Alison Tetrick: From Brain Injury to Gravel Adventures; Life as a Pro Cyclist
Pro cyclist Alison Tetrick didn’t have a traditional upbringing full of team sports and structured activities. Rather, Alison grew up on a cattle ranch, and used her grit, drive and belief that anything was possible to become a collegiate tennis player before quickly hitting the cycling world tour as a road racer.
Today Alison Tetrick is lauded in the world of gravel biking, and as an ambassador for her sport. But the journey doesn’t follow a straight line. Her cycling career almost came crashing down after a traumatic brain injury from crashes in 2010 and 2011 left her in a spiral of disorientation and depression.
We talk about her path back to the top levels of cycling, finding balance, what she’ll be doing in ten years, her career off the bike, role models, and why gravel biking has found the perfect combination whether you’re winning or on the “party bus.”
My conversation with Alison Tetrick has been edited for clarity.
Playing to Your Strengths
David Swain: Most people are used to seeing you on a bike, but you recently hiked up Mount Whitney. How are your legs feeling after a 24-mile hiking adventure?
Alison Tetrick: It was my first hike of the year, so I thought I might as well hike 12 hours up to 14,505 feet. It wasn’t that hard, but walking down completely destroyed my legs.
So the fact that we’re sitting here on the couch? Well, good luck to me when it’s time to get up.
Growing up on a ranch isn’t your typical upbringing. What was it like?
I have amazing, free-spirited parents who are very successful and athletic in their own right. They always had this dream of having a cattle ranch. So, they kept working their way up, and we started out on a ranch in Los Alamos in Santa Barbara County.
When I was in junior high, we moved up to Redding. As a child, I didn’t play a lot of organized sports because the closest town was at least 30 miles away. My parents were not willing to commute to soccer and gymnastics or anything like that when there was work to be done at the ranch. So we were really active, but probably not in the traditional sense. Instead, there was a lot of horseback riding, fence fixing, water checking, and really letting the freedom and the space cultivate our imagination.
What did the ranch look like? How many cattle and staff were there?
These are 2,000-acre cattle ranches with several hundred heads of beefmaster cows. My parents were pretty much the only staff. From time to time, they’d have a caretaker or a ranch hand help.
When there was a big roundup, they’d call in some friends, but it was just the four of us for a couple of years. (I have an older sister.) My mom’s parents lived on the property as well. It was my job every morning to feed the chickens and the horses, and to check on the water. Water is big for cows.
Where are your parents from?
My parents were both born in Northridge, which is in the L.A. area. They met at Los Angeles Baptist High School, and they’re still going strong and madly in love. They were high school sweethearts, and they both went to UCLA, where my dad played football. My mom is a tremendous athlete, and she is still is out there playing tennis every day.
Your grandpa was a competitive cyclist, right?
My dad’s father, Paul Tetrick, was an army veteran and a contractor in L.A., and he did a lot of buildings and things like that. He passed away last year. He was a runner, and after age 50, he just couldn’t run anymore. But he saw local group rides in L.A. and thought, I’m going to go keep up with these young guys. Then he hopped on a bike and found a love for cycling. He rode until the age of 85. The guy has over 17 national titles in the master’s categories and rode his bike every day.
He was the one who kind of elbowed me and said, “Hey Al, you should try out this whole bike racing thing.” This was after I played tennis in college and started working in Boston. I still had a lot of competitive drive, but I wore tennis skirts and liked to run, and it was not for me.
But he said, “Just try it! You know, you can go to the Olympics. You’ll be great.” And I did—I went out and tried a couple of bike races and triathlons. Then I was headed to the Olympic Training Center for a talent identification camp, and the next thing I knew, I was racing all over the world for the national and professional teams.
My grandpa was just tickled to death. He was not the most emotional or giddy guy, but he loved me a whole lot. Cycling became our language. My grandfather was the first person I’d call after races, and I would cry, and that made him a little uncomfortable. But he really understood that, and it was a special connection for me.
That is special. Where did your drive and abilities come from—how much do you think is innate and genetic vs. something external?
It was interesting, the way I was raised. I wasn’t thinking about gender barriers or what I should or shouldn’t do. I just had this whole open range and freedom to go out and explore. I think it gave me a lot of mental fortitude and stubbornness, and maybe a little fearlessness.
