I raced with the Austrian-registered UCI Team Vitalogic in 2016, a year that has ranked as a favorite of my career–not because of any personal accomplishments (it was not my best season), but because of the wonderful people on the team. I don’t recall a season in which a team laughed together as much as we did. I wrote a piece about the beauty of that season, and my gratitude to all of the people who made it so. Among those people was Ernst Schilling, or Ernstie as we affectionately called him. His official role was mechanic, but he looked after us as much as he looked after our bikes, at times the friend or bodyguard or comedian we needed. Ernst recently passed away unexpectedly. With gratitude to our whole team, here is that piece I wrote, which I would like to now dedicate to Ernstie, without whom none of the joy of that year would have been possible.
Lucca, Italy. September 2016. We sit in our chairs, arranged in a semi-circle next to the team bus, parked on the medieval brick wall surrounding the city of Lucca. Our director Heribert talks through the race plan while Ernst readies our bicycles, lined up with precision next to the Vitalogic team car. For the moment, we feel as though this space is wholly ours, the space between the bus and the car where we sit together, smiles and laughs punctuating the discussion of race strategy. We’re happy to be here, racing our bikes in Tuscany in the sunshine.
The nervousness of the early season is gone. By now we’ve raced together and taken care of each other through some of the hardest days of our careers, and burned out of that crucible of suffering and stamina, we have trust. This is why we smile; why we laugh; why despite the inevitable tension that precedes a race, we are happy and eager to face it together.
We have one more race as a team. We feel the anticipation of relief: the season will be over in just a few hours. Yet a race remains to be raced. There are nerves, yes, but good nerves and gladness that we get to race together, with this team, with these people who have become like family.
Around us, the colorful circus unfolds in all its chaotic glory. Brightly colored team vehicles and tents bustle with activity as all of the teams prepare for the final stage. The walled city of Lucca teems with tourists curious about this casino of bicycles. As we roll to sign in, we are stopped by several asking where we are from, when does the race begin, how long is the course. They ask in Italian, in English, in German. We answer and make our way through the crowds in the streets below colorful high buildings into the piazza under the banners and balloons to the stage. This used to make me nervous, all of this fanfare, but now I find a quiet space inside, gliding through it all with my team, happy to be racing in a place that loves bike racing.
Although it lasts hours, the race is over before we know it. My job is to cover early moves, set up my teammates for the early climbs, and go in the early break. By the final climb, I’m shattered. I’ve done all I can to help. Elena, Elise and Tina take over to fight up the toughest and last mountain of the tour. Tina finishes an impressive 12th on the stage in a field of world-class climbers.
The race is done. The season is done. Breathless, sweaty, exhausted, we sink into our chairs in the semi-circle by the team bus. Eventually we’ll move. We’ll clean up and change and pack to leave. But first, all we can do is sit there. We tell stories – did you seen when … ? – we express thanks for all the small ways we helped each other in the race. Relieved. Reflective. We pause and take in this coda, almost too tired to even lift a Coke to drink. Happy but not happy it is over.
I’m called to the podium for the Maglia Combattività (Most Combative Jersey). There are flowers and confetti and now the spray of champagne adds to the salt caked on my skin. I can’t stop smiling. To be honored on the last day for the selfless effort of contributing to my team, I have no words, only the good feeling in my heart.
After the podium, I see a small boy in the crowd, maybe four years old, excitedly showing off the bidon he just found from one of the teams. I walk over with my flowers and kneel down and ask him “Hai visto la gara?” Did you see the race? Si, he nods, suddenly shy. I ask him about his bike, and he brightens. I thank him for coming to watch our race and hand him the flowers. He grabs them and grins. Then he leans in and kisses my salty cheek. His mom smiles and thanks me too, and asks aren’t you American? Yes. But where did you learn Italian? I raced with an Italian team for three years, I say. It is another gift I carry with me from this sport, is what I mean.
Back at the team bus, we clean up and pack. We say our goodbyes for the last time this year, and it is harder than all of the other times. But I’m glad – glad to be part of a good team with good people who care enough about each other that goodbyes become difficult. That, in my opinion, is how it should be.
We hug and high five and hope we’ll get to race together again.
And then we went home, with a full season’s worth of memories and friendships and growth – gifts from this sport we’ll carry with us always.
My heartfelt thanks to Heribert Springnagel and Ernst Schilling, without whom we would not have a team. Thank you both for bringing together this remarkable group of athletes and women, and for giving us the opportunity to race together.
Thank you to our sponsors, Vitalogic, Astrokalb, Radunion NÖ, and Funkier for your support. We are beyond grateful for everything you’ve done for us, and we hope to continue to make you proud.
And of course, thank you my lovely teammates Elena, Elise, Ana, Astrid, Tina, Lucy, Julia, Lisa, Nathalie, and Sandra and our wonderful soigneurs Anja and Nesha. It is a joy to work with all of you!
This piece originally appeared on Amber’s website in December 2016. Follow Amber on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter to keep up with her cycling career. And be sure to check out her Athlete Garage for gear that supports The Homestretch Foundation.