We Are Going to Race our Bikes Today

Last weekend Starla Teddergreen lined up with five of her Hagens Berman Supermint teammates for the Amgen Tour of California. This was a race that she had followed for years, waiting for the day that she would have the opportunity to join the field. But Starla wasn’t supposed to be there in 2018.  She had already competed in every race on the Supermint calendar and was due for a three-week break from competition. The team had signed a new sprinter, Harriet Owen, specifically for the Tour, but one week before the race she crashed and broke her collarbone. Starla got the call on Monday. She was asked to forgo her break and join the lineup in Harriet’s place. After agreeing to race, she immediately sought out a tune-up and threw herself into the men’s professional crit race at the Portland International Raceway, where she finished third.

The Minties on stage at the Tour of California. Photo courtesy of SnowyMountain Photography

When Starla met with me Tuesday afternoon and recounted the stories from the weekend’s stages, I could feel her excitement and the leftover high from the three days of the competition. The Minties, as they are known, had earned the Most Courageous Rider Jersey two days in a row and recorded their first UCI world tour points. But what she was most proud of was the way the team had worked together and attacked the race. As I learned more about this woman who had forged her own path to professional cycling and often had to learn lessons the hard way, it became clear why she now cherishes the team’s alliance and the opportunity to race for something greater than her own goals.

Starla competes in the Tour of California. Photo courtesy of SnowyMountain Photography

Starla experienced her first thirst for cycling at Pikes Place Market in Seattle, Washington. She had turned down a scholarship to play soccer at Eastern Washington University in order to experience city life and develop a plan of attack for her college education. Fresh off an assignment with Americorp, Starla was working in the market when she noticed bike messengers zipping by outside. A casual conversation with one messenger quickly led to a job delivering legal documents around Seattle for ABC Legal and eventually to part ownership in Dragracer, an all-women bike messenger company in San Francisco. Altogether, Starla worked as a bike messenger for six years. During this time she became immersed in the world of Alley Cat racing.

If you are not familiar with Alley Cat races then this video will give you an idea of how chaotic the atmosphere can be. The unsanctioned road races were started by bicycle messengers in Toronto in 1989 but quickly spread to cities around the world. The ever-changing courses are created as a reflection of their work, with checkpoints and tasks along the way.  Starla began competing in the Alley Cat races in Seattle in 2000 and was one of the few women to brave the streets in the male-dominated fields. In 2001, she won the Global Gutz race and earned a ticket to compete in the Cycle Messenger World Championships in Budapest. This trip was her first time traveling internationally and it sparked her desire to see the world, experience different cultures, and meet new people.

Alley Cat racers travel alongside normal traffic, sometimes catching a ride.

Understanding what it takes to be a strong Alley Cat competitor offers a clear picture of Starla’s tenacity and industriousness. Her mother passed away while Starla was in high school but she found her own way to avoid the foster care system by making arrangements to live with a temporary guardian family and then a friend’s mom. Determined to get out of rural Eastern Washington, she headed straight for Seattle after finishing at the top of her high school class. Stints as an au pair in Switzerland and a financial aid counselor in San Francisco followed the years of serving as a bike messenger and gave her a better understanding of the world and where she wanted to take her own education. Finally, following the advice of a college professor, Starla chose to begin freelancing as a graphic designer rather than finish up two more years for a bachelor’s degree. She credits this decision with keeping her out of massive student debt and creating a career that allows her to balance training on the side. It took guts to step away from the diploma that is deemed a standard requirement in our society, but today Starla’s graphic design business is so flexible that she is able to take on significantly more work in the offseason and then scale back and be selective about the few projects she tackles while in competition.

So how did Starla transition from Alley Cat racing to a professional UCI team? First, she showed up to a group ride in San Francisco on her old steel Davidson and was met with shock and laughter. They told her she had to wear a kit. With a smile, Starla admits that it took her a while to embrace the spandex. Next, she was dropped, over and over again. Her first attempt at the Burlingame criterium in 2004 left her extremely frustrated but determined to try again, stay with the group, and keep hanging on. Starla describes herself as a sponge during this learning phase, absorbing all the advice offered to her and watching others carefully.  She also had a mentor, Liza Rachetto (now a teammate) who helped her to understand racing, become a bike handler, and identify her strengths. However, Starla’s biggest breakthrough came when she made the decision to switch from defense to offense.

In 2009, Starla headed to Belgium for a month-long stay at the Cycling House. During this period she logged immense mileage and raced nearly every single day. Just over a week into the stay, in the middle of a race, Starla realized that she was not actually racing but rather simply trying to survive. She decided to take action immediately and attack. The women around her, already reluctant to have an American in their field, responded and made her work to hold the position. Starla was ecstatic. Yes, it was painful. Yes, it was scary. But she was controlling the race and forcing the others to cover her moves. Starla was elated to finish ninth that day and the mental breakthrough paved the way for the professional career that lay ahead.

Starla Teddergreen

Vanderkitten was the first professional team that offered Starla a spot, but they ended up folding halfway into the season. Not one to let an opportunity get away, she approached the owner of the team as well as Jono Coulter, who was looking for a new opportunity, proposed a deal, and ended up revitalizing the program that she would ride for over the next three years. The years from 2012 to 2015 offered numerous challenges as Starla overcame a bad concussion and hip surgery. She worked frantically to get back into shape only to discover that she was severely anemic. Finally, she decided to take a step back and hit the reset button. In 2015, Starla hired Kendra Wenzel as a coach. This change led to Starla taking complete control over her training, regularly monitoring her bloodwork, and working with a  nutritionist. She was going to be absolutely certain that she was doing everything in her control to maximize her potential, including running and lifting in the off-season to become a more well-rounded athlete. Once the results of these changes began to manifest, Starla reached out to KindHuman Bikes to establish a relationship and ended up serving as their ambassador for 2016. Riding on her own during this time took the pressure off and enabled her to focus on the enjoyment of the sport.  She guest rode for Canyon and Asahi Muur Zero, a Japanese team that competed in the Joe Martin Stage Race. The highlight of her season was finishing second in the crit and earning the sprinter’s jersey at the Redlands Classic. These successes caught the attention of Jono Coulter, her past director and the co-owner and sports director of the Hagens Berman Supermint women’s cycling team. He contacted Starla at the end of the 2016 season and told her she was ready to join the UCI team.

With the intimidating appearance of arms covered in tattoos and a history of forging her own path, one might wonder if Starla would be at home again in a team environment. But after listening to her Tour of California recap and the ways in which the Minties fought for each other on the course, you quickly understand that she has found an ideal fit with Hagens Berman. The connection between her teammates inspired nostalgia for my own past team experiences. Then Starla explained how her racing career was threatened exactly one year ago when her husband Gino underwent a kidney transplant for a genetic disease and needed her at home. She had mentally prepared herself to give up racing and be by his side. Fortunately, the transplant was a success and his recovery has been better than they could have hoped. Gino was the first one to encourage her to continue racing.

Starla with her husband, Gino Zahnd
The Supermint Sports Director, Tad Hamilton, told the Minties before the Tour of California, “We are going to race our bikes today.” Following his direction, the women attacked from the gun and even earned the praise of another team’s coach. It has been a long path to this point for 38-year-old Starla, who does not see herself as a naturally gifted athlete. But along the path she has learned the valuable lesson that you cannot wait for what you want; you must fight and go after it. Perhaps this is the reason that she is thriving with the Supermint team.

This weekend  Starla and the Minties are headed to the Winston Salem Cycling Classic.  Follow along with their progress on Intagram, Facebook, or Twitter.

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