Courtesy Alenka Vrecek
We’ve all had dreams that have had to evolve over time. Some of us dropped any hopes of becoming an astronaut when we saw how much math was involved. For me, my dream of being a professional basketball player was cut short by well, me being short.
Alenka Vrecek had a dream, too. She