Cycling With: Alison Harkey, Bike Racer

Today we are cycling with Alison Harkey, one of my cycling idols.  I had never met Alison but had heard of her amazing cycling accomplishments over the years.  I finally got to meet her in October of 2013.  Alison grew up in Scotland and moved to Mississippi in 1982 to pursue a post-doctoral fellowship in the Department of Physiology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.  She found that life in Jackson was pretty sedentary and started running to stay fit. She met her husband, Louis Harkey, on Old Canton Road during an afternoon run – he chased her down!  They began racing (running) together on weekends and eventually decided to get married, which they did in Scotland in September 1984. Alison and Louis returned to Jackson in December of 1984 and, apart from spending a year in London, they have lived in Jackson ever since. They have 4 adult children  – 3 girls and 1 boy ranging in age from 19 to 26 years old.  Alison was a stay at home Mom until a few years ago when she returned to work, on a very part time basis, in the Department of Physiology at UMMC.

The Harkey Family: Ian, Claire, Lorna, Leah, Alison and Lewis

The Harkey Family: Ian, Claire, Lorna, Leah, Alison and Lewis

Alison, how did you get into cycling?

Louis and I continued running on and off over the years but we were finding it harder to be enthusiastic about a once avid activity and we were clearly not getting enough aerobic exercise. We attend St. James’ Episcopal Church and in 2002 we got a new priest who was an avid cyclist. He started a youth summer cycling trip to Vermont and our two oldest children participated. The trip was really life changing for my oldest daughter and we soon decided that perhaps we needed to try biking as our new sport. In the fall of 2004 we purchased a couple of Trek bicycles and started training for the Vermont Bike trip in the summer of 2005. Since that first trip we continued to cycle more and more and met a whole new community of friends through the sport. Eventually my competitive spirit reemerged and I decided to try bike racing.  2014 will be my 4th year to race and I compete on a woman’s cycling team based in Chattanooga, TN. Last year I raced in 29 races (time trials, road racing and criteriums).

Why did you decide to get into racing?

I used to ride a lot with Ricky Venturini, a long time local cyclist, who suggested that I compete in masters nationals.  He told me I was a strong cyclist. I am also very competitive. I just have to chase down that person I see in front of me.

Louis and I went to Blackberry Farm for a cycling holiday. Robbie Ventura, a former pro racer, and George Hincapie were there and we got to cycle with them. I was thinking about racing at that time and Robbie Ventura, who owns Vision Quest Coaching, encouraged me to get a coach which I did through Vision Quest. Having a defined training schedule with coach feedback has been wonderful and greatly beneficial. I would recommend coaching for anybody who wants to improve their riding, whether to race or just get stronger.

Tell us about your women’s cycling team – how did you get involved with it?

My very first race was the Tour de Tuscaloosa in spring 2011. I was really nervous and felt particularly “alone” as all these other teams appeared in their matching kits and began warning up on their trainers under their team tents. At the start of the race I met a few girls who were racing on Mystique Cycling Team, a new woman’s racing team from Chattanooga, TN. They were very friendly and after the races (a criterium on Saturday and road race on Sunday) one of the team members said “you should join our team”. At my next race in McMinnville, TN I saw the same team again and continued getting to know some of the girls on the team. After that race, I received a formal invitation to join the team and I have been racing with them ever since. The 2014 name of the team is Taco Mamacita/Scenic City Velo Women’s Cycling Team. Taco Mamacita, our title sponsor, is a local restaurant in Chattanooga.

Alison racingAre there any local women’s teams?

I don’t think there are any women specific teams in Mississippi. Absolute Racing has one woman (Allison Bullock) on their team and I believe Palmer Cycling (formerly Herring Gas) is a male only team. The Bike Crossing had one woman (Akira Delong) but she moved recently. I know there are some racing teams in Louisiana – S3 Racing Team in Boyce, LA; Team La S’port in Shreveport, LA and New Orleans Bicycling Club. They have a few women on their teams but I’m not sure there are any women’s specific teams. I would love to form a Mississippi woman’s only team and really develop some younger women to become top ranked racers. That may be my focus after I quit racing myself!

Cycling is a sport that many women come to after competing successfully in other sports in high school and college. Soccer and basketball players as well as cross country runners all translate into really good cyclists. I think targeting those athletes to become cyclists after their collegiate careers would be a great way to create a woman’s team.

You indicated that you and Louis run together, do you ride together too?

Louis and I do cycle together although now that I am racing I do a lot of my training alone. We usually always cycle on Sundays together and we enjoy mountain biking together in my off-season.

Where is your favorite place to ride?

I enjoy cycling in new locations – Bend, Oregon (USA Cycling Masters Road Nationals) is a beautiful place to ride as is Vermont and New Hampshire.

What is your favorite cycling event?

The USA Cycling Masters Road National Championships is my favorite cycling event. It has been held in Bend, Oregon the last three years and will be in Ogden, Utah in 2014. I won the silver medal in the women’s 55-60 criterium in 2013. I hope to eventually capture the stars and stripes jersey.

What is the stars and stripes jersey?

USA Cycling hosts a number of national championship series throughout the year. These range from professional cycling events to collegiate, masters, juniors cycling events etc. At each series, cyclists compete to win the national championship in a particular genre and to be presented with the stars and stripes jersey. If you win you are entitled to wear the jersey for the following year until the next championship series. I competed in the masters road national championships in time trial, road racing and criterium. At the masters race you compete against racers in your age category (5 year brackets). Most of the time I race against much younger women and I am always the oldest! I was second in the 55-60 women’s criterium last September.

You just participated in your first Cyclocross event – tell us about your experience with it.

Louis and I decided to ride out to Providence Farm to watch the one of the Delta States Grand Prix cyclocross races, a new series to introduce cyclocross in the south. I decided 5 minutes before the race to participate – I did not have a cyclocross bike but the course seemed to be suitable for a road bike with slick tires. It was a tremendous amount of fun and, in spite of a lack of cyclocross skills, I came in third. I could really get into this but do I really need one more bike?

LOL! Everyone always needs one more bike! What do you do when not cycling?

I enjoy reading, cooking and gardening.

If you could ride anywhere in the world that you have never ridden before, where would it be?

One day I want to ride the Tour de France route.

Any thing else you would like to add?

One of the joys of cycling has been the community of new friends we have made through the sport. Each genre of cycling has a unique character of its own and a whole set of individuals who embody each subset: from the hard core road racers to the laid back but equally competitive mountain bikers; the testosterone laden and the easy Sunday afternoon group riders.   Each group has enriched our life in so many ways.