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.The Road Less Traveled

Just a few years after learning how to ride a bike, Oakland's Beth Newell is quickly turning into one of the new stars of the cycling world.

Beth Newell’s rise to stardom began as all great sports stories do: behind a Dumpster in back of a Safeway. Her car had just died. It wasn’t much of a car, but without it, she was going to be late, or absent, or fired. Twenty-two years old and new to the Bay Area, she needed to get to work in the worst way. Then she spotted an abandoned Schwinn Cruiser.

The bike was rusty, heavy, and soon to be garbage. Newell moved piles of trash to get to it and then remembered a key detail: “I never really learned how to ride a bike.”

But the young woman had no time to consider a wasted childhood or the gravel driveways of her native Ohio. She mounted up. “I stayed on the sidewalk,” she recalled, “and not too well on that, either.”

She made it to work that day and then back home. She did it the next day, too. Eventually, she forgot about her dead car and bonded with her rescued roller. The bicycle, in fact, is still at her home in Oakland. It’s one of five in her stable, but it’s not the bike that’s going to take her to the state championship, the nationals, or the Olympic Games. Newell has been to the first two — and may very well make it to the third.

But the story of Beth Newell is about more than her rapid ascent in the cycling world. It’s the story of a woman who found her sport years after she had given up sports, which means that it is also the story of an athlete who got to grow up and grow distant enough from sports to develop other interests and skills. One of them turned out to be community. Even today, as her sights have turned to qualifying for a national team, and even the Olympics, Newell continues to serve as a researcher and advocate for indigent East Bay residents at the Alameda Health Consortium in San Leandro.

The other gift that Newell developed along the way is the ability to turn a phrase as neatly as she does a wheel. She began by writing her own story on a blog that started by telling her tale. Her observations about bicycling and Oakland (and hot pants and water bottles and Hostess snacks and the movie Labyrinth) made her blog a must-read for all audiences, albeit one with a PG-13 rating. Then it turned out that her story was more than a new girl and an old bicycle, it was about a rising star who rode far beyond her dreams only to find that if you climb one hill, you can then see others to climb as well.

January 7, 2010. 9:00 p.m. I am biking home from the team gym, heading east on 40th St, just crossing Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, California. There are some young men idling on the corner, all drinking slurpees. As I bike by, one boy removes the lid of this 44oz slurpee and tosses the contents of the cherry flavor all over me and my bike. Why am I blaming you, 7-Eleven, for their behavior, and not their juvenile delinquent selves … or the cheap-ass weed they were probably on that caused them to buy the slurpee in the first place?C’mon 7-11! — 44oz of slurpee? Why do you make a 44-oz cup? It’s like 2 bucks for that much slurpee, and you know people won’t be able to drink it all. Thus, bad things are likely to happen with that extra slurpee … and moreover, let’s be honest, that amount of high fructose corn syrup causes crack-like behaviors in individuals. At some point, throwing slurpee remnants at passers-by does become the logical course of action. (From Beth Newell’s blog, beth bikes!)

“I came out to the Bay Area as part of the AmeriCorps program in 2005,” Newell said recently over coffee near her Fruitvale district home. Newell is slight in stature and low-key in person. But for predilection for the color orange, Newell was hard to pick out from the crowd of yoga women and graduate students that filled the cafe. “Once I had the job, I decided to splurge, and spent $80 on a new bike after getting tired of lugging the Schwinn around. I moved up to a ten-speed bicycle at that time so I could get more gears than, y’know, one.” The bicycle was new only to Newell; it was a circa-1972 beater, but it was better than the rescued Schwinn that had been her sole means of transport.

Newell was then 23 years old and retired from an athletic career that was long on experience and short on glory. “I played soccer as a kid and then started running,” she said. Her blog, however, frequently references her prep career as part of the flag team performing at halftime during football games rather than her career running track and cross country at a Division III college. An injury forced her to hang up her spikes after her junior year. By the time she started anew in the East Bay, she was doing spin classes at the gym and wobbling to work on her new-old bike. “I figured the part of my life which had competitive sports in it was over.”

