On Saturday, September 10, 2011, Babes in Bikeland V (BiB) conquered the bike-laned, pock-marked streets of Minneapolis. BiB is an alleycat expressly for women, and 252 female cyclists participated in 2011′s round, the event’s fifth. This year’s winner was four-time 30 Days of Biking participant Lee Penn, who also took First Female at last month’s All-City Championship. Winning is impressive enough, especially against tough Minne competition, but Lee did it all despite three rounds of chemotherapy; docs recently diagnosed her with breast cancer. It sounds straight out of an inspirational, Oscars-bound Hollywood pic, and yet it’s true!
An Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the U of M, Lee has been bicycling for a “really really really long time,” bike commuting for two decades, and racing for nine years. “I’ve been hauling things around by bicycle for about a decade,” she says, “including notables like groceries, kidlets, dressers, and changing tables.” Like many cyclists, Lee seems addicted to accruing bikes: “The right number of bikes,” she says “is always n+1.” She won’t say which bike is her fave, but she “[makes] sure they all know how much I love them.”
Everyone at the Babes in Bikeland party was buzzing about how you’re currently undergoing chemotherapy. How did chemo affect your race?
On July 29, 2011, I learned that I have breast cancer. I am going to be doing chemotherapy for a total of five months, followed by surgery. It’s a crazy experience, learning about the disease and starting treatment.
Both of my doctors say I should exercise all I want and am able to. In fact, one of the biggest predictors of less-than-totally-evil experiences with chemotherapy is exercise. So, racing BiB-V totally fit in with that plan. I also have an amazing better half, who makes it easier for me to do stuff like this. Some days are super slow … some days feel great. Saturday was one of those good days! I will ride my bike every single day, even if I only manage to go around the block. That’s simply non-negotiable.
How’d it feel to win Babes in Bikeland?
Unreal! Surprising! Amazing! Holy shit I won!
I’m three rounds into chemotherapy, and it’s … well … not fun. My blood counts are low. My stamina is dropping. My power is dropping. Friday was a rough day, so I didn’t know what to expect for Saturday. I went back and forth, considering racing versus just riding with some friends. But, in the end, I just had to go for it. I had to give everything I had and race my ass off. So, that’s what I did.
When I started, I didn’t feel all that great, and there were definitely strong women up ahead of me. But, after about maybe 20-30 minutes, I warmed up and was able to tap into my suffer pot. I didn’t question it—if that energy was there, I was gonna use it. That lasted around 40 minutes or so … up until my third to last stop. Then, riding the last two stops and through to the finish, I just suffered like a dog, and it was … awesome. I mean, that’s what racing is, right? I left every drop on that race course.
When I rolled into my second to last stop, the guys at the stop were all like, we think you’re gonna win this … I didn’t know what to make of that… but I did feel a kernel of hope in my gut. So, I rode hard to Brackett Park, where the guys there said basically the same thing. Really? Am I really gonna win this thing? I rode up the grassy hill… and punched it on the greenway and suffered. Rolled into Sisters Camelot destroyed.
I couldn’t breathe very well—I was shaking a bit—the next few minutes are a total blur. But, holy shit I won! Really? Did that really just happen? As I attempted to just return to a functioning state, I was just in shock … After my breathing returned to a normal rate… it started to sink in.
Had you ever won an alleycat before?
Before chemo started, I won first female at All City, which was AMAZING! That race was different in the sense that I went into the race wanting that win. There was no question that I’d ride that hard. I suffered, and it was grand. I rode the first half of the race with my buddy Will, who’s a routing genius … That race was quite a lot longer than BiB-V, and it was ridiculously fun. How did All City compare to BiB-V? That’s like comparing blueberries and avocados. Both were awesome for different reasons.
What strategy did you employ to win?
Strategy. For BiB-V, my strategy was mainly that I had to route this thing perfectly. Did I manage to do that? On paper, yes. I made small mistakes, tho, up in Northeast, where I always make mistakes. But, overall, my routing was efficient. The second part of my strategy was to leave it all on the race course, and I did.
What sort of bicycling does an alleycat require, and how does it differ from regular riding?
It’s a combination of brains and speed. For some alleycats, you don’t need to be super fast if you are a routing genious. For other alleycats, you need both. You can be fast but you’ll lose if your routing stinks, though. I’m pretty darn fast, but I can be pretty darn stupid (i.e., I make mistakes).
I’m not sure what “regular riding” is—to me, regular riding is riding however it is you wish to ride. I love to race, commute, ride, ride, and ride some more. I love bike dates and bike meetings—nothing’s better than managing to have a work-related meeting while riding a bicycle!
What makes Babes in Bikeland so unique and cool?
The racers, the organizers, the volunteers, the venues, the sponsors, the stops, the city of Minneapolis. It’s really the whole package. This is a fantastic race, and I think any woman interested in giving it a shot should show up and race or ride and expect to have a fantastic time.
Which BiB stop was your favorite?
Good question. I’d have to say the super hero stop, because people came up with some seriously excellent super powers. One racer wrote “perfect comeback.” Seriously, that’d be a rockin’ super power, right? There were others that were equally excellent. But that one stuck with me!
As the co-founder of 30 Days of Biking, I’m really happy that you’re participating and that you’ve been involved in all four rounds! What appeals to you about 30DoB?
The concept is terrific. I know people who have decided to get on a bike simply because the idea of biking 30 days simply sounds cool. And then, some of them don’t stop riding! How cool is that? Plus, the spoke card is pretty sweet.
– Patrick Stephenson