My dad raised really strong women, and my mom’s really strong. My parents would say, “Do whatever you set out to do, but just make sure you do your best.” So when I actually did start playing team sports, I said, “I’m going to get a full ride to college and play tennis because that’s what I want to do.” And people said, “You can’t do that. You just started, and you’re a freshman in high school.” I would tell them, “Well, watch me.”
Genetics are definitely a factor, though. Playing tennis, I started a little late, but I think my parents are incredible athletes, and my dad’s father showed me you could pretty much perform at any age.
I did always feel like I was on my back heels in tennis. You’re playing women who have been practicing the sport for 10 to 15 years. I often felt like I was “dropped,” to use a cycling term. Basically, I felt like I was kind of behind, but when I got on a bike—well, maybe I didn’t have the skillset for fast ascending or a switchback on a single-track mountain bike. But what I did have was that the harder I pedaled, the faster my bike went. In tennis, I never felt the more tennis balls I hit, the better I got. Sometimes it just went in my head and made me want to cry.
How do you think about playing to your strengths as an athlete?
I think as an athlete—and this applies to the real world as well—a lot of people want to focus on the things you’re not good at. And yes, you should work on your weaknesses in case you need them, but I think training your strengths is just as important.
Knowing I am good at solo wins, good at time trialing, good at having a lot of power for a long duration of time—these are all important. I might lose time in technical sections, and maybe these are things I’m not good at, but if I don’t train my strengths, then how am I going to win? I want to train my strengths so I can win with them, and then also work on my weaknesses in case my strengths aren’t working that day.
Head Injury & Recovery
Talk us through your career as a cyclist and the kind of the progression you went through.
I started racing pretty quickly. I was still pinning my number upside down and getting dropped on every start line because I couldn’t figure out how to clip in fast enough.
Three months later, I was racing in Europe for the national team; it was a huge trajectory, and it was trial by fire, which meant a lot of failure, some success, and a whole lot of fear.
What was the environment like, being new to your sport in Europe on the biggest stage?
I was there in a development role. I was really fortunate, when I first started racing, to have this incredible group of women who were confident enough in their own achievements to really help me. Sometimes it felt a little bit like hazing, but they would give me roles and team directors who invested time in me, and coaches, and a whole list of professional teams who believed in me even though I was very new.
They were willing to dedicate their time, so I think I was more worried about disappointing the people who believed in me. Then came the results. And with that, it made me dig really deep and find some incredible results and fail pretty hard as well. I started racing in 2009 and 2010, so this was pretty early in my career, but it was probably one of the best years I had racing. We won the Giro d’Italia with the national team, with Mara Abbott.
I was winning yellow jerseys, winning overall races. And I was feeling like I was finally losing some fear and gaining experience and thinking I could do this. And then I had this horrific crash in late 2010 that shattered my pelvis, and I was life-flighted out, unconscious, with seizures and a traumatic brain injury. That was pretty-life altering.
But I think that injury was such a focus on the bones, and on trying to get me back on the bike, that some of the things that were happening in my head were ignored. Plus it’s really hard to diagnose and quantify head injuries. So in 2011, I came in pretty hot once I could get back on a bike. I was very focused—probably too focused—on external validation. I was thinking about the Olympics, thinking about the national championships, whatever it was. And I went to the Pan American Games for the national team and represented them in the time trial, and I had a flute crash hit my head again, which was only 10 months after the previous traumatic brain injury.
This time it was just lights out. So that one was really not as traumatic, because there weren’t broken bones or a scuffed knee—I just hit my head the wrong way. Yet that set me back for years. And it’s something I still deal with every day.
And what did that look like? Because like you said, it’s not something that you can see. A broken bone is very easy to diagnose.
After the first crash, I couldn’t walk. I was in a wheelchair—I was bedridden. So I was focused on that, and I was on pain meds, and my life turned upside down. I think a lot of that was just muted because I was so focused on coming back to cycling. And then, when the second crash happened, it was just a bloody knee.
But I still hit my head. And then I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t read. I went into a dark spiral of depression and disorientation, but those had probably happened earlier. They just weren’t as noticeable because a lot of the time, just like in life, we can mask things by being busy.
