Esther Walker fell into cycling by chance in 2014 and now says, “I wouldn’t say it’s taken over my life, but it’s a huge part of it.” For FGC, our reporter Sarah Bartlett spent a day with the Red Hook Crit Top Antagonist of RHC Milano No.8 to see how she juggles a full-time job, an international race calendar, and a personal life.
Text by: Sarah Bartlett
Photos by: Tornanti.cc
I watch the sun rise through my car window as I make my way down the California coast early Saturday morning to meet Aventon Factory Team rider, Esther Walker in San Diego. There are few people in the world that I would wake up at 5:00 AM to drive three hours to go ride bikes with, but Walker is certainly on that list. The coffee is still kicking in as I pull into the parking lot of the UC Cyclery bike shop, and before I can even unload my car, I spot Walker grinning from ear-to-ear. I was already fairly convinced that Esther is one of the friendliest racers in the peloton, and my early morning parking lot interaction confirms it.
Walker is the women’s team director for San Diego Bicycle Club (SDBC), her road team, and while most of the riders grab a cup of coffee and a banana from the shop, Walker makes her way through the growing sea of lycra, greeting club members, welcoming newcomers, and answering questions.
“I usually go on the A-group ride, but since it’s off season and I’m out of shape, we will take it easy with the B-group today,” Walker tells me. I have suspicions that Walker’s “take it easy” pace, will still hurt me, a lot, but my excitement overshadows my doubts, so I stuff an extra Clif bar in my jersey pocket, just in case.
I quickly regret leaving my earphones in the car as I fight my way up the rolling hills of eastern San Diego. As much as I am hurting, I know that Walker is hurting more since she stopped a few miles back to help another rider change a flat. The group carries on as Walker pulls the other rider back to the group. She catches us, and I once again find myself in awe of her strength.
One banana, a Clif bar and a cappuccino later, we finally arrive back at my car. “Normally after the ride, I will grab some food, and hit the local farmer’s market,” says Walker. We opt for showers, more coffee and conversation at Walker’s favorite local coffee shop, Bird Rock Coffee Roasters.
“I moved to San Diego thinking they had public transportation,” Walker tells me as she describes how she got into cycling. “My friends from college would tell you that they wouldn’t think I would have ever become a cyclist because I hated biking. I was riding a $100 bike from Walmart, so maybe that’s why I hated it.”
Walker moved to San Diego in 2010 to pursue a PhD in Cognitive Science at the University of California San Diego. “I started commuting to school a couple of days per week. I was already a runner, and since I was doing both sports, I got into triathlons,” says Walker. “I swam as a kid, but I didn’t have much technique. I looked like a dying frog in the water,” Walker says with a laugh. “I struggled through it because I knew when I got to the bike portion, I could cut through half of the field.”
In the world of marginal gains, where the slightest change in grams matters, Walker’s first bike left little to be desired. “I walked into a local bike shop. I knew nothing about road bikes. I basically saw a bike, and the guy told me ‘it looks like it might fit you,’ so I bought it,” Walker recalls. “It was a $1,000 and I was thinking that it must be the fanciest bike in the world. Turns out, it wasn’t that nice of a bike. It was pretty freaking heavy, but I raced on it for two or three seasons because I didn’t know any better.”
It was around this time that Walker discovered track bikes. “I was still on the triathlon team, and the cycling team was trying to recruit us to ride track for them at collegiate nationals. They had a deal going with Aventon to get more women at the track, and I just fell in love with the track,” says Walker. She continued to race for the university’s triathlon team for three years, but when the training for all three sports got to be too much, she decided to focus exclusively on cycling.
“I fell into it by chance,” Walker says about transitioning to fixed gear racing. She had met Elaine Hutchinson at the track who insisted that Walker meet her husband, Sean, the team director for the then newly formed Aventon Factory Team. “I met Sean for coffee and he said, ‘I don’t know much about you, but people have suggested your name and let’s put you on the team and see what happens.’ I was lucky that the team had a great group of people. That year we had Kym [Perfetto], Jen [Whalen], Gretchen [Stumhofer] and Nissy [Cobb]. I was excited, but I had no idea how involved fixed gear crits are,” she says.
