Professional cyclocross racer and poet Laura Winberry recently noticed that her life moves in intervals – hard, intense bursts.
"Whether I'm writing a book or essays, everything else drops away," Winberry said. "I'm in that 'it's full-speed-ahead' mode."
Except for the day Winberry sat down for an interview with The Bulletin.
"I either want to go hard or not go, really. But then when I do go for a slow ride, I'm like 'Oh, this is lovely. It's really nice,' " Winberry said. "But I like pushing things."
Winberry, who lives in Bend, has just authored "Bell Lap," a collection of poetry that Brooklyn publisher Indolent Books released May 15. Winberry writes about cyclocross' agonizing point of no return in the final lap:
"This is a burning cave and then the world / in flames beyond the cave / breath plumes out / chests and rib cages / well and cleave / where and when to rip the seam of the old edge / find something new find the white line / and cross it first."
She blends references to Greek mythology into the earthy rawness of rainy, muddy cyclocross racing – and womanhood. The Greek goddess Athena, who rules over wisdom and warfare, reoccurs throughout the text.
" 'Bell Lap' is about so much more than racing and going hard," said Winberry, 34. "It's a feminist work, created by a woman in a very male-dominated realm. (It's also) about inserting ourselves – with confidence and muscle and vulnerability and love – into the current dialogue about what a woman should be, in order to help change it."
'Other things' than racing
While Winberry is still riding hard as a member of the Portland-based Speedvagen Family Racing team, she's been very focused on writing – essays, fellowship grants and more poetry.
"Some people race all summer long and then come into 'cross season," Winberry said. "Racing is great. But I really like doing other things in my life."
Other things include wildland firefighting and earning an MFA in poetry from Oregon State University-Cascades' low-residency creative writing program, as she did in 2015 – the program's first graduating class.
The two-year program exposed Winberry to a flurry of "different veins of craft" and possibilities. The experience – especially doing workshops – stripped Winberry of any protectiveness she harbored toward her writing.
"It allowed me to realize: Laura, don't be so attached to your work," Winberry said. "Now I can give people my work, and I don't care what they think of it or not."
While Winberry tackles many heady topics in "Bell Lap," her almost conversational tone makes it immediately accessible, even to those who don't regularly read poetry.
"My tender herd of sweat / I cannot forget our tangle: of hair / teeth / muscle and ache / of all that swims beneath our meat."
" 'Bell Lap' is somewhere between racing and humanity," Winberry said.
Cyclocross by way of 'alley cat'
Winberry was born and raised in Oakland, N.J. Her earliest memory of writing poetry is age 6.
"I definitely was not bike racing then unless it was with the boys on the block," Winberry said. "You either keep up or you get left behind. It's fun to keep up with them."
Winberry has always identified as a tomboy who hung out with boys and other like-minded girls. In New Brunswick, N.J., while studying English and Africana studies at Rutgers University, where she graduated in 2007, Winberry took custody of her brother's red Klein hardtail mountain bike. She rode it through the streets clogged with aggressive drivers. Local bicycle messengers invited Winberry to compete in their "alley cats," or unsanctioned races that involve connecting a number of checkpoints in the fastest manner possible. She also rode her bike off-road, which soon sparked her interest in cyclocross, which has a long history in the Northeast. Winberry, who was already accustomed to skateboarding and snowboarding, quickly rose through the region's cyclocross scene.
Yet earning an MFA in poetry was a nagging goal she began to take seriously while working a menial job at a monthly magazine.
"It was a desk job," she said. "Right away I knew: 'I'm doing this just to do it.' While I was there I began applying to MFA programs."
She also began to covet open roads and natural serenity. She moved to Bend in 2010, enrolling in OSU-Cascades' Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing program in 2013.
Winberry began accumulating material for "Bell Lap" during the two-week period she spent with the Speedvagen team racing cyclocross in Japan in 2012.
"I'm always listening. I'm always watching," Winberry said of how she gathers inspiration. "I'm writing down conversations ... people watching."
She shaped the "massive collection" of raw material into haiku and prose form when she returned to Bend.
As cerebral as her poetry can be, Winberry also revels in the visceral aspects of racing. Pre-race jitters, slamming port-o-potty doors, the squish of knobby tires sloshing through mud, the flecks of spit and dirt that cover bikes and racers' faces – all factor into her pages.
"When the season ends I'm: / in the shower wearing a soiled spandex costume / watching the dirt of blurred days suck down the drain."
Winberry subsists on freelance writing, contributing to Patagonia's "The Cleanest Line" blog and to cycling websites like TheRadavist.com and Boneshaker Magazine. She also continues experimenting with the Haibun form, or prose interspersed with haiku. She's applying this technique to some essays that explore growing up with her father who struggled after a brain injury. Winberry says the discipline she honed in bike racing informs that which she applies to writing.
"It's the work ethic of it," Winberry said. "If you write an amazing poem or essay – great, go back and write another one. Did you write a (expletive) poem or essay? Great, go write another one."
Winberry continues training for the upcoming cyclocross races this fall – now her 10th season. In the meantime, she mixes up her training with riding in Bend's grueling Tuesday night "Hammer Fest" with her husband. But her heart lies in the mud and mayhem of cyclocross.
"Road (racing) is just not my jam," Winberry said. "I need dirt or some other element in there."
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