The second crash forced me to really slow down because I couldn’t move. I couldn’t live by myself; I couldn’t do what I used to do. And that led to a whole other part of the recovery process.
What helped get you back after your injury? Are there people you turned to or skills you learned?
I think mainly my family. It was really scary, feeling like I’d just gained and then lost my independence, I was a professional athlete, I wanted to be invincible, and then I needed to go back to relying on people. With my friends and family—what I found in that time was that sometimes, when you are that weak and vulnerable, you want to go to the people who tell you what you want to hear.
And vulnerability is like blood in the water for people. So is success, you know, and so you might then rely on people you shouldn’t. That’s why I went back to the basics: you know, my family and my loved ones, who I know love me regardless of whether I’m a professional athlete, or a valedictorian, or successful in business.
How do you manage fear after having a head injury?
I operate on a high dose of fear in general. I’m a pretty anxious person, and I have a very healthy respect for gravity.
That said, it depends on the race situation. Sometimes I have to give myself a mantra to calm down. Also, I’ll just tell myself to ride my own race, stay safe, and avoid taking a risk. Or, if I need to, I’ll tell myself to toughen up, take a deep breath, and remind myself that I’m a professional.
Most of the time it’s about giving myself grace to be afraid. And if I do need to pull the plug—and even unclip—and take a deep breath, then I will do that because I’ve raced at a high level long enough that I don’t need to go into that fear box where I’m terrified. And I’m okay with that.
It did take a little therapy. My therapist asked me whether I was okay with putting my health and safety over my results. And for me, absolutely, yes—I am 100% okay unclipping and losing if it’s pushing me over the limit. I’ve learned I can ride at a very high level and operate on a little bit of fear. At the Belgian Waffle Ride last year, after the crash, I just unclipped, sat down for a bit, and regrouped before realizing I was no longer going to race. I joined the party bus instead.
How do you feel now compared to a couple of years ago?
I feel like much more of a complete person with a better perspective on life. The head injury and the changes in my brain still affect me, but understanding everything in a more comprehensive way has been really helpful.
I’ve also learned to separate my identity from the gold star I get when I do something well. So separating those external validations—navigating those results from overall happiness and satisfaction with a balanced life—has been key.
I’m not saying I do that well every day, but I make sure to step back and go through my checklist in a mindful way. I want to make sure I’m healthy, that I’m having fun, that I’m balanced, and that I’m prioritizing the things that matter most to me rather than fixating on some sort of result.
Alison Tetrick on Balance, Gravel Biking & Gear
At this point in your career, you are still showing up and winning races, but you also seem to be having a lot of fun. How do you find the right balance between competing and enjoying the experience?
What’s important for me now is to not always race to win. Entering gravel, you find the joys of being able to go out and ride competitively and challenge yourself and still feel good at the end of the day—whether it’s because you’re drinking a beer with friends, or because you rode more elevation or distance than you ever have before.
For me it’s about finding a challenge, pushing myself, making sure I’m doing my best, but also about keeping it realistic and making sure I’m having fun and that I’m enjoying it. I have to remind myself that if I drive and go to some travel event or some bike race and I’m not having a good day, that I chose to be there. We all have free will, and I drove myself there, and I’m going to go and do this.
So, I think it’s important to enjoy it to the best of your ability. Enjoying it for me might be going for the win, or it might be riding back in the party bus with my friends and stopping a lot and taking photos for Instagram.
You’ve done the biggest races and some of the smaller ones as well. Any thoughts on favorite events or gravel rides that people should look into?
What’s interesting about gravel is that there are all sorts of different kinds of terrain, and different environments and different structures. Gravel’s different, you know—it’s graveling.
Kansas is different from Lincoln, Nebraska, which is different from riding around a volcano in Iceland. For me, it’s about the adventure and about exploring roads you’ve never been on with the coolest likeminded people. My advice is to find a race that inspires you. It’s about finding something that makes you go, “Hey, I’ve always wanted to ride around the Cascades on my gravel bike, camp for five days, and do the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder.” Or maybe it’s Dirty Kanza, and you want to see how you stack up against that. Go do it!
How hard was the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder?
I didn’t race it, so I had a blast. There were a lot of miles. And honestly, I was on the party bus. I had a flask in my CamelBak; I had a puffy jacket in case it was cold. I was having a blast because I needed to take the pressure off of myself, and I got to camp with my friends for five days, hang out with some loved ones, and see the most stunning views that Oregon has to offer.
