Mapping out the Pan Am Championships

Elite cyclist Kathryn Bertine is writing about her quest to qualify for the 2012 London Games. In Part 10 of her series, Bertine recaps her performance in the Pan Am Championships.

I'm flying into Medellin, Colombia, site of the Pan American Cycling Championships, and the woman next to me is Colombian. She is telling me all about nearby cycling routes and local clubs and teams and how everyone in her country loves athletes. "Here," she said. "Let me draw you a map."

She draws hills that look disproportionally large -- nearly cascading off the ridge of the airline napkin -- and I stifle a giggle. We are flying in at night, so it isn't until morning that I see her drawing is frighteningly accurate. When we depart she wishes me luck in my time trial and road race.

Perhaps more than most sports, luck is necessary for cyclists. Preparation, hard work and mental toughness are key, but no amount of training is ever going to save someone from flat tires, unseen potholes, group crashes or whether or not baggage handlers decide to put your bike on the plane.

In fact, the cardinal rule of competitive cycling is that there's rarely a perfect race trip; especially when competing abroad. Over the last four years, I've conditioned myself to expect the unexpected. Sometimes luck -- good or bad -- is just another synonym for adventure.

Since adopting this philosophy, every trip's been virtually easy. Like this one:

The hotel doesn't have water? Ok, so I'll stink for a few days.

No one here speaks English? Que interesada!

Can't identify the meat in my free athlete's dinner? Well, it mostly tastes like chicken.

My debit cards been stolen! That should score 'em a combo on the dollar menu.

We have to race at 6,500 feet? It's nice to have pretty scenery while dying.

The bus transporting us to the race venue is an hour late and I only have 15 minutes to warm up before the time trial, which is vital to my Olympic quest? Fear of missing your start is, in fact, the most effective way to quickly raise your heart rate.

Luck, adventure -- it's all the same. So, you can imagine my surprise when my time trial not only went off without a hitch, but I actually had a really good race.

I finished a solid 12th, covering the 20-kilometer course at altitude -- which I refer to as owwtitude -- in 28:45. The positive: Places No. 6 to 12 were only separated by 32 seconds. I closed the gap on many competitors who were far ahead of me in previous years. The competition this year was better and more plentiful than last year. I am, to put it simply, much improved. There is now a chance I'll be invited to the quadrennial Pan American Games in Mexico this October. That could lead to an Olympic berth.

So, all things considered, not being able to shower for a couple days isn't such a bad trade off.

As for the road race, that's where my luck ran out. Or more accurately, wooshed out. Less than 10 kilometers into the 96-kilometer race, a South American pothole assaulted my rear wheel and deflated my chances of staying in the peloton.

Despite getting a rear wheel change from the support car, the lost time and difficult new gearing for a very hilly course (a 21x11 for all you cycling nerds) left me with two options: quit, or keep riding and finish the race despite any chance of winning. I'm not one for quitting, especially when the time, energy, money and mental fortitude it took to get to Colombia totals a hefty price. Flats happen -- that's part of bike racing. Quitting is always a choice.

This leads me to another thing I've learned about mapping out dreams and goals in cycling: It's usually best to use a pencil instead of a pen.

While I didn't get any Olympic points here in Colombia, this is the closest I have come yet. Doors have been opened and fitness has been elevated. More important, personal growth has occurred.

Here, in South America, I met a new rider from Guyana, Claire Fraser. She too is on her own quest to qualify for the Games and was disappointed when her results in the time trial and road race did not turn out as she'd hoped.

I told her what I'd learned from my own Olympic quest: luck, hard work, pencil usage and simply paying your dues in terms of experience … and how I, too, came in nearly last at my first Pan Am Championships.

"It's just frustrating when races don't go according to your plan," Fraser said. That's when I told her about perseverance and how following that path is the best way to get anywhere.

"Here," I said. "Let me draw you a map."

Up next: Bertine tries her luck at two road races in Venezuela.

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