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I am one lucky human being.

I’ve been given the chance to pursue a sport I love training for and competing in to the highest level I’m capable of. It’s an unconventional pursuit. I won’t receive a diploma when I’m done. And best I can tell, there won’t be a huge financial reward at the end.

There are days when I ask myself, ‘how did I get here?’ And there are days I know I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing exactly what I should to be doing, right now.

For that, I have a few people to thank:

My husband, Lath

My husband, Lath. I married a man who’s crazy enough to think this is a good idea. Without his support, I couldn’t be here. We met while I was juggling a demanding full-time job, random out-of-comp USADA testing and training. We both knew together we could accomplish great things. The irony being that, for the moment, we’re often apart.

But he’s never wavered in his support. I can’t begin to explain its’ depth and breadth, because that would be way too personal here. I know for a fact he’s the biggest piece of the puzzle for me.

My mom & dad. I grew up in a small town where sports were what we did. From the time I can remember, we were either out back playing, or my folks were carting us off to swim meets, ball games or golf matches.

Dad (left), Number 44

My dad was an accomplished athlete himself. He played football and basketball in the Air Force, then at Mansfield Teacher’s College after the service. My mom loved to swim and spent her summers teaching kids to swim at the Valley Hunt Club in Lewis Run, PA.

Together, the two of them loved to play, teach and enjoyed exposing their kids to everything. My mom’s a gifted pianist and music teacher, who’s filled with enough passion, drive, heart and emotion to fuel a small revolution. My dad is the logic behind the madness. He was a math teacher, a hunter, a gardener, respected coach and strategist who knows how to stay the course and get things done.

Between the two of them, they’ve personally touched the lives of thousands, most of whom were our coaches, friends and teammates.

In a small town, you don’t have to specialize in one sport as you do in large cities or suburbs, so we did it all: swimming, diving, synchronized swimming, tennis, wrestling, baseball, football, track and field, golf, basketball, skiing . . . you name it. I never once got tired or bored, and came away with a wide skill set & plenty of game.

Not only am I blessed to have grown up in a house where playing sports and being active was just what we did, somehow the union of these two great people crafted a girl who’s rhythmically coordinated, fast-twitch faceted, compulsive enough to take risks, calculating enough to work the numbers and who clearly inherited her mother’s thighs.

Mom (far right) and her siblings, Chataqua Lake

Because of my sister Karen, I learned how to be a tomboy. She was the only person–girl or guy–daring or talented enough to do a gainer off the diving board. And she swam the butterfly. Karen was also an accomplished basketball player. She had a real command of the game by age twelve, was a natural-born leader and good student, which made her the perfect point guard.

She’s 4 years older than me and I idolized her.

I followed her around like a puppy and did everything she did. She played point guard. I played point guard. She threw javelin. I threw javelin. She taught me how to do a proper lay-up, and I still plant my left foot, extend with the right and follow-through to the basket.

Karen became more of a girly-girl as we got older while I held onto our athletic roots. But I always had someone to play 3X’s with and look up to. She led the way, and has encouraged me through competitive sport as an adult. For that I’m truly grateful.

My brother TJ is 4 days shy of 1 year older than me, and best I recall made me pay for being born well into our teens. TJ was also an exceptional athlete. He, too, possessed a mean butterfly and was a master of the cannonball and jackknife in the greatest splash contest at the Memorial Recreation Center.

By the time he was 15, TJ had invested that magic number of years (7-10) in the sport of wrestling and won a Pennsylvania State Championship title. For those unfamiliar with wrestling, Pennsylvania ranks up there with Iowa in taking rural farm kids and turning them into little mortal combat machines.

Growing up, TJ was a lot like this:

TJ, after a day in school

You never knew when he was going to strike, then you had to act quick and decide if this was a fight, flight or play dead situation. Sometimes he had back-up (The Burdick Boys) so you had no choice but to take Craig–Don’s younger lightweight brother–for your teammate and pray for the best.

