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.

Ottawa Citizen - - ACTIVE LIFE -

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

OT­TAWAC­I­T­I­ZEN.COM

/CI­TI­ZENCY­CLE

CHRIS MIKULA, THE OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN

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.

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