It was in the Italian countryside five days ago that it finally hit home.
During a visit with friends in Riolo Terme, a quiet hillside town southeast of Bologna, Mary McConneloug finally had the epiphany she knew would come. It happened, fittingly, on her bike, as she rode under the blistering afternoon sun through the hills that surround the village. She was thinking of all of her travels that brought her to that moment, and all the goals she had accomplished along the way, when a calm yet overwhelming notion swept over her thoughts.
"Wow," she said. "I'm going to be in the Olympics."
The Olympic Games open in Greece today, and Ms. McConneloug - who trained on the winding roads and gentle hills of the Vineyard - will be heading there, to represent the United States as its sole female mountain bike racer. "It is hard to believe that it's true, but it is," she said in a telephone conversation from Italy. "You just keep thinking, ‘I made it. I did it.' "
Ms. McConneloug's boyfriend and racing partner is Mike Broderick, a Chilmark resident. They lived and trained together here, off and on, for several years. Just now Mr. Broderick, also a professional mountain bike racer, and Ms. McConneloug are winding up an exhaustive racing schedule that took them on a whirlwind tour of Europe and South America.
A Three-Year Pursuit
Ms. McConneloug's selection to the team was the fulfillment of a three-year-long pursuit that, they admitted, was a long-shot at first, but one that became more and more realistic with each race she won.
"We set out with the goal of Mary making the Olympics, and when we reached it, it was unbelievable," Mr. Broderick said. "Really, if you look at what we were up against, it is shocking that we did it."
What they were up against was world-class competition with more experienced riders with large corporate sponsorships, meaning plenty of money and legions of support crews. With the backing of several smaller sponsors, including their major corporate sponsor, Seven Cycles, a small, custom-built bike company in Watertown, Mass., but no crew to speak of, they were forced into the role of underdog with few funds, but a strong will to succeed - and each other.
"Fortunately, that was enough," Mr. Broderick said, laughing. "I am Mary's crew - I fix her bike when it breaks and feed her water on the course when she is racing. And she does the same for me when I race. We just got into a rhythm with each other and never looked back."
The two have been riding together since they met at a race in 1999.
Later that year, Mr. Broderick brought Ms. McConneloug to the Vineyard to train for an upcoming race season. "I was supposed to be here for a month but never left," she said. "The Vineyard is just an incredible place to ride, and there are enough hills and trails for solid training. In those days we both worked when we weren't racing, but we always kept biking the focus of our lives."
Up-Island and Down
Training for races on the Island proved to be a labor of love.
On mornings or evenings after work they would ride long stretches to Aquinnah or Edgartown.
"Those were my favorite rides, especially to Gay Head," she said. "When [Mr. Broderick and she] rode together, I'd tuck in behind him into his draft and just cruise. It is a fact that men are stronger so I would let him do the work. Drafting is the great equalizer," she said, laughing.
Sometimes their training took them off road and trail as well.
During one of the colder winters, when the temperature barely reached freezing, Mr. Broderick took his bike to Squibnocket and ended up riding all the way along the beach to the Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick.
"It was brutally cold, and the sand was frozen like cement down by the shoreline," he recalled. "But it was so amazing to ride, and I was doing about 20 miles per hour just a few feet from the ocean. I kept waiting for one of the cuts in the pond to be open so I could turn around, but there wasn't one. Next thing I knew, I was on Chappy."
Today they laugh when reflecting on those early days of their racing: the cold nights in their uninsulated 10 foot by 12 foot shack on Mr. Broderick's North Road property; the old storage container they used as a make-shift bike repair shop; the numerous beat-up cars and trucks they drove to races across New England, and the countless tires and tubes and cables that cluttered the back seats. "It wasn't ideal, but it worked," Mr. Broderick said. "We always made it work somehow."
Hardship in Being Here
Dealing with adversity is part of the program when it comes to racing mountain bikes, but having the Vineyard as a home base proved to be especially draining, they said.
Before their sponsorship with Seven Cycles, Mr. Broderick says just getting to the various races throughout New England every weekend was a hardship.
"Logistically speaking, racing from the Island is definitely difficult," he said. "You have to factor in the ferry, which usually means you get up super early for the first boat or leave the night before, which involves additional costs besides the ferry reservation. Both are taxing and were huge challenges for us."
In fact, after this year in Europe, Mr. Broderick believes going from country to country is easier for them than racing from the Vineyard.
"It's faster and more convenient to go to a race two countries away than it is to race in Stowe, Vt. from the Vineyard," he said.
Over several years, their race schedule grew while their national rankings rose, keeping them away from the Island for longer periods of time.
Ms. McConneloug in particular began winning her New England area races and then later some larger, more competitive events around the country.
As they accumulated points and gained in standings, they reached out for corporate sponsorship, a move they say was necessary in their ultimate success as professional racers.
"It is expensive traveling all over the country, supporting ourselves while trying to get stronger," Mr. Broderick said. "We were very fortunate to hook up with Seven Cycles."
Seven provided them with not only new bikes but also a van and a trailer for their gear, two key additions that made them more mobile and allowed them to focus on their racing. This year while in Europe, Seven provided them with an RV to haul their gear. "The RV's like our little home," Mr. Broderick said. "It's going to be hard living without it."
Now, with qualifying behind her, all of the focus is on the Olympics ahead.
Ms. McConneloug will race this weekend in the Swiss Cup before heading to France for one last tune up with the rest of the American team. Mr. Broderick will then make his way to Greece to rendezvous at the Olympic Village.
"The whole experience has inspired me to train and ride my hardest, and I hope it inspires others to do something they dream of doing," she said. "When I think of all the traveling and racing, I don't feel tired, I feel invigorated. I've done my work and I'm ready. I am as strong as I have ever been, and with a little luck, I can come home to the Vineyard in September with a medal."