PHP: voluntarily kicking your own ass before the sun comes up
For at least the past year, I was consistently told, demanded, and jokingly harangued to join the pedal RACING men on this unofficial-yet-has-an-official-name ride Tuesday and Friday mornings near Cherry Creek State Park. And for eleven months, I found excuses to avoid it: “Gotta work,” “maybe next time,” and my favorite: “one of these days, I’ll join you.”
I knew it was a sausage fest and the thought of hammering out the watts elbow-to-elbow with testosterone-pumping broski bros didn’t turn me on like it did my male counterparts.
I didn’t see the benefit of waking up at the asscrack of dawn, trying to find the elusive meeting spot, only to potentially make a fool out of myself or crash or hell, maybe both.
Then one of my female pedal RACING teammates swallowed her pride and dropped all apprehension and joined the dudes. After seeing her activity glittered with kudos and Strava bling, I had immediate FOMO. Kinda what social media does to us, right?
All the encouragement and positive comments convinced me that, sure, I can at least give it a try once to see what it’s all about. Not to mention the fact that this season as a Cat 3 has been exceptionally soul-crushing and challenging watching my competitors leave me in the dust as I suck [wind].
From all the mediocre finishes, I was desperately seeking another type of training that’d increase my speed, skills, and maybe confidence. The pedal RACING guys had been telling me the past year how PHP would make me faster and it wasn’t until I saw my female pedal teammate speak highly of this impervious ride-but-actually-it’s-a-race-for-us-newbies that I realized, “shit, if I try to ride [operative word being “try”] this with faster people, maybe I’ll get faster.” Sure, we all have to figure these things out on our own.
So I hardened the fuck up (Rule #5) and on May 22nd, I joined my first PHP ride. The meet-up was on the bridge at Cherry Creek and Holly. I didn’t see a single person when I drove past looking for a parking spot. Am I in the right spot? I frantically thought.
I parked alongside the road and scanned passing cyclists for any hint of a gathering. I applied my chamois cream, buckled my helmet, slid on my shades, and started my Garmin as I attempted to look like I knew what I was doing and where I was going.
I slowly rolled up to the bridge five minutes ‘til and there were two dudes hanging out. Seriously, five minutes before and no one is here? I’m totally at the wrong spot. I finally mustered up the courage to ask one of the guys if this was the meeting spot for PHP. He smiled, “yep.”
And like clockwork, 60 (that’s a rough estimate) cyclists appeared out of nowhere. Just in time to Hammer. I found my teammates who were both shocked and excited to see me finally own up to my word. Then the game plan was laid out for me: “this is just the warm-up before we get to the park.” “Watch out for the potholes. It’s the worst right here.” “You’ll get dropped up the first hill. It happens to everyone. Just wait at the top for the group to come back.” “Oh, the ‘S’ turn. You want to be toward the front because it’s like an accordion. If you’re on the back at the ‘S’ turn, you’ll get dropped. That’s what happened to me.”
Loads of tips were offered as I tried keeping pace during their “warm-up.” Of course I wouldn’t keep up at the first hill. It was race-pace for me. I could only speak a few words before another giant breath.
“The fuck did I get myself into,” I thought, as we made our way down Colorado Blvd.
We rolled into a parking lot just outside of Cherry Creek State Park to reconvene. I was told sometimes they broke into A and B groups. This time they didn’t. A couple of other teammates showed up and we started rolling out as a giant peloton-ish group.
As soon as wheels touched the perimeter of Cherry Creek, it was full gas. I picked a Jersey in front of me and held on. Luckily, drafting kept me on the pace line.
The group rides the Cherry Creek Time Trial course, which I’m quite familiar with, so I knew where the hills were and sections of the road to avoid. As the first Hill was coming up, I kicked it down a gear (high cadence, lower power) and tried to keep up with the quickening pace.
Men flew by me on my left, they flew by on my right, and the rest of us left on the hill, pushed and pulled on our pedals, trying in vain, to reach the top of the hill before the peloton was completely gone. Our heavy and rapid breathing became a choir of novices and determination.
