Kathryn Bertine is on the road again

Elite cyclist Kathryn Bertine is writing about her quest to qualify for the 2012 London Games. In Part 9 of her series, Bertine takes a look back -- and forward -- heading into the Pan Am Championships.

I was packing up my bike yesterday, getting ready to fly out for the Pan American Cycling Championships in Medellin, Colombia, when I had a flashback.

It took me back three years, to Uruguay, in 2008. It was my first Pan Am Championships. I had absolutely no idea what the hell I was doing. I still often wonder what the hell I'm doing. Now, though, it's usually a rhetorical question. I was so new to cycling, so new to the ins and out of the game, to the nuances and necessities, that I truly did not know my ass from my aerobar when it came to racing.

I was on a late-blooming quest to get to the Olympics in 2008 -- just as I am for 2012 -- and racing in South America at the Pan Am championships was one of the eligible stops on my journey toward Olympic points qualification. I got to Uruguay at the last minute, with the wrong clothes and the wrong bike. My sense of hope, however, arrived intact. Here's a little bit about that memory.

This passage comes from a chapter in my book, "As Good As Gold," (ESPN 2010). I was representing St. Kitts and Nevis. I had been racing a bike for about a year. Amanda Chavez, aka "The WonderMinion," was my faithful assistant during my ESPN quest. I didn't know what the heck I was doing, but luckily she did. Mostly.

Amanda the WonderMinion and I arrive in Uruguay's capital city, Montevideo, for the Pan American Cycling Championships which, until three days ago, I had no idea existed. Every country in North, Central, and South America (and any nations floating in the oceans in between) is eligible to send its national team to the Pan American Champs. So here I am, the lone St. Kitts and Nevisian, proudly representing my new nation and answering the question, "Where exactly is St. Kitts and Nevis?" a minimum of ten times a day. Acting as my manager, Amanda will make sure all is well with my registration, see that my uniform is race legal, and that I am in compliance with all UCI rules and regulations. Turns out not all is perfect. Gee. Now there's big a surprise.

A few hours later, Amanda bursts into the hotel room throwing a heap of red and black Lycra at me."Try this on. Quick," she orders. She is slightly out of breath. I unfold what appears to be a time trial skinsuit, cycling's aerodynamic equivalent of a body stocking. Only this one is about three sizes too big.

"But I already have a skinsuit," I tell her.

"No, you don't. I took your skinsuit to the race officials and they said it has too many sponsor logos on it. It isn't UCI legal for Pan Ams."

"No, silly. The new St. Kitts and Nevis skinsuit from Champion System is coming by mail, remember?"

"No it isn't. Just got an e-mail. There wasn't enough time to ship it from China."

"Where did you get this one?" I ask her, looking at the saggy spandex.

"Just hurry."

I try on the red-and-black men's medium skinsuit. It fits perfectly ... over my street clothes.

"Good enough," Amanda decrees. "Now give it back." WonderMinion grabs it, bolts out the door, into the car of a strange man from the race meeting, and heads back to the race officials on the other side of the city. For the past two hours, it turns out WonderMinion has been flying around Montevideo in search of a bike store. Finally tracking one down, she explained my uniform situation to the shop owner, Javier Gomez. He did not carry skinsuits. But Javier had his own personal one he would lend me. Said it was good luck, even. That he won the time trial world championships with it back in 1999. Amazing. One dream, so many people helping. The head honchos of UCI okay my new race suit with one condition: that I duct tape over the brand name of the clothing manufacturer -- an emblem of a giant letter Z -- emblazoned Zorro-like on the chest, back, and legs of the suit.

"I have to race wearing duct tape and men's clothes?" I whine to Amanda before she takes off.

"Dude, I just saved your ass from riding naked," Amanda says, ripping silver strips of tape with her teeth. WonderMinion 1, Kathryn 0.

At the start of the 20-kilometer time trial, I look around at my Pan American competitors. Teams from all over North, South, and Central America are warming up on rollers and trainers. Team managers, mechanics, coaches, doctors, massage therapists, and assistants gather around the cyclists like NASCAR pit crews. Sleek aero helmets are donned, disc wheels are mounted on $10,000 bikes while mechanics check every nut, bolt, and measurement and coaches mentally prep their athletes. I, however, didn't have enough hands/luggage space to bring a stationary trainer with me. Because of storage space issues, I wasn't permitted to bring my time trial bike to China -- where I raced prior to Uruguay -- so it isn't with me in South America, either. One of my composite teams told me I'd be outfitted with a new aero helmet, so I left my old one at home. That didn't come through.

So here I am among the world's elite with a too-big skinsuit, a wind-catching helmet, well-worn wheels, and a less-than-aerodynamic road bike with left-right clip-on aerobars that WonderMinion accidentally put on the wrong sides. The good news is I could care less. I am here, and it's been a heck of a fight to get to this point. I may not have the best equipment or a team of people to take care of my athletic needs, but I've got two working wheels, two able legs, one willing mind, and a WonderMinion with more heart and soul than any team of cycling professionals. I am here. There are Olympic points to be chased. I'd ride a tricycle if I had to. With duct tape streamers. For the next half hour, I battle into the wind ... pedaling with every ounce of strength I have. A piece of duct tape comes loose from my skinsuit and ensnares my braid, taping it securely to my back. At least my hair is now aerodynamic.

Not surprisingly, I came in at the back of the field in 2008. But just two years later, in 2010, I had a top-10 finish at Pan Ams. This year, who knows? By the time this column posts Tuesday afternoon, I'll be flying somewhere over South America en route to the 2011 competition.

I will have the right clothes, the right bike (if the checked baggage gods deem it so), no duct tape and the same sense of hope I had in 2008. Only stronger. The WonderMinion won't be with me on this trip, but the WonderVillage -- the people who support my dreams and help me keep perspective -- will be by my figurative side.

When I get to the start line of Pan Ams this year, I'll be a different racer than I was in 2008. But in some ways I'll be exactly the same. My technical knowledge of cycling continues to evolve, but my athletic side has always known exactly what the hell I'm doing: trying to live life to the fullest.