Alison Tetrick Starnes is brainy enough to be a molecular biologist. She has the diploma, the published research and the white lab coat from a previous job (with her name embroidered over the pocket, thank you very much) to prove it. Those smarts have also made her a realist, and she knows her chances of making the U.S. Olympic cycling team next year are relatively microscopic.
"To be honest, 2012 probably isn't my goal," she said in a phone interview last week. "I'm looking more towards 2016. But the Pan Ams are really important for me to show my ability to medal at a major international event -- train, prepare, do the whole [athletes'] village thing."
Starnes, 26, is confident she's capable of a top-three performance in Sunday's time trial at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, but she tried to leave nothing to chance. The third-year pro did a block of altitude training in Lake Tahoe and feels good about her form.
The podium finish Starnes is gunning for would represent a significant climb back from a year ago, when she was riding for Team Tibco. She was careening along on a descent during the Cascade Cycling Classic in July 2010 when she crashed heavily on her hip, fracturing her pelvis in two places, and had to be airlifted off the course.
The injury immobilized her for a few weeks, but bones heal. More worrisome was a concussion whose effects lingered for months, affecting her eyesight and concentration (and oddly, breaking her lifelong habit of biting her nails). The trauma was psychological, as well. When veteran Chris Horner rode the final 20 miles of a Tour de France stage last summer with a concussion and was filmed, clearly disoriented, at the finish, Starnes found the footage so upsetting she had to leave the room.
But the gregarious Starnes, who laughs easily and often when she talks about herself, said she never seriously considered quitting. "I have some goals in the sport, and I'm going to go for it," she said. "You can't ride scared."
The daughter of cattle rancher and former UCLA nose guard Steve Tetrick, Starnes was born in Solvang, Calif., and grew up with her nose buried in books until she hit high school and decided she wanted to play tennis. Pragmatic even then, Starnes decided she would aim for a college scholarship rather than entertain fantasies of being a pro.
"I started too late, and I struggled with tennis -- there wasn't a direct correlation between time spent on the court and performance, or skill set," she said.
She was competent enough to get a ride at Abilene (Tex.) Christian University, and graduated in December 2006 with a degree in biochemistry. She worked in that field the following year, but soon found herself drawn to triathlon and had some early success, largely because of her strength in the cycling leg.
"I didn't want to work in order to play, I wanted to play at my work," she said. (Her zeal for her day job, as well as funny and reflective moments, are captured in her frequent blog entries.)
Starnes was invited to a USA Cycling talent identification camp in Colorado Springs in 2008; just a few months later, she was racing in Europe. She admits she had some harrowing moments in the claustrophobic vortex of the peloton, but she has the temperament and the physique to excel as an endurance athlete.
Not to mention the pedigree.
Her father raced a bit as an amateur -- "Much harder than football," he said -- and now herds cattle with his mountain bike on his Northern California ranch. However, the most decorated cyclist in the family is Alison's grandfather, Paul Tetrick of Evergreen, Colo., who took up the sport in his 50s and is the reigning Masters 80-and-over road and time trial national champion. The two go out for fun when they can.
"It's not every day you can ride with your granddaughter," he said.
At 5-foot-9, Starnes is a power rider who will never be a mountain goat and has focused her elite ambitions on the time trial. (She won the time trial at the Nature Valley Grand Prix last year and finished fourth at nationals before her crash.) She has a great mentor and teammate in that regard in 2008 Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong, who has coached her for the past two seasons.
"She takes drive and focus to an exponential level," Starnes said of Armstrong, who returned this season after having a son in late 2010. The two women rode together in 2011 at Peanut Butter & Co. TWENTY12, which will continue next year with a new title sponsor, Exergy.
Steve Tetrick marvels at his daughter's perseverance in a sport where the monetary payoffs are miniscule to nonexistent, glory is in short supply and risk remains high.
"I think women's cycling is going to grow, and hopefully Alison is going to be part of that movement," he said.
Sunday's race is definitely one that can advance the plot in her own narrative.
'Tis the season for charity bike rides, and there are far too many worthy ones to mention, but Ted King's event this weekend is notable because it's in honor of Ted King.
That's not what it sounds like.
King, the amiable support rider for Liquigas, has broken through the anonymity of the domestique's role by branding himself through his iamtedking.com web site and social media, and marketing "I Am Not Ted King" T-shirts and other items. His quick, irreverent sense of humor is his public face, but he's also seriously, fiercely dedicated to a private cause based on the experience of his father, who will always be the Ted King to him.
King Sr., an orthopedic surgeon and avid skier, sailor and runner, suffered a stroke in 2003 that left him partially paralyzed on his left side and continues to affect his cognitive abilities. All cyclists are aware that life can change in an instant in their dangerous profession, but Ted King the rider has had that lesson driven home in a profound way, as he relates in this touching account.
Saturday's casual ride in his native New Hampshire benefits the non-profit Krempels Center in Portsmouth, N.H., which is dedicated to improving the lives of people with brain injuries.