We get so obsessed with gear in cycling. What do you think of the relationship between gear, training, and other factors?
One thing I think we do wrong in cycling is get a little gear heavy—especially as we try to make the sport more accessible. So before I get gear heavy, I’ll say you might have a better day if you have better gear, but that you shouldn’t let gear and the price of gear and a new mortgage on your house get you out of the sport.
I do like to control what I can, though. I come from a time trial background for road, and I think preparation is key. Training for me is the easy part. I love riding my bike for me—the hard parts, and then resting and recovering the rest of the time. I just love riding my bike, and I’d do it all day if I could. So again, that’s the easy part. You have to make sure you can train and be prepared that way. And then you can get into the gear.
I want to have a good bike fit. I use Retul technology, and I am sponsored by Specialized, so I ride some of the best bikes in the world. For gravel, I ride a Diverge with CLX 32 wheels. And then, right now my new thing are these Pathfinder 42s. I’m getting wider and wider on the tires, and they are amazing. And another game-changer for me this year has been putting electronic shifting on my gravel bike. So I’m riding the new SRAM Force etap AXS, with a 44 up front and a 10-50 in the back. They call it the Mullet Bike. And that 50—it’s like a party, right? I can get up some really steep stuff.
The Diverge also has what they call a Future Shock. There’s a shock in the headset, so when the road gets really bumpy, if you have less fatigue in your shoulders and hands, you push out more Watts later because you’re a little more rested from the trauma of the road.
And I think the bike really makes a difference. Tires do too, of course; these 42s are so much more comfortable for me, which matters a lot. And then another thing, as far as nutrition goes, is that I wear this CamelBak Chase bike vest. CamelBaks were often known for mountain biking, but for gravel with these long distances, the road is also pretty chunky, and it may not be comfortable grabbing bottles.
Hydration is really key, and the CamelBak Chase vest is kind of a mix between your traditional mountain bike vest and a running vest. It’s still short enough where you can reach the rear pockets of your jersey. It’s actually just made for gravel, and it’s really great for staying hydrated. And then you go into your preparation for nutrition.
When you’re nervous, you might not be eating and drinking enough because you’re still in a pack of 500 to 1,000 people. That’s where the Chase vest helps too, because I don’t have to grab a bottle; I can just drink out of my hydration bladder. I tend to put GU Roctane in my pack, so every time I’m drinking, I’m taking in calories and electrolytes and nutrients. I think that’s like killing two birds with one stone, although some people prefer water.
But often, people ignore the first two hours, and then they’re playing catch-up the rest of the day. Drinking and eating early and often is key. And depending on your body size, I’d recommend 200 to 250 calories an hour.
What are you thinking about the morning of a big race, or the days before, in terms of nutrition and hydration?
I haven’t done carb loading or found it necessary. For me, hydration matters a lot. I have a lot of obligations when I go to these events with forums and my sponsor booths or talks. I started wearing my Chase vest around even in my street clothes, so I’m reminded to constantly be drinking. A lot of the time it’s hot, and you’re out in the sun—you’re nervous, you’re going to the expo or you’re packing and building your bike or things like that. Hydration is really important.
I tend to try and eat an early dinner the night before, and nothing out of the ordinary that whole week—just a normal, clean diet. I make sure I’m drinking enough, staying hydrated. And I’m flushing out my system and getting enough sleep because sometimes, you know, you’re traveling to an event—you’re out with your friends, or you just take a red eye because you have to go to work, and you’re tired. So you have to try not to get sick, and I think hydration and sleep help a lot.
Often, these longer races start early in the morning, so I try to eat early to get the digestive system going. 5 or 6 p.m. the night before, I’ll eat dinner, and I’ll eat a fair amount, but just a normal dinner. For breakfast, it depends on my motivation to get up early. I don’t like getting up early. If you’re looking at something like a cyclocross race where you’re starting full-gas and it’s one hour or a time trial, I’ll try to eat three hours beforehand because then it’s clearing my system and not regurgitating breakfast. Dirty Kanza starts at 6 a.m., though, and I am not getting up at 3 a.m.
On the training side, how regimented are you for long-distance events? What is your typical week or training block like?
