turns for her but often the bike ride is more important than the finishing line. I applaud Kathryn Bertine’s gumption and her sense of herself, as well as her writing skills. She is pretty hot, actually.

As Good As Gold: 1 Woman, 9 Sports, 10 Countries, and a 2-Year Quest to Make the Summer Olympics
by Kathryn Bertine
295 pp, ESPN Press, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-933060-53-8
Suggested Price: US$25.00/C$29.95

When not finding the latest and greatest in cycling literature, you can find Leslie riding his bike. You can keep up with his adventures at www.TinDonkey.com.

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