Cycling for change: an interview with professional cyclist, Kathryn Bertine

Photo: Shelley Welander
Jessica Kuepfer catches up with professional cyclist Kathryn Bertine to talk about health, sustainability and overcoming adversity

Reading the book As Good As Gold, I was struck by the incredible resilience of author and professional cyclist Kathryn Bertine as she attempted to make it to the Beijing Olympics facing issues ranging from flat tires to jellyfish.

I caught up with Kathryn, despite her busy training schedule, to discuss her upcoming documentary, how to get up to train at 5 am, and how overcoming adversity has universal solutions such as humour, balance and a little bit of help from the other team.

Jessica Kuepfer: You have been working very hard at a documentary on women’s cycling; can you give us a bit of background on that?
Kathryn Bertine: Well, the documentary was born out of the realization that there is a discrepancy between men’s and women’s cycling such as fewer opportunities to race, shorter distances and smaller prize purses; this did not sit well with me.  As I talked to other female athletes, I found I was not alone in this and it was born out of a desire to celebrate the love of sport as well as shedding some light on the obstacles that women face. Many athletes feel as if the cycling federation is not trying to create a situation of equality; there is no structure in place right now for women’s cycling to offer a sustainable career. There are maybe 5 pro teams in the entire world that allow full salary that women can live on without supplementing their salary. In many other sports, there is a structure in place that ensures they succeed and all they need work on is their skill and talent in order to go far in the sport.

JK: There is a stigma with professional sports that causes people to think athletes are receiving multi-million dollar contracts. Does this affect your efforts to create equality in male and female cycling?
KB: Absolutely, and we are not saying that we need huge contracts – we are just saying that if the men are getting them and the females are not, then we need to focus on equality. It is a catch-22 of the word professional in cycling. We don’t need a lot of money, but we should be able to live off the income we make while competing at a professional level. One of the women I am interviewing for the documentary was a national champion from 2011 and has a whole separate business so she can make ends meet.  I am not trying to steer the documentary toward the cycling community, but rather have it reach the audience that can relate to it in the way that they know how it is to feel unequal in some way; an audience who questions how we fix it and creates a change.

JK: What is the connection between athletics and the environment for you?
KB: As a cyclist, I'm involved in a sport that takes place outside and has a direct connection with the environment. It is so important for an athlete to be aware of their duty to the environment. Most athletes understand this connection, but now and then I see someone litter an energy bar wrapper mid-ride. It doesn't happen often, but when it does I have no problem verbally educating this rider on my true feelings as to where that wrapper should be shoved. But on a bigger scale, I think cyclists are very aware and interested in keeping a healthy environment in the forefront of their thoughts. After all, it's a gift to be able to race a bike outside all over the world, and we're all pretty passionate about keeping our world as sustainable and beautiful as possible.

JK: You talk about your early morning training schedule in your book. Any tips for those of us who find it hard to get out of bed at 5 AM to hit the road?
KB: Well, I am currently in the biking offseason, but I find that if you have a specific goal in sight, then it all comes together. If you are lacking the motivation to train, then you need to ask yourself why. It can often be burnout for an endurance athlete because it is always go-go-go. A suggestion for finding motivation in your training is to throw in a mid-season race so you have something to work towards. Another big motivator is to train with a friend; it is hard to skip a workout when you know someone is waiting for you.

JK: Since you are in your off-season right now, what are you doing for cross training?
KB: I’m going back to my triathlon roots! Normally I ride, jog and swim twice a week. I just do short stuff, like 25 minute jogs, an hour swim without counting laps and bikram yoga once a week. I do something 6 days a week because there is a difference between resting and getting completely out of shape. Oh! And I love hiking!

JK: What about strength training?
KB: I lift twice a week and I have a trainer in Tuscan helps me with strength training specific to cycling. He targets muscles that are neglected on a bike. Your back muscles are strong, but your chest and shoulders don’t necessarily counterbalance so you can get some imbalance and pretty funky posture. The training is so important and it is fun for me.

JK: With all the training you do, how do you keep a balance between your personal life and training life?
KB: This is an important one. When you are balanced, you do your best! This has been a journey for me. I feel most balanced when my writing and cycling career are in sync but in freelance, that can be tough. I have been married for a few years to my husband, an amateur cyclist. He has been very supportive in the moral aspect of the sport because he realizes that I won’t be able to do this forever. If you have someone in your life who provides you with emotional support and truly mean it, that is a huge factor in going out and facing your training head on.

JK: What music to do workout to?
KB: I actually don’t train outdoors with music because I like to daydream and I need to keep my wits about me otherwise two or three of my senses are missing! Also, as a writer, I use my riding time to think in that capacity. However, if I am on an indoor trainer (which doesn’t happen all that often), I need music! I love The Killers, LMFAO, the new Rolling Stones album and anything that has a good rhythm.

JK: What is your most memorable race moment?
KB: I am looking back on 6 years of cycling now, but a moment that stands out for me was being in a race in South America and I was shooting for my Olympic Points and I was trying to start a break away group which is incredibly hard to do when everyone else has the same idea. I was fading and I felt a hand on my back and a rider from another team gave me a push as if to say: “I see what you are trying to do, don’t give up, keep going.” There was something in that unspoken moment where your competition is reaching out and giving you a push, which is extremely hard in cycling. She was probably half my size and weight, raced for a different country and pro team and yet she saw what I was trying to do and wanted to help.
That moment exposes the beauty of struggle, despite how vicious and cutthroat it can be, that we can all respect each other as we strive to meet our goals and symbolizes the larger picture. We need other people.

Click here to read the rest of the interview » (Plus: you can win a copy of Bertine's latest book!)


 Alternatives JournalAlternatives Journal (A\J) is Canada’s Environmental Voice, delivering the latest news and ideas about national and global environmental issues. Featuring thoughtful analysis by the nation’s foremost environmental thinkers, plus profiles of inspiring eco-leaders and sustainable living ideas to steal, A\J offers both a vision of a more sustainable future and the tools needed to take us there.