One minute I’d be watching Happy Days, the next, I’d be dragged into a full-on, tag-team, death match on the living room floor. TJ would pile drive me into the carpet, my face smashed into Play-Doh stains from earlier times. I’d end up screaming, hair matted and brush-burned. Eventually, he’d climb onto the piano bench channeling Macho King Randy Savage before executing his final move.

But I regress.

My first coach used to call me a fighter. I was so green to bike racing, I didn’t know it was a compliment at the time.

Now I get it.

And I have my brother to thank for that.

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I could go on for miles about the many amazing people I know and have met who have it in their hearts to help aspiring competitive cyclists, but this is a good place to start and end for now.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone, enjoy the feast!

–Liz

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With Master’s Nationals over, I confess to being a little concerned I’d lose my training partners.

I know how tough it is to fit in consistent workouts with a 9-5, and while some of the guys I train with are teachers or have flexible schedules, most of them have wives and kids who really like to see them when their goal has been met for the season.

(Thanks, btw, wives and kids for letting your men come to the track. I feel very fortunate to train with them.)

Imagine my relief when I got this text from Affinity‘s Jon Chambers:

JC: U available to train Sunday?

We’ve had storms hovering, plus I raced Friday and training gets shuffled for these reasons. And while Sunday’s usually a rest day, (can I get an Amen!?), it’s also a day when guys like Jon can sneak away for a morning track session.

ME: What do you have going on?

JC: Not sure yet depends on what you have.

ME: This weather may shift things around, so maybe flying 200’s or rolling 500’s.

JC: Works for me.

Jon & Cam setting up for Masters' Nationals.

There was a little more to it. But that’s the gist. We’ve trained together quite a bit the past few years and can speak in shorthand. Our schedules haven’t meshed lately, so I was glad to hear from him.

Did I mention Jon’s racing like a champ? Just killing it every Tuesday and Saturday in the Cat 2/3’s and Master’s Men’s field. He’s a powerhouse who stepped it up a notch this winter. I hardly recognized him when I got back from Los Angeles in May.

It’s not uncommon in competitive sport to see elite women training with men of equal or greater ability. In track cycling, you often see top women racing with cat 2/3 or Master’s men to simulate the kind of speeds and action you’ll get in international competition.

Basically, you have to train as fast as you want to race. So if you’re trying to step it up; training with the guys, a motorcycle or exceptionally fast women are, in theory anyways, your best ways to go about it.

Today it was Jon, myself, Jon’s teammate, Cam; Bike Line Dale and Paul; Greg, the new Manager at Performance Bicycles and his buddy Ken. All great guys. I did flying 200’s behind the motor on Thursday, so I had 4 handicapped rolling 500m efforts, full throttle, two in race gear +4, two in race gear +6.

Three words: Big muscular effort.

We split into two groups: sprinters & enduros. Each of us (Jon, Dale & myself) took a turn at the front.

The speed difference between leading and chasing was remarkable: 6kph faster in the chase. I know I hit some of my best top speeds today. I also know the guys put the hammer down ’cause (and they’ll tell you this) no one likes getting beat by a girl.

Today’s training session was mint. Each effort high quality. For most of these guys, track time is a priority and they make the most of it.

And Jon is like a locomotive once he’s on top of a gear. Lucky for me, he doesn’t mind it if I sit a few bike lengths back and turn myself inside out trying to catch him.

There’s always some good-natured ribbing that comes with the territory. The guys like to tease me about being a girl (which, I am). I grew up with an older brother who used to pummel me for sport, so these guys are lightweights in comparison.

Gentlemen, in fact. Am I allowed to say we have a good time? And I certainly get more out of each effort than I would on my own.

This is something I’ve been thinking about because it’s new to me. I trained by myself a lot last year because it’s what I needed to do at the time.

I started the summer working with Andrew Harris on starts & OTB strength and did flying efforts with Chip Berezny and his crew on Wednesdays. Each session has been good in so many ways, this year better than last.

Then I found this newspaper clipping when I was home and thought, “Hah! This must be my destiny!”

Me & the Boys. Towsend, MD Invitational 1975?

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A Great Trip

I know I’ve been quiet, which has everything to do with going through another move in June. If you count relocating for training, this is the 5th time I’ve moved in 5 years. But we finally found a place that gets me closer to my friends in the Lehigh Valley and the track while Lath has a manageable commute, so hopefully . . . it’s our last!