I was dropped.
The peloton was nearly at the bottom of the hill by the time I recovered. My buddy, Zuzana, and I, collected ourselves, and followed the group down the road.
We watched the giant mob grow smaller and smaller and just like that, it was like the group of 50 men were never there.
Too proud to not do the full route, I zoomed around the lollipop loop with a couple of other stragglers. We formed a small group of three as we pedaled up the second Hill (which, on later rides, I would eventually be dropped) desperately seeking the peloton.
We didn’t even know what direction they went, so we guessed. We didn’t know which road to take to get back to our cars either. As we biked back to the entrance of Cherry Creek, we saw several dropped riders, like discarded litter on the side of the road. One man was headed back to the elusive meeting spot where he was also parked, so we jumped on his wheel.
The meeting spot was as bare after the ride as it was before.
As soon as I was back to my car and uploaded my ride to Strava, the kudos, the bling, and the comments poured in. I PR’d segments on the route I didn’t even realize.
I saw the others with whom I started the ride and kudo’d them. It was like I had been initiated into a secret society that anyone who follows them on Strava knows about. My own friends asked what PHP was and I had to tell them I had no idea what it stood for, but… then I’d detail the crazy ride I experienced.
I’ve since started commuting to PHP with a few men from my team. It’s about ten miles from the Littleton meeting spot to the PHP meeting spot. The guys told me it’s also a warm-up to PHP, but by the time we get to the bridge, I’m drenched in sweat, I’ve QOM’d segments, and my glasses are foggy from my warm face. Then PHP commences. I follow that with a ride on Cherry Creek path to work. I end up clocking in about 54 miles by the end of the day.
I’ve only seen a few other women ride at PHP, notably two Cat 2 women from Palmares who seem to be regulars. I could see why this would intimidate anyone who just started racing: you’ve 60 amateur cyclists trying to be like the pros, riding on public roads, 99% are dudes, testosterone is raging, and you’re privy to crashes.
One time I joined a B group actually formed. Some people think the B group is slower, but I work harder in this group because I actually get a turn to pull. It was both a good and bad experience. It was good because it was bad. It taught me how to handle myself and my bike around people who didn’t.
The men didn’t understand how a paceline worked and once they came to the front, they’d take off. The group would break up, there were no longer two lines, and we had to reel them back in. Halfway through the the route, I was sick of no one calling them out and I was concerned for my safety. I finally asked this one older dude, dressed in his green PHP kit (to prove his seriousness and dedication to an elusive bro’s club), if he was part of the paceline because he kept shooting off the front.
He growled back at me, “I’ve been doing this for ten years. Don’t tell me what to do!” Now, 18-year-old Jessica would have opened a bottle of verbal whoopass. 29-year-old Jessica swallowed her pride and bit her tongue hard enough to draw blood. Instead, I told him, “calm down, it’s just a ride.” Another teammate of mine tried to settle him down as well as a Palmares racer rode next to me and very loudly said, “For what it’s worth, you’re fucking right and he’s wrong.”
I tried to not let the dickhead ruin the rest of the ride. But it also made me realize it’s guys like that who turn women off from joining PHP. To men, it seems like it’s all about comparing not just dick sizes, but bikes. I know women can be combative, catty, and of course, competitive. But for a woman to join PHP, it’s much more than riding with the bros. We want to get faster. Stronger. We want to learn skills. And there aren’t many opportunities for a woman to do that in a big group setting. When there are women’s workshops, we’re lucky to hit double digits.
I think the fear is what I worry about each time I go to PHP: being the only one who can’t keep up. Getting in a crash. Not having anyone I know there.
Luckily, I have teammates who care about my wellbeing and are great examples of how to treat others in the peloton. They hold their line, they call their pass, they tell me where I need to go.
Each time I’ve joined PHP, I’ve been able to stay with the group longer, which says something about where my fitness is going. My good cyclist friend, Anna, tells me all the time to ride with guys because it’ll make me faster. And I think I found the guys who will do just that.