She had no clue that just a few years after learning how to ride a bike, she would become one of the hottest cycling phenoms in the nation.

Newell saw a flyer at her gym for an Oakland group that rides bikes for fun around Lake Merritt. Fun is the way that Newell described life as a cycling commuter. “I like the pace of seeing the city on a bicycle. You are fast enough to get around, you are slow enough to check things out, and you’re mobile enough to get out of sketchy situations. And you can park.”

The Oakland Yellowjackets are a cycling group that meets on Saturdays in the warm-weather months as a “social, multi-cultural bicycling group for men and women of all ages and skill levels with a no-drop policy.” They take care to note: “We are not a racing team.” Newell figured that sounded like just the right speed.

“I showed up with my beater bike, wearing running clothes and tennis shoes, and there were all these guys all spandexed up, with shoes that clipped into pedals on these fancy bikes. I looked so out of place, but they couldn’t have been nicer.”

One man in particular, Fred Shuck, noticed the rookie rider and thought he saw something special. “He’s this gruff, sixty-plus-year-old bearded guy, and he kind of became my Mr. Miyagi,” Newell said, referencing the wise mentor in The Karate Kid.

Newell spent the next few weekends with the beginners, until Scheck told her that she was skilled enough to ride the road with the intermediate class. “And then I got lost from the start and realized, once we were in the Oakland Hills, that I had accidently gotten in with the advanced group,” she said, telling the story with a shake of her head and a happy smile. “Up to that day I hadn’t ever ridden more than fifteen miles in a day, and here we were almost going twice that distance straight up to the sky.”

Newell survived her ascent (and descent) and her development became a kind of an ongoing group project. By 2007, she had entered a triathlon on a friend’s urging. “I almost drowned during the swim component — I was last,” she recalled. “Literally everyone in that race was better than I was. So when I got on my bicycle and started passing people, even before I got to the running part, I said to myself, ‘Screw swimming.’ When I got lapped again during the running, I said, ‘Maybe no more triathlons, either.'”

Mr. Miyagi urged her to start serious training. “Laps at 6 a.m., twice a week before work,” she remembered. “And then he told me about this place I could practice in San Jose on a thing called a velodrome. My first time around, I fell and went to the emergency room with this brutal road rash.”

Newell posted a picture of her scraped-up face on the blog that she had just started. Then she posted photos of her slow healing process every day for two weeks. “I always kind of liked writing, and then I found I really liked writing for an audience.”

Two weeks later, her rash still raw, Newell was ready to roll again. “Second time on the track, I fell over and broke my wrist,” she laughed. By 2008, Newell had entered her first handful of races. “It was more about community than winning, at the start,” she said with a grin. “By 2009, there was some winning in there, too.”

The YMCA back home at Lake Anna just opened up about a year ago and it is very nice. There are these stationary bikes that were more like a video game. So I sat down and went past the beginner, intermediate, and advanced “routes” — right to the CHALLENGING routes. Then I found the hardest one on that page: SAVAGE REVENGE.There were a lot of things really savage about SAVAGE REVENGE. First, was the fact that all the video cyclists were riding in the snow-capped mountains with short sleeves and shorts, except one lady who had on some pink leg warmers. Second, were the trolls that would throw snowballs at you. I saw the “winning times” at the bottom of the screen and I was all set to crush. After all, I ride real bikes. AND I am back home visiting Barberton, Ohio. I wasn’t really worried about my competition and was hoping to eternalize myself on the winners’ board at the Lake Anna YMCA.So I started my route and after a minute, everyone was passing me. I mean everyone. And not just passing me slowly, but flying by me. Then I realized two things about these stationary bikes. 1) You need to steer them. (I had been wondering why I kept riding in the gutter). 2) You also need to shift — I figured this out in the first five minutes. Then I started passing people, and then started throwing hooks to people to see if I could cause crashes … but the people just disappear when you hit them so then I started to just ride straight THROUGH people. After a few minutes of this, I was exhausted and still way behind. It was clear that I wasn’t going to get the high score. So I did what any good sportsman would do when she realized that she was beat.