I just returned from back-to-back race weekends in the Pacific Northwest. I started working with Jennie Reed last year — who was key to my doing well at the World Cup level in 2007. She’s an amazing coach and friend, so the trip to Portland for the Alpenrose Velodrome Challenge and Seattle for the FSA Grand Prix presented by Nuun was as much an opportunity for good racing as it was a chance to check in with Jennie.

The Men's 30K Points Race at Alpenrose


The Alpenrose Velodrome is a little kooky. It’s shaped like a paper clip with tight turns that suck you into the corners. It requires a certain physicality to race it well, otherwise you lose contact with the track and get bounced around (you have to relax, let your body absorb the surface, and find the cleaner lines.) Point being: it’s not easy to get used to, but once you do  — it’s a blast. Kind of like a carnival ride.

There’s definitely a hometown advantage, as Portlands’ Kevin Metzger and Jen Featheringill dominated the sprints.

My best result at the AVC was 2nd in the Team Sprint with my partner, Seattle’s Tela Crane; and 3rd in the Keirin behind Dana Feiss and Monique Sullivan. Tela & I broke the track record in the Team Sprint and were celebrating our awesomeness before Dana and Jen Featheringhill dropped it a few moments later. It was pretty cool once I got over being bummed about not winning. Each of the women’s team sprint teams broke the track record, which says something (I think) about a new crop of sprint talent in the US.

The first two days of racing (the 500m & Match Sprints) for me were flat, not sure if it was the travel or adjusting to the track. I raced Tuesday night at T-Town then traveled Wednesday and was warned by Jennie that might not be the smartest thing to do (race before hopping on a cross-country flight). Well, that’s how you learn; and my form came around by day 3 . . . thank GOD!

We hit 60kph (36mph) in the Keirin final! That’s fast! Kudos to Dana Feiss for leading it out for two laps.

Both events are season marquee races for the Alpenrose and Marymoore velodromes, so the talent was deep, racing competitive and prize money generous. The promoters offer equal prize money for both the women’s and men’s fields (another bonus), so the racing’s aggressive across the board. Riders from all over the West . . . California, Colorado, Canada and Chicago come and they all seem to know each other well so the vibe feels like a big picnic with bicycle track racing going on around it.

Here are some pics of Alpenrose …The infield is organized chaos. We had glorious weather.

The Infield at Alpenrose

Women's Scratch Race

The Homestraight Grandstands

Our friendly announcing team

Our route: Oceanside to Sand Lake to Tillamook to Oceanside

Camille Hook, busting out the grin

I had some time to kill  before heading up to Seattle for the Fixed Gear Classic, and found out Sunday night that Portland rider Camille Hook had never been to the coast, or at least it had been awhile.

I rode a good chunk of the Oregon Coast after running in the Hood to Coast relay in 1997. IMO, it’s one of the most gorgeous places in the US, I had to go being so close. Canadian Travis Smith helped me coerce Camille into taking the day off  & we had a blast. It took us twice as long as we thought it would to ride a way harder route than we thought it would be. Closest I’ve been to bonking in a long time. It was epic.

40 Miles of wind, sand, hills and gorgeous scenery. Epic.

I’ve got a few Marymoor pics that I’ll upload once I’ve checked ’em out. It was an amazing trip. Special thanks to former pro cyclist turned pro accountant Marjon Marik, who let me stay with her in Portland  . . . and David and Ellen Mann, who gave me the ROYAL Treatment in Seattle.

And Walrod, I still can’t believe I ran into you and your family on Glisan! That was crazy.

Got some quality racing in, spend time with old friends and caught up with and met new friends in the sport.

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Dream, Interrupted

After a much-needed reprieve, I’ve been trying to figure out how to return to my blog. So I’ll start with today. I may have to back track a bit the next few weeks, to piece things together before moving onto next year.

Gram and one of her many gifts

Today I want to write about my Grandma, Mary K. Franco, who died two weeks ago at age 97.

