Elite racer and current Masters World Champion Sue Butler talks about making the shift from racer to rider.
by Sue Butler
I often underestimate my accomplishments as a cyclist, mostly because sometimes even accomplishments are disappointments. Being an athlete often means never being satisfied. Always wanting to do better. In a way, it is that quality that makes one successful. It makes people continue from year to year, pushing bodies, training smarter, eating smarter, making that final adjustment that will make the big difference. And then there is a time when it doesn’t make sense. A time when nothing you do will make the difference. That time for me is now.
I never thought I would be a bike racer. I was a bike rider. More specifically, a mountain biker. I rode a lot. My husband Tim and I did epic weekends every weekend, putting more miles in on trails in a weekend than most did in a month, heck, even a year. We tried mountain bike racing 10 years ago, and, unimpressed, we refused to even try cyclocross because it was a stupid 40-minute race on a Sunday. But once we did it, like all things, we went in all the way. In a way, cyclocross chose me. I was much better at racing cyclocross than mountain bikes and I loved it. I found myself very quickly at the top of the sport and I looked forward to it every year. At least, until 2012 when I went under the knife, as to avoid nerve damage from a nagging bulging disc. But I wasn’t done yet. I came back to win Masters Nationals and Worlds: Consolation prizes for missing an entire season.
But here we are. 2013 ’cross season. I am ready. I have won two local races, and only missed the podium by one second at my first UCI race back. This weekend is the famed Alpenrose Cross Crusade opener. My focus this year was more local and regional, although my performance at StarCrossed made me hungry, wanting to jump back in full gas. It was Monday morning after that weekend that everything changed. Doing my usual morning strength routine, something snapped and I was on my back. Literally. For the following two weeks, I was in pain. Off the bike. Not riding, not training, not smiling. I had to cancel skills sessions on people. Cancel clinics I was teaching. I couldn’t race in Madison, but at least my family visit kept me distracted. I returned to Portland, still in pain, pondering the possibilities. I sought help, had some relief, but it made me think. Am I a rider or am I a racer?
When you cannot move comfortably and you are unable to do one of the things you love most, you start thinking. I have been diligent on doing everything to come back from this injury stronger, faster, more stable, etc. I was encouraged by being back in the front racing at StarCrossed. I am religious about my strength exercises. But it wasn’t enough. I pushed it too far. I will forever have an impaired spine/back. That is a fact. But it is also a fact that it does not have to limit me in my activity. I can still ride my bike. I can still ski. I can still hike, run and play. But if I continue to race cyclocross, will this be the case? I know I am fit enough, strong enough to accomplish my season goals, but will my body allow me to? There are no guarantees.
I have cried, I have debated, I have cried some more. I have talked to friends, my coach, my husband and taken rides in pouring rain trying to come to a decision. I am making that decision. I am going back to being a bike rider. I love riding my bike and I don’t want this taken away from me, just to have one more cyclocross season as a bike racer.
Racing has been an amazing part of my life. Since 2007, I have traveled to places I wouldn’t normally go: Louisville, Cincinnati, Mt. Morris, Fontana and the list goes on. I have met amazing people and raced against amazing people. Olympians, World Champions, etc. I have been supported by even more amazing people. I have had some amazing moments that I will never forget, like winning StarCrossed, winning the Queen Stage of the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic unexpectedly in front of a local crowd at Mt. Hood Meadows, being chosen for the Worlds team the first time, and every time thereafter. Making the USGP podium for my first time in Portland with deafening cheers down the finish line. I felt like I had won. Having my entire family in Madison to watch another podium performance. Racing in Europe on both the mountain and ’cross bikes. I feel blessed and fortunate that I accomplished what I did. I could not have done it without my husband, Tim, allowing me to quit my job and pursue a dream. What started as a dream became a reality and I was living the dream. His encouragement gave the strength to go for it despite my fear of failure. I did not fail. I succeeded in ways that go far beyond results. And now I am on the flip side and I have to have the strength to let it go, to not be afraid to pursue the dreams that have been on hold. I have to redefine myself and my daily purpose. It has been a long time coming and something I have been struggling with silently, but it is time to tell everyone and make it real.
Don’t worry though, I am not going anywhere. I will continue to ride and share the passion I have for cycling with others. I am coaching athletes with their own dreams. I am passing on skills and knowledge for the future racers. And most importantly, I am in it for life. There may not be any more podiums to stand on, but two wheels will forever be a part of who I am. I am a bike rider.