I started over. (beth bikes! December 2008)

Getting to the Testarossa Challenge is not as challenging as getting to the infield once you’re there. San Jose’s Hellyer Park Velodrome, the home of Northern California track racing, is one of about twenty banked bicycle racing surfaces in the country.

Newell got her start in track racing, but it’s no longer where she spends most of her competitive time; it isn’t, in fact, for most American cyclists. The bulk of bicycle competition these days is in road races, winding through the great outdoors. Track racing is done around an oval and is popular in Great Britain. It had its moment here in the States as well, but that moment passed some time ago. However, it was a logical starting point for Newell because the Bay Area has a track and her club members had an interest.

During a competition earlier this summer, the only problem for this reporter was getting to the media section of the track. It could only be done by crossing over the track itself, which was filled with terrifyingly fast two-wheelers.

The first event of the day was women’s Keirin. There is a motorcycle (!) that goes around the track four times, followed by the bicyclists. If they pass the motorcycle at any point, the cyclists are disqualified. After the fourth lap, the motorcycle peels off the track, whereupon the cyclists then have two laps to race to the finish by themselves. It’s very big in Japan.

Newell was in the first heat and finished fifth out of eight, meaning that the only way she can earn her way back into the semifinal round was by qualifying as a top-two finisher in the repechage rounds, which are the loser brackets for those who don’t earn automatic qualification in the opening rounds.

There was about half an hour of other racing before Newell would be back on the bike, trying to scramble back to the playoff rounds. She spent most of this down time on her bike. In the middle of the infield, past the media, the cyclists had created a mini-tent city. They were sprawled on folding chairs, amid water bottles, shoes, and burritos. There were many bike stands set up as well, allowing cyclists to warm up in a stationary position. Newell looked intense on a bike going nowhere.

While Newell awaited her last chance to get back in the running for the Keirin playoffs, the men’s masters’ level riders competed in something called the Missin’ Out race. It consisted of 25 cyclists circling the track, getting eliminated a lap at a time, with the last-place racer ordered off the track until only three remained. The trio then had a lap to wrap things up.

Newell’s boyfriend and coach, former competitive cyclist Michael Hernandez, dominated the first 24 laps. On the final sprint, with Van Morrison’s “Wild Night” playing on the track’s PA system, Hernandez ran out of steam and lost every bit of his considerable lead. With a hundred yards to the finish line, he lost his grip on first place. If the tortoise and hare were on bicycles, it would have looked like this race. He waved off congratulations for his second-place finish with a grin and said, “That was nice of you to not say, ‘Hey, didn’t I just see you completely die out there?'”

These days Hernandez only rides for fun. Everyone at the track knows him; after the race, many shook hands with him as they walked by, some adding witticisms about his having snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Hernandez had brought Katheryn Mattis with him. Mattis, the 2005 US national road racing champion, was eating from the hospitality table and raising a glass of wine when asked if she was enjoying her retirement. “I’m fully embracing it,” she said, biting into something barbecued while reflecting on a career that began at age 25.

Both Hernandez and Mattis agreed that the opportunities for women cyclists have expanded since the turn of the millennium. “When I started,” Mattis said, “the top prize for an elite men’s race was $100,000, while the same race for women was paying out at $16,000.” Hernandez nodded. “It’s a generational thing. It’s become more of an equity issue, and look now,” he said, sweeping his hand around the infield. “The bicycling community is getting it.”

Half the races that night were women’s events, and though Northern California has apparently always been a leader in gender balance, the two retired riders agreed that conditions for female riders are getting better everywhere.