My Grandma embodied the word ‘home’ for me. Homemaker, homemade, homecoming . . . going home.

She rocked the house-dress.

We grew up 20 miles from the little town where she and my grandfather lived. Going home for the holidays has always meant going home to see Gram.

Mary K. Franco, 1912-2009

She was born Mary K. Monago in 1912, the oldest daughter of Cesidio and Annunciata Monago. Her mother died when she was a young girl. She grew up caring for her father and siblings.

My Gram was a woman of simple needs. She lived for her husband, Alley P. Franco, her brothers and sister, three children, nine grandchildren, thirteen great-grandchildren, her lord and good food. I’m from a large Italian-Catholic family, so there was always good food and lots of it.

As a kid, I quickly learned being sick meant an early morning ride over the hill to Grandma’s house where she’d rub Vic’s Vapor Rub on my chest, wrap me in blankets and take good care of me.

When I arrived, she’d have hot tea with honey & lemon waiting. I’d get back into my PJ’s and set up on the sofa. Soon, I’d hear her chopping vegetables and the smell of chicken stock would fill the house. We’d have soup with pastina and fresh Italian bread for lunch, then settle in for As the World Turns, Guiding Light and The Price is Right. She’d do laundry or mending—but was always nearby, just in case. Before long, I’d hear the La-Z-Boy click and her soft snoring.

Grandma’s life centered on her family, her church and the community of Lewis Run, a tight pocket of Italian immigrants in Northwestern Pennsylvania. My grandfather helped build the church where they worshiped while Gram made meatball and spaghetti dinners to raise money. Grandpa’s Super8 film collection captures three decades of Franco & Monago weddings, christenings and anniversaries held at Our Mother of Perpetual Help. The first I remember was their 50th wedding anniversary when I was a teen.

Mary and Alley Franco

After she died I asked my uncle if they ever found love letters she and Grandpa had written to each other. No, he said, they were rarely apart.

My Gram had the one thing so many of us crave: time. She was rich with it and lived 97 years of good, quality uncomplicated time.

During her time on this planet, she taught those of us who knew her the meaning of faith, devotion, love, respect and fun. Bocci ball tournaments, horseshoe pitch and Easter egg hunts were always held in her backyard. What sparked her competitive fire most was a good game of Scrabble, at which she was unstoppable.

From her, the girls in my family learned to crochet, knit, sew, cook and be good mothers and aunts. She drilled into us the importance of keeping a neat and tidy home, (some took to it better than others). The guys, she taught how to recognize a good woman.

She never learned to drive or flew in an airplane, but somehow made it to all the important games, reunions, christenings and  graduations. Her frig was always stocked. There was a period where she worked at JC Penney in the mid- to late-70’s. But I never knew of her as anything other than Gram.

She grew roses and made food that left people asking for recipes, but never cooked with them.

She had a faith so strong that she seemed, at times, ethereal.

At the end of her life, Gram was filled with grace—for her family and the life she shared with us. She literally glowed. I got to spend time alone with her at Thanksgiving. I had a workout to do, but something told me I should be with her instead. She was winding down. I read her birthday cards and sang to her. I wiped her eyes for her and got her to drink water. We prayed. We flipped through the photo album my sister made of her ever-expanding family to help Gram recognize us and remember our names.

We are her life’s work.

She thanked me over and over again. I thanked her too, for everything, and held her hand.

She was a star to me. One of my favorite subjects. I took her to get her hair done for Easter Sunday in 1999, I think it was. I remember it being a great day. She giggled. She was embarrassed to be the center of attention with Kathy, her hairdresser, looking on. That’s when I started to call her Precious.

Here are some photos I’ve taken over the years. I’m so lucky to have had her in my life.

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Fifth Street madness

I’m not sure if you know about the weekly mayhem that takes place in Bill & Beth Strickland’s backyard. It’s a social experiment that makes you scratch your head and wonder why, then thank the good lord someone’s crazy enough to do it . . . both those who line up and the people who let a bunch of hooligans tear up their backyard. All I know is it’s awesome. Besides giving Lath something important to do every Thursday night, it provides me with priceless entertainment. 