It didn’t take long for Walker to discover that she loves fixed gear racing and that she is really good at it. Her favorite race still remains one from her first year on the team. “I really loved the Wolfpack Hustle Civic Center course,” she says. “It had a slight uphill and a slight downhill. We don’t get a lot of downhills and this one had a legit downhill that you could bomb around the corner, and a couple of hairpins, and then an uphill finish. It was a super fun course.”
“Milan this year was so incredible,” Walker continues as she reflects on her favorite races. “The team really came together. Eleonore [Saravia] was at the top of the standings, so I had one job – get out there, try to make it hard, make sure she is up there. It was already so cool to have the men’s team win and the women’s team win, and then I was so surprised that I got Top Antagonist. It wasn’t even on my radar.” Walker won Top Antagonist for the fastest lap of the race (excluding the final lap). “Any time the group bunched up, my job was to string it out again, so that was what I was doing.”
The award was a big surprise for Walker after a long, hard race day. “Race days are long days,” Walker says. “I always like to preview the course, so even though the women’s qualifiers often aren’t until later in the afternoon, I am usually there whenever the course is open. I like to stay at the course all day. The one bad thing about being there all day is that you are surrounded by the intensity, so I spend a lot of time listening to music or chatting with people, just trying not to think too much about the race. It’s kind of a blur. You are there for hours, but it all goes by so quickly.”
While Walker has seen success in racing, she didn’t get there easily. In fact, Walker, who received her PhD in June 2016 (that’s right everyone, she is officially Dr. Esther Walker) works full time while training, racing every weekend with her road team, and travelling for fixed gear races with Aventon.
“A normal day I wake up around 6:00 AM and I try to commute at least a few times a week,” Walker explains. “My work is about 20 miles away, and we have bike lockers and showers, so I will plan my outfit out the night before, like a little kid going to school. The cool thing is that I have a lot of other friends that commute, so after work we have a group of friends that will meet up for our little commute crew, which makes it really fun.”
In a normal week, Walker will ride anywhere from 80-160 miles just commuting to and from work. “The commute really helps me get my miles in,” says Walker. “On the days that I don’t commute, I usually try to hit the track at night, or something to stay in shape, because while working you need to keep the momentum going because when it’s easy to come home and just sit on the couch and start Netflix.”
As we inch our way closer to race season, Walker’s training will shift from base miles, to more structured training. “On the weekends I do longer rides and get some climbing in. As we start getting closer to race season, I will work in some more speed. There are a lot of evening rides in San Diego, so even if you don’t have a lot of time to ride after work, you can do these 1-2 hour rides that are so intense,” she says.
“It’s kind of an interdisciplinary field. It’s a mix of psychology, some computer science and linguistics,” Walker says about her career in cognitive science. “We are interested in how people think, but also the idea of cognition. It could be an animal; it could be a machine – it’s this broader idea of thinking. I recently just started a position doing a lot more of data analytics. What’s fun about it is there is a creative aspect to it. We create a lot of visualisations. You have to think about ‘how do I make this data into something new that people without an analytical data background can understand?’ So I spend a lot of time thinking about cool ways to visualise the data.”
Walker is simply amazing. She is kind, generous, and brilliant. She is anything but ordinary, and she gives off a vibe that will make anyone feel welcome, something that has served her well as the women’s team director for SDBC. “If you are a woman and you haven’t been racing, cycling can be a very intimating sport to get into. Whether we like it or not, it is still very much a man’s sport, and there are all sorts of barriers that you have to overcome as a woman on a bike,” she shares. “I get to meet women with all different goals, whether they want to finish their first 50-mile ride, or if they have aspirations to become a pro. It’s nice to come together and spend quality time on the bike.”
And what are Walker’s goals for the future? “I would like to pursue a job that still lets me ride my bike. It doesn’t mean I have to race full time, in fact, I anticipate that this year I will be racing much less. I will still do Red Hooks, but not racing every weekend, and certainly not doing multi-day stage races. I am really enjoying what I am doing right now. I want to continue moving up in my company but also staying in San Diego.”
While we will have to wait and see what the future holds for Walker, one thing is for sure about her fixed gear plans for next year with Aventon Factory Team. “All the major players are coming back,” Walker says with excitement.
She also lets me in on some insider info about the team’s plans for 2018. “Rumor is that we will have a new carbon bike in January,” she says. “I have been with the team since the beginning, so it has been really fun to see it progress.” Personally, I believe that’s been really fun to see Walker herself progress, and I have no doubt that she’s only getting started.