In the consolation Keirin race, Newell needed to finish in the top two in order to get back into contention. This time around, she was right on the motorcycle’s muffler. She stayed there for every one of the four laps, and when the chopper finally exited, Newell extended her lead through lap five. On the last lap, she buried the rest of the field.

Nobody seemed to be watching this quasi-consolation race, but during the last two circuits around the oval, Hernandez was transfixed. “That was an attack,” he declared with another grin.

In the semi-final round, Newell was back in the running for Keirin glory. A top-three finish would get her into the final round. Her competition this time included all of the cyclists who knocked her out in round one. She started in last place and sometimes swapped slots with the woman who was second-to-last. Four laps into the race, Newell was no closer to the top three than she was when the race began. Then, when the motorcycle moved off the track, Newell started her move.

The middle of the infield is a nice vantage point, but it requires the spectator to swivel his head around. That, and obstruction by other folk, means watching a race can be a sort of hide-and-seek affair.

I caught a glimpse of Newell as she blasted past the second division of cyclists and pumped hard to catch the four in front. And then it was hospitality tents, taller spectators, and all sorts of flotsam and jetsam, and so I lost sight of the race for a quarter-lap. When the view cleared, I couldn’t find Newell for a moment. She wasn’t in last and she wasn’t trailing the front group either. Just before she disappeared from view again, I finally saw her. She was in first place.

As they approached the final lap, Newell had passed every rider in the field, including multiple world-class Keirin cyclists competing in their best event. And she did it in less than one lap. The bell rang, signaling that there was one lap to go. Newell, who had just chewed up the entire field, had but one task remaining: hold on. Halfway through the bell lap, it was clear that she had used up a lot of energy to take the lead and didn’t have much left to hold it. Needing only a third-place finish to earn a spot in the finals, she was passed by two riders with the rest of the pack hustling toward her. With fifty yards to go, a third rider pulled even and then passed her.

But unlike many other riders today who coast to the finish, hoping to conserve their energy for later events, Newell kept pumping and held on for fourth. Of the many things that make up her character, easing up is clearly not one of them.

Some people find the need to compulsively exercise and stay in shape. I am not one of them. In fact, good thing for my heart and overall health that I enjoy competitive sports, because otherwise I would be big, fat, out-of-shape, with congestive heart failure, diabetes, and hypertension. I missed exercising for approximately one day when I decided to go for a run. I ran across this cute Nike tank top Nike gave me when I was doing test product work for them, which I had never worn, because I don’t run anymore. So I put it on, tied my shoes, and then as I was running VERY SLOWLY, I realized I had become that woman that I always made fun of when I was an actual runner in high school and college: the slow woman in a cute outfit shuffling along at a slow clip. My track/xcountry friends and I would always laugh about these OLD women in these official getups going so slow. That was me. Whatever … Sometimes you sell out. (beth bikes! October 2008).

Last month, Beth Newell, winner of nine road races in 2010, showed up to compete in the Lodi Cycle Fest, which sends riders rolling through the streets of San Joaquin County’s second city.

In addition to the overly specific $1,777 first prize, certain laps offer their own premiums. So Newell, who led ten minutes into the nearly hour-long road race, and then every minute after to take her tenth title of 2011, also earned some shoes and a couple bottles of wine for being fastest during specific laps. She couldn’t have been a more gracious winner, posing for pictures with some of her swag, including a bottle of 7 Deadly Zins, and praising the race organizers and the city for putting on such a good show. She promised she would return to the Tour de Lodi in the future and charmed the local reporters.

As her cycling career blossomed, Newell’s blog grew in popularity. One of the ways she grabbed readers was by writing about the growth of her quadriceps. Her postings had daily updates about how big her quads had become and included advice for how readers could get their own quads to grow bigger. She posted pictures showing people how and where to put the measuring tape (with funny asides and encouragement) to ensure proper quad data. One of her entries was picked up by a New York web guy who trawls the Internet looking for quality content, and before Newell could describe in painful detail how using expired suntan oil for saddle sores didn’t quite help soothe the pain, she had more than sixty new commentators daily.