We just came home from the first four hours of the 24 Hours of Fifth Street, which is (at my best estimation) still going on. Lath made a few hours in before his bike was so caked with mud and leaves, he chucked it on the driveway. Since I’m up in the middle of the night, I’ll say in a show of solidarity, I figured I’d post a tribute to a few Fifth Street regulars who, for all I know, are still slogging it out right now. This first shot says it all. All pics by me. 

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I have huge admiration for anyone who suited up for this tonight. But my hat goes off to Røbe (above, in the green jersey & Peeber). He had a good attitude going in; figured if he drank two beers an hour or one on every lap (whichever came first) he stood a real chance of winning. 

ACtually, I don’t know if winning is his motivation, but I appreciate his willingness to sacrifice performance in the name of science. He was up to 11 beers, I believe, when we left at 9:30 . . . and the last thing I heard him say was “Things are going good; I just thought I would metabolize the beer a little better.” 

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I love Thanksgiving. Mainly because I love turkey. No, I love it all. I love going from the cold into a warm kitchen filled with people. I love the chatter and banter and seeing my family. I love hugging my grandma and playing cards with my cousins. And I absolutely love turkey, stuffing, potatoes and gravy.

I’m all about saying grace, and my goal is to stay in that frame of mind well into the new year. I have much to be thankful for, starting with Coach Ben, who patiently, diligently works to keep me on course; Coach Jared, Mike Cerimele and the folks at Velocity — who helped me square up after my injury; Phil, Gazza, T-Bird, Jess, Trish & Lisa, my Verducci-Breakaway teammates . . . looking forward to a great 2009; Tiffany Brown at Giant Bicycles, who gives me the fastest, most incredible bikes to race on; Matt, Kim and my other training partners at T-Town; Matt, who deserves a second mention because he’s such a great motivator and generous guy; Gene Durigan, without whom I wouldn’t have a slick computer to write on; Dave Q Pryor, who somehow calls me with freelance work when my tank is on fumes; my Lath, who’s zen-like in his encouragement of my goals; the many friends who’ve listened to me kvetch about how hard it is at the elite international level; all you kooky people who read my blog; Bicycling magazine, for giving me a forum to share my experience, and the good lord, for giving me a body that can take the kind of punishment I dish it. 

Just kidding about that last sentence. I love training, riding and racing bikes and seeing what I can do. You only live once, I say.

Since 2005 I left a great job, started a freelance business, moved to a new town, got married, focused on training and racing, made an uninhabitable living space livable, made the US National Team, shut down my business, got fast enough to chase after the Olympic games, worked through two injuries, and ran completely, utterly out of money. 

Giving up everything good and secure and reliable to jump head-first into a world where there are no guarantees has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The best part, so far, about doing this has been the depth of the experience, and the many smart, friendly and passionate people I’ve met—both in cycling and outside the sport. I’m grateful for every single one of them. 

Plus, I can now ride rollers using only one leg. That has to count for something.

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my mom.

I got to see my mom while visiting my brother and his kids around Halloween. She and dad made the drive from PA to Connecticut for costumed mayhem at Loomis-Chaffee where he teaches.

I’m from a football-playing family—my dad coached, brother played for the University of New Hampshire, and now he coaches the game—plus we’re from the football playing corner of the state, so the Saturday morning soccer scene is a novelty to us. We were treated to a classic New England fall morning for my nephew Ivan’s game. 

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Ivan scored a goal, and so did his buddy Will. Their team won and played a great game for a gang of 6-year-olds. Good ball, nice footwork, excellent passes, kept the action moving down the field. I was really impressed. 

 

My grandma (Mom’s mom) turned 96 this week. Ninety-six! When I asked if that was true, she said, “I was born in 1912, Lizzy . . . you do the math.” She’s still pretty sharp, and a lot of her state of being has to do with my folks and their home-cooked meals, fresh veggies, frequent visits and playing cards and scrabble and keeping her on her toes best they can.

M&D’s trip to Connecticut was a quick getaway. Maddie and Ivan can’t get enough of them. It goes both ways. I’ve never seen my mom more radiant than when she’s around her grandkids. 

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