Leading up to last Sunday’s World Cup Waterloo in Wisconsin, Texas’ Bridget Tooley (Easton – Giant p/b Transitions LifeCare) was likely best known for her bike handling and bunny-hopping skills. Tooley has put out some impressive social media content, and on Friday at Trek, she hopped to a win in the Helen100 Junior Women’s Trophy race.
When heavy rains started falling in south-central Wisconsin on World Cup Eve, it quickly became clear that Tooley’s aerial skills would not be as useful with mud and puddles covering the course at Trek headquarters. However, ever the showwoman, Tooley found a way to go down in U.S. World Cup lore, even if she had zero interest in doing so at the time.
Clearly this story would have been just too perfect if it was about Tooley’s teammate Jenn Jackson (Easton – Giant p/b Transitions LifeCare), but Shoeless Bridget Tooley will do just fine.
Tooley hails from Frisco, Texas, which is located outside Dallas. Texas is not necessarily a location known for its muddy cyclocross racing, and Tooley explained why that is the case.
“The soil here is full of clay and doesn’t drain well,” she said. “The mountain bike trails all close when it rains. Even weekly cyclocross races get canceled when it rains. Texas mud is like sculpting clay. It just clogs up your bike, and you can’t even pedal.”
Needless to say, the high-flying Tooley is more at home on a course such as Friday’s Trek CX Cup iteration. “I prefer fast conditions. The faster the race, the better. I don’t hate rain, but that amount of rain was extreme, and it adds a lot of unknown variables to the race,” she said.
Despite still racing in the Junior 17-18 category, Tooley knows as well as any cyclocross racer that you do not get to choose your conditions, and a good ’crosser needs to be able to adjust for whatever the conditions are on race day. World Cup Waterloo put those adaptive skills to the test for all riders when nearly 2 inches of rain fell on the course prior to Sunday’s race.
The off-cambers turned slick and mud started to get deeper and deeper as amateurs wrapped up Trek CX Cup racing on Sunday morning. When Tooley carried her bike over the mud to the start line, conditions had gone from a dry, fast Texas-like Friday to a wet, sloppy Belgian-esque Sunday.
Tooley got the start in Sunday’s World Cup Waterloo as part of USA Cycling’s development program that granted start spots to 3 Junior Women 17-18 riders at both the Waterloo and Jingle Cross World Cups. Tooley was selected for one of those spots in Waterloo.
As she took the start line, Tooley did not forget to take a moment to appreciate where she was. “I was so excited!” she exclaimed. “I could not believe I was lining up with Jolanda Neff, Evie Richards, Ellen Noble and Katie Compton. I was ready to go.”
The World Cup Waterloo start featured a paved stretch before hitting the mud on an uphill. The kicker onto the dirt created a bit of a melee on the left side of the Elite Women’s field, but Tooley was gridded on the right and was able to scoot through, muddy already, but unimpeded.
“I got a great start,” she said. “I had a fifth-row call-up with only three people called up after me. After the first turn and first muddy straight, I was in a pretty good spot—right behind Jolanda Neff!”
After winning the Elite Men’s race, Eli Iserbyt said the mud at World Cup Waterloo was the kind that steered your bike for you. Self-driving bikes are not a thing yet, so that meant a lot of collisions, crashes and run-ins as riders tried to manage the slick off-cambers and technical features on the course. Tooley had her first of those run-ins early in the first lap.
“On the off-camber before the run-up, someone crashed in front of me, and I went down as well. Unfortunately, my handlebars twisted, and I was unable to straighten them. I rode with crooked handlebars to the pit where I got a new bike,” she explained.
Then, near the end of the first very long lap, the incident that birthed the legend of Shoeless Bridget Tooley occurred.
“I started making up ground when near the end of the first lap someone crashed into me and broke the Boa buckle off my shoe,” Tooley said. “The shoe immediately became loose and could not be tightened. I knew I was in trouble because I couldn’t pedal efficiently with a loose shoe.”
“For those of you who aren’t cyclists, it would be like having your shoes untied in a running race.”
The loose shoe would only last so long. “I rode with the broken shoe until the Segafredo Run-up, and my foot just came out of the shoe. By that point, the shoe was so loose that it was more of a hindrance than a help. The sock stayed on for maybe another half lap. It was easier to run without the sock.”
Despite her right shoe lying in the mud at the Segafredo Run-Up, Tooley put her head down and gave everything she had to finish the race, which, needless to say, was not easy. “I used to be a track cyclist and we did a lot of one-legged pedaling drills, so that training came in handy. But, wow, my pedaling leg was so sore the next day!” Tooley explained.
“I had to run up the flyovers, which was probably the most difficult part of the course with a bare foot. Even descents become much more treacherous when you’re not clipped in, and you don’t have a shoe to stabilize the bike. Even your bare foot on a clipless pedal hurts.”
If there was one saving grace for Tooley, it was that it seemed likely she would get pulled by the 80% rule after her 2nd lap, giving her a result and a respite from a 3rd long trip around the challenging course. Tooley came to the 80% point at 38 minutes into the race, but the UCI officials did not give her that welcome “Your day is done.” Nope, she would have to do another full lap with just one shoe.
“I could not believe they did not pull me,” she said.
Getting to represent the U.S. in a World Cup is a big deal for any rider but getting to do so as a Junior is an extra-special honor for the six women selected for the 2019 U.S. World Cups. That weighed on Tooley’s mind as she hobbled her way through that third lap.
“I was worried about doing damage to my foot that could end my season, so it did cross my mind. I felt like dropping out would be disrespectful to USA Cycling, to my team, to my brother working in the pit, to my parents who drove 16 hours to get here,” Tooley explained.
“I was amazed at the support that I was getting all over the course on Lap 3. By then, word had spread that I didn’t have a shoe, and many spectators were cheering for me. It really kept me going.”
Tooley stuck with it and finished her race in 1 hour, 3 minutes and 53 seconds. It was one of her most challenging days as an athlete, but she finished what she set out to do. And thanks to her circumstances, she got a little extra recognition as she finished her race.
“When I finally came through the finish line, the podium presentation was happening on the stage. My dad has a funny picture of Katerina, Jolanda, and Evie on the podium and me slumping through the finish line on one leg.”
The overall experience of racing World Cup Waterloo was a bittersweet one. Obviously, racing with one shoe for most of the race makes getting your best result an impossibility.
“While it was happening, it was a huge disappointment,” Tooley said. “I had been so excited about this opportunity as soon as Jesse Anthony told me I had been selected for a starting spot. The Trek course was really good for me, and I thought I could do well in the World Cup.”
On the other hand, racing cyclocross with one shoe is pretty badass, and folks have certainly taken notice.
“While the race circumstances were unfortunate, the outpouring of support and kudos I received for having finished the race the way I did has been amazing.”
Tooley is now back in Texas, where conditions such as those at World Cup Waterloo are far less likely. However, with Tooley set to race the UCI scene in other parts of the country over the next few months, she knows she will have to be ready if conditions like those in Wisconsin show up again.
If she does leave a shoe behind in the mud, the next time Tooley will be prepared.
“I’m definitely going to stick a pair of backup shoes in the pit from now on.”