Before cycling and writing, Newell’s first vision for herself was a career in the health care industry. When asked whether her expertise in this field supports her new passions, she responded: “I’d like to say yes, but that’s a stretch. Cycling is a very expensive sport — all the equipment is expensive, the entry costs are very high. It is the one thing I really hate about it. Doctors at our clinics can’t really tell patients to go bike for exercise, because there are so many structural reasons why bicycling isn’t a good form of exercise … the expense of a bike, a lot of the roads in low-income communities are not really safe for cycling, etc.”

Still, Newell is a big fan of casual commuting and weekend warriors and speaks with great affection for both her fellow competitors and random strangers on two wheels. “I see these guys riding up these hills with an ordinary bicycle, wearing ordinary clothes and think, there is nothing ordinary about this.”

Dan Smith, a former champion at the Testarossa Challenge, says there’s nothing ordinary about Newell either. What sets her apart, he said, is that she has a uniquely open mind. “There are riders who are just more receptive to learning, to being self-critical, and there are those who aren’t. Over the last two years, I can’t think of another cyclist who I have seen improve the way I’ve seen Beth do it.” Smith says that the best riders need to debrief themselves after every lap, thinking about what they are doing right and where they need to improve. He says Newell is particularly good at that.

Newell’s coach and partner Michael Hernandez marvels at her natural motor, comparing her to a sports car whose tachometer doesn’t hit red until it’s at 8,000 rpm. He shakes his head and laughs: “Just say the other cyclists try catching up with her until their eyes fill with blood.”

As for Newell herself, she uses many of the stock phrases athletes use to describe their success. Good teachers. Strong family work ethic. Top-notch support team. A will to succeed. “And large quads. Don’t forget to mention — they’re huge!”

I had never done a 1000m goldsprint, which is a timed race while riding a stationary bike so I figured I was going to ride it like a match sprint and let Karla take an early lead … (cause you can see the dial measuring your distance) and then with 250 to go punch it. Tactics are real important in goldsprints, as is the draft effect. So I did just that and with 250 to go I punched it and made up a bunch of time and saw our dials overlap just for the finish. And by golly, we tied. 47.99 seconds. This was pretty remarkable and horrific, because tying in goldsprints means beer sprints. Amanda killed me last time I had to do this and now Karla was going to kill me, too.But this time instead of chugging the beer, Murphy made us shotgun. Now, I have never shotgun a beer in my life…Now, I know what you are thinking. “What?!?! You have never shotgun a beer?!?! You are from the Midwest! Why are you such a disappointment to your geographic region?!” I know. I am a disappointment, a huge, huge disappointment. I am even embarrassed for me. And sadly, I have to live with me. Every. Single. Day.

So long story short is Murphy had to give a little lesson to me on how to shotgun … and Karla handed my ass to me with a cherry on top. (beth bikes! December 2008)

Fremont Bank sponsors what they call a “development team.” It’s a good team, but it isn’t quite at the professional level. Newell joined the group at the start of 2011.

The riders win prize money, which Susannah Breen, the team’s co-manager, said the bank generally lets them keep, and which they in turn divide. The bank keeps the trophies, but sponsors pick up incidentals for the riders, ranging from entry fees to energy bars.

The Fremont Bank team consists of six other women riders, who are described as “developing top young riders in their teens, twenties and thirties.” Breen says the team actually hopes to lose team members. “If the women do well enough, they might get picked up by a professional team, maybe even a national team,” she said.

Even though Breen’s team is semi-pro, the group’s workouts are rigorous. She describes the late-summer schedule for her riders. Saturday, a hill climb of 6.2 miles and God knows what number grade. Sunday, a one-hour race, where riders compete to see how many miles they can rack up in that time limit. The following week, a road race of 65 miles, and then stage races, which more or less combine all of the above.

