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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.

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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)

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