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.