Canadian woman makes history winning gruelling 4,800-km bike race

A 52-year-old Canadian woman made history by becoming the first woman to win the Race Across America, when she cycled 4,800 km in 11 days, three hours and three minutes.

Leah Goldstein, from Vernon, B.C., was one of just three people to complete the race this year after many cyclists dropped out because of the high temperatures stretching across the U.S. Her closest competitor crossed the finish line 17 hours behind her.

“I'm finally starting to feel more normal now, so that's good, but it'll take a couple of weeks probably before I'm 100 per cent. But yeah, I'm doing pretty good considering what I went through,” Goldstein told CTVNews.ca in a Zoom interview on Friday.

What she went through was a race from Oceanside, Calif. to Annapolis, Md., riding over more than 51,000 vertical metres, and across 12 states, during a heat wave that brought soaring temperatures across every state she passed through. A far cry from the conditions she went through the first time she completed the race in 2019.

“The last round we did, we were bombarded with rain and hail and cold weather, and we didn't really have the right clothing, so we prepped for that for this round. However, what happened in this round is we were bombarded with a heat wave and it wasn't just through the desert, it was through Utah, through Kansas, through Illinois,” she said.

But racing across the country is more than just about the physical competition.

“I always say it's 40 per cent physical and it's 60 per cent mental, so you have to have it up here before anything, that's where it really stems from,” she added.

And for many riders, the race doesn’t really begin until the halfway mark, and at that point the body is already drained.

“The race really doesn't start ‘til Kansas, like you have to get to Kansas,” Goldtein said. “That's the tough part. And then you're already exhausted and tired and you still have another 2000 kilometres to go.”

And while crossing through numerous states, riders also go through various states of emotions and levels of pain that they need to keep pushing through.

“You're going to go into a rollercoaster of emotions[…]you have to be mentally ready and prepared for the worst of it, and I mean this is a huge endeavor,” she said.

Having a supportive crew is what got her across the finish line.

“It's not a matter of, you know, that I won the race, it’s that we won the race because it's up to them to get me fed and hydrated, to navigate, to keep me safe,“ she said.

She couldn’t have done it without her team, she said, and she thinks it was harder for them than it was for her.

“It's your crew that gets you across the line because your brain can become like a potato after 40 hours of riding, that's right from the get go,” she said. “And also to keep you sane because when you're aggressive and you get emotional, they have to kind of be your psychologist or whatever to calm you down and help push you forward so it's work and it's tough, I think it's tougher to crew than it is to ride.”

Throughout the race she slept for three hours each night for the majority of the race but near the end she cut her sleep back to just 90 minutes a night. And it wasn’t all smooth sailing, she almost lost it all near the end.

“We had a little glitch a kilometre before the finish that nobody really saw, I collapsed off the bike and I ended up walking, so I mean, I was that close to not finishing so you can never claim victory until you cross that line. And that's with anything you do,” she said.

But after biking nearly 5,000 km, she wasn’t about to let that last one defeat her.

“If you're that close to anything you'll find you got to dig deep and find it,” she said. “It took us an hour to do that one kilometre but we got across the line.”

Training outdoors in Canada all year isn’t a possibility, so she opted to use a trainer, a device you can put your bike on indoors to ride it stationary. She faced her bike towards a wall and rode with no music, no phones or screens, no distractions.

“When you're on your bike for 10 to 11 days, 20 to 24 hours a day, you better get used to that position of not having anything to help you get through it, so it's better to get used to it outside of the race rather than going crazy during the race,” she said.

Her crew could talk to her through the radio piece in her ear, and would often speak to her more if they noticed her getting wobbly or losing focus, but for Goldstein, the best way to focus was to listen to her own body.

“I just like to kind of be inside myself, you know, the rhythm of my heartbeat, and my pedal stroke and that's how I get through the race,” she said. “For me that's the most therapeutic way and hypnotic way I can ride.”

For people who are new to the sport, or trying anything new, she said it’s important to have fun and focus on yourself, not what others are doing.

“How you get better is when you're failing, you keep trying and keep going, and going and going,” she said. “Just go out there and do it and have fun, and don't worry about what anyone else thinks, doesn't matter, it's what you feel and how you feel.”