Though there are individual honors in team racing, top placement depends on the team effectively strategizing about who will go to the front at a given time so that others can “draft” off the leader, and who will drop back to allow a teammate to pass. And while most of Newell’s experience before joining the team was on a velodrome, Breen had great confidence in her. “We knew Beth would be ready,” she said. “I had seen her obliterate sprinters.”

As part of a road racing team, Newell has to add to her repertoire of skills: more endurance, more climbing, and more strategy. So far, the transition has been as smooth as a victory lap. “Beth is such a good teammate,” Breen said. “You’ve got to be able to sacrifice your results on occasion to let another rider win. In a race rider, that can be hard to find. You have to be willing to say sometimes, ‘It’s not my turn.’ Beth has the attitude to do something special.”

“The first thing I noticed was her initial jump,” Breen continued. “I was thinking, I am watching somebody who was a pure sprinter turning into an incredible road racer.” When asked what Newell brings to the team, Breen said flatly: “An ability to suffer. She has the mental strength to push past where most people stop. That’s the stuff you can’t teach.

Breen says that communication is key in a road race. “Sometimes you pull up next to your teammate and say, ‘I’m going to make a run,’ or ‘Let me draft back,’ or sometimes a well-timed dirty joke. Beth was so good so quickly. I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to hold onto her for more than a year.”

Breen said that she’s going to miss Newell when she moves on. “And she’s going to move on. I don’t know how far she’s going to get, but after riding with her this year on the team, I won’t be surprised at anything Beth does.”

Now, I have long since perfected snot rocketing so I don’t snot all over myself. That is no problem. But, I think there are some other strategic areas where one can snot rocket for purpose; however, aim of the snot is key.

Getting that creepy guy off your wheel who just wants to check out your ass. This is a perfect opportunity to snot rocket. If you hit him, that is awesome.

Annoying drivers who are less than polite on purpose. (The key words here are on purpose. This move should only be saved for extenuating circumstances.) Blowing the snot rocket to hit the windshield is obviously the goal.

Strategic snot rocketing is just that. Strategic. It should not be over-used, as then it is no longer strategic. (beth bikes! February 2008)

Beth Newell’s postings depict a world where a self-deprecating novice falls down a lot, barely finishes what she starts, and eats convenience-store junk food. Sometimes she wins, too, but the victories that she celebrates have little to do with riding a bike at inhuman speed.

There is the win of walking into a corner liquor store with some scary guy behind her saying that her sunglasses make her look cool. Or getting her road trip riders to finally laugh at a joke that she’s failed at telling several times before. Or learning to shotgun a Miller Lite from a can.

These days, Beth bikes a lot more than Beth blogs. She also recently told her bosses at the Health Consortium that she wanted to go half-time while going full-time for a racing career. She has kicked up her training regimen and says that her fall is going to look a lot like her summer, filled with races and pushing herself to the next level.

Newell is modest about her ambitions, but it’s clear that making a national team is in her sights. Although she’s says she’s not aiming for the 2012 Olympic team, 2016 is another matter.

This summer, the Women’s Sports Foundation awarded Newell and eleven other athletes grant money to pursue their training, travel, and equipment expenses. Newell is the only cyclist nationwide to win the honor. Previous recipients include former Olympians, such as figure skater Michelle Kwan and gymnast Kerri Strug, before they became Olympic caliber. The grant is designed to relieve elite athletes from the burden of spending time fund-raising when they could be training.

The money isn’t a vote of confidence in Newell’s talents, it’s a landslide referendum. “I am very honored,” she said. “It will be very helpful.”

Newell, now 29, talks of having about “hundred steps between where I am now and that level.” But in truth, her rapid ascent in the cycling world indicates that it may not take her that long to get to the top. And why should it? Here’s a woman who hopped on a rejected bike in a moment of desperation and made it into something that brought her joy and success.

Indeed, Beth Newell might just be the person who spins trash into gold.

Update: A previous version of this article misspelled Fred Shuck’s last name.


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