Cut to the chase
Ottawa’s Vicki Thomas enjoys tackling a challenge head on. At 39 and suffering a reoccurring health ailment, the feisty athlete is competing in Europe just a few years after taking up the sport of cyclocross, writes LIISA TUOMINEN.
Like the sport of cyclocross itself, Vicki Thomas’s route to becoming an elite-level athlete has been full of diversions, obstacles and ups and downs.
The 39-year-old Ottawa woman tried on many uniforms during her search for her perfect sport. A longtime cyclist, she played hockey and competed in running and taekwondo (internationally) before getting hooked on the local cyclocross scene. Since 2007, just three years after taking up the sport seriously, Thomas has moved to Belgium during the late fall and winter to compete all over Europe. She won the Ontario Provincial Championships in 2009 and has had top 10 finishes in the United States and Canada. And living with bouts of ulcerative colitis? That’s been another hurdle along the way.
Thomas competes solo as her own “Ottawa CX” team, but the former journalist and technical writer has a support system in place. First there’s her husband Marc, also a rider, who joins her in Belgium each winter. Then there are her sponsors: The Cyclery bike shop in Ottawa, equipment and clothing suppliers, nutrition companies and others Thomas has approached to help with her training all provide assistance. She’s got a mechanic who travels to her races around Europe, where cyclocross has a passionate following and Thomas has many fans. Now working from home as a consultant in writing and social media, she’s also got a network of family, friends and fans which she keeps up to date through blog updates and her Twitter feed.
Although Ottawa is considered a hotbed of racing in Eastern Canada with more than 200 participants in the local cyclocross scene, the sport has a relatively low profile here. In Belgium and Holland where Thomas races during the winter, there can be 20,000 spectators, each paying about $30, at a race. According to Thomas, televised cyclocross races can outdraw some World Cup soccer matches in ratings. Fans are, well, fanatical. Formerly a “masters” (age group) level rider, Thomas has reached her goal of elite status by amassing points and winning lower-level races. Now she competes among the best — against women who are sometimes two decades her junior. Cyclocross is a mental sport where the skills and techniques picked up over the years can give an older rider an advantage.
Two years ago, Thomas was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. With a typical Type A athletic personality, she had pushed her body hard while trying to fight the illness. This resulted in low-energy levels, hospital stays and ongoing iron infusions. She’s been on several different medications including steroids. One, a chemotherapy drug, made her hair fall out. Her physical exhaustion made her realize she couldn’t just “power through it,” and now has tried to live her life with more bal- ance and less stress (admittedly difficult for a competitive athlete.)
She has changed her diet to eliminate gluten and dairy, and other foods she knows her body won’t tolerate. This year, Thomas wasn’t able to start serious training until July, when her body chemistry was back to normal levels. On her current medication, she feels great, has regained weight and muscle mass, and is in remission. Thomas says the illness has given her great perspective on the importance of health. She has been outspoken on Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) for the Crohns and Colitis Foundation and has started a Facebook support group. She’s well aware that she’s a poster child for IBS — an example of a person living an extremely active life with a potentially debilitating illness. Ottawa’s Vicki Thomas offers information about cyclocross: ❚ Cyclocross, an off-road cycling sport ideal for fall/winter months, has grown into one of the fastest growing cycling disciplines in North America and Europe. ❚ Cyclocross races can be 30 minutes to an hour in length and are held on a course measuring 1.5 to 3.5 kilometres long. The winner is the first person to complete the prescribed number of laps first. ❚ Starting in late September and running until the first weekend of December, Ottawa and area cyclists of all ages and abilities come together on Sunday mornings just for fun and also to race on courses that can include grass, sand, mud, snow, hills, gravel and pavement. ❚ To race cyclocross all you need is a bike, a helmet and a sense of adventure. There are cyclocross specific bikes, but most people start with a mountain bike or hybrid bike. ❚ A cyclocross bike is very similar to a road bike: it has dropped handlebars and no suspension system. The differences are in the braking system and the tires, which are wider with some tread to provide traction on grass, mud, sand and wet terrain. ❚ The Cyclery in Ottawa has a specific cyclocross program for kids. Ottawa’s Cyclefit Chicks is having a clinic for beginners on Sept. 17. For more information, visit cyclefitchicks.ca ❚ For more information, visit the Eastern Ontario Cyclocross Series
website ( www.cyclocross.org). TO VIEW a video providing some good basic instruction on cyclocross, and to check out Thomas’s guest blog, go to
Three years after taking up the sport seriously, Vicki Thomas is now an elite cyclocross racer, competing all over Europe, Canada and the U.S. And she does this while living with bouts of ulcerative colitis.