I think one mistake people make is thinking they need to go and do the event distance to complete the event. They sign up for something like Dirty Kanza, which is a really daunting 206 miles, or it’s their first century, so they think they need to go ride a century. Well, in my year leading up to Kanza, I’ll only do one other long, long ride, which the last couple of years has been the Belgian Waffle Ride—about 127 miles, I think. What you need to do when you structure your training is build up to distances, and work on your nutrition, and then let it go for the longer ones. It’s important to pace yourself and build up that endurance.
I still train like I’m racing road races because that’s what I’ve done the last 11 years. I do a little higher-intensity, go into some longer sub-threshold training, and then jump into events. I try not to do much structured training now because I did it for so long, and I love training, but I also look into whether I’ll get a Strava QOM. That’s kind of how I do my training.
And then, twice a week, I have group rides here in Marin County. They give me a good 90 minutes or so of high-intensity race pace. I do that year-round when I’m home, right out of the Java Hut on Wednesdays. On Saturdays it’s called the Roasters Ride.
Role Models & The Future of Cycling
What has it been like to build a career in cycling? Is there anything you would do differently, or advice you’d give to someone getting started?
I started as a road racer. When you sign with a professional team, you get a box of sponsors that come with that contract. I was lucky enough to work with some incredible teams that are all still around and thriving. Through those teams and sponsors, I met a lot of people in the industry, so once I become a gravel racer, I knew exactly who I wanted to work with.
I wanted to represent companies I really believe in, and I’ve been very fortunate that way. I have sponsors and partners who believe in me not only as an athlete, but as a human being. That means a lot to me, and it’s not something I take lightly. I do think I invested a lot in them and they invested a lot in me.
As a younger athlete, the main thing is to not be entitled with your handout for sponsors and products, but to go out and get on start lines and race your bike and not be afraid to take chances and lose. Keep racing your bike day in, day out if that’s what you love. And remember that being an athlete isn’t just about winning races—it’s about who you are off the bike.
Now, that’s not just about Instagram and whether you take a good photo. It’s about investing in your community and building people up and not being threatened by potential competitors. It’s about trying to make a healthy community, and it’s about being a good teammate.
With road racing, you have teammates. So sometimes, you’ll have a bad year and not get the results you wanted, but you’re looking for a contract. And you might have a couple teammates who are like, “You know what? She was always positive. She made me breakfast when I crashed,” or, “She went to that sponsor event no one wanted to go to in Las Vegas.”
And that adds value as an athlete too. So I think it’s about not being entitled, and not being afraid to buy things and pay your way to races, and just figuring out a way to make it work so you can make yourself visible and get the results that are ultimately what you’re passionate about.
Creating a bigger package adds value as well—not for sponsors or selling bikes, but for our overall cycling community and world. I think that’s really important too.
Let’s talk about women’s sports and cycling. Where are you seeing progress? Where would you like to see things shift?
I think women’s cycling has definitely been growing throughout the years I’ve been competing. There’s still a lot of room for improvement, of course. The sport needs more visibility, but what comes first: more races, more visibility, or more money? It’s a very difficult circle to get into, but I think we have some incredible leaders and sponsors and industry partners who are pushing equality and opportunity for women in the sport. I love being a part of that and watching it grow.
Something I love about gravel racing is that they’re mass-start events, so it feels equal and fun. The men who line up can ride with the world’s fastest women, and the women are incredible at these long-distance events. We are so strong when it comes to longer distances, and that’s just shown in science. So that’s super-fun for me.
I also love working with people like Kristi Mohn, who’s with Dirty Kanza—she keeps pushing to get more women into gravel. And Rebecca Rush has done an amazing job as well. So I think there’s just so much opportunity to keep pushing that equality, opportunity, and gravel because it’s so inclusive.
And then on the road side, we’re pushing for minimum salaries and things like that. It’s fantastic, but there’s a lot of work to be done. And also just for visibility—whether we can get those road races on TV like the men. It’s an exciting time, but we need to keep pushing forward.
What are you seeing in youth cycling?
The National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) has doing an incredible job. If you’re not familiar with NICA, it’s a high school mountain bike league that’s mainly about getting kids on bikes and making it fun. So yes, there are races, but there are lots of different categories, and it is really amazing how many high school girls are out there racing mountain bikes.
Look at Kate Courtney, who just won the UCI World Cup last year—she started with NICA here in Marin, and she has an incredible story and put in a lot of hard work. Kate’s a naturally gifted athlete.
Alison Tetrick in 10 years: What are you doing?
Oh, that’s a hard question. Now I feel like I’m in therapy. 10 years—I’ll still be riding my bike. I love riding my bike; the sense of adventure is great. I am definitely falling in love with the exploration side of things, and the travel into more remote, unexplored places. We were talking about this at the beginning of our hike up Mount Whitney.
I mean, I’m going to have the John Muir Trail on my calendar. I’m going to have some long hikes and mountain climbing and riding. I did a bikepacking trip in Kyrgyzstan last year where I could kind of get off the beaten path and see some incredible sites. So the bike to me isn’t always going to be about results and racing. It’s going to be about exploration and adventure, whether that’s just exploration within myself riding down the California coast, or it’s exploration into some desert to figure it out.
Do you have role models you look to for inspiration?
I love Rebecca Rush. She’s so invested in getting more women out on gravel and mountain bikes, and she has an incredible event in her hometown of Ketchum, Idaho.
Rebecca was one of the first people to tell me to do Dirty Kanza and get me into gravel racing. And once again, it takes somebody who’s very confident and secure in who they are to bring competition and get more people out there. And so, if I could make an impact like Rebecca has in the world—even the smallest amount—I would be really excited. She is an incredible human being with a heart of gold, and she’s able to use the bike to inspire people to raise money for important causes that she’s passionate about. And she always brings back investment to our local community.
You’ve got your master’s in Clinical Psychology, and you do some work with Amgen. How do you all those pieces fit together off the bike?
I’ve been very fortunate to have an incredible job throughout my career, and I have consistently worked pretty much full-time outside of cycling. Those stories don’t always make Instagram, but they’re something I’m really proud of. When it comes down to a race, and you think, Oh, I should have trained more, or, I should have done this, but I had too much work or business travel, or too many conference calls, you get to remind yourself that you have another job, and you’ll be okay.
So I’m hoping, as the complete package of who I am in 10 years becomes clear, that I can still have a good career doing things I believe in. Whether that’s for a large corporation working toward incredible causes like fighting cancer and heart health, or just using the bike, I hope to be a vessel for that. And I think, in the next 10 years, that’s going to continue to morph—as a big package instead of two separate lives. But it’s been an incredible experience so far.
How do you find balance and fit it all in between work and riding 10,000+ miles a year?
I just might not be very social at night. I think it’s about structuring your time and your priorities, and we all make time for things that are important to us. Riding my bike allows me to release some of my pent-up energy. And luckily, it makes me fast and allows me to compete at some of these events. But also, it helps me focus—I get back to work more clear and driven and aware of what I need to do.
There’s a lot of time management and being efficient and making time for family, baby showers, and things like that. I don’t ever want to put my training over my family and friends when they need me.
How can we make endurance sports inclusive and bring more people in? What ingredients have you seen work?
When I was racing professional road for 10 years, I was racing the highest level and doing the events people watch on TV. I really loved it, but I felt like I was on somewhat of a pedestal, because you can’t really connect with your fans or supporters—the people who make it all possible.
What I love about gravel racing is that it’s very inclusive. I show up at these races with 2,000 of my new best friends, and we all get to experience the same day together—whether you’re two hours in front of me or two hours behind me just trying to finish. Everyone, at the end of the day, can have a beer, a slice of pizza, or a burger, and they can talk about the war stories and their day.
Everyone does the same course, and so they remember that river crossing or that steep climb. And just because one person goes up faster than the other doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard for both parties. I think making the sport inclusive is making it about the adventure and the completion and the successful feeling you have at the end of the day, and not about results.
To this end, I think gravel racing should be about challenging yourself in whatever capacity you want, and to celebrate life and riding bikes. So I think that’s why, yes—equipment matters a ton, and preparation matters and all of that. But if you want to walk it, walk it. Or, if you have to stop because you’re cramping, stop. And that’s okay. There isn’t this huge barrier to entry because you’re female, or because you don’t look like everybody else, or because your bike isn’t as fancy.
The important thing is to just get out there and ride, and challenge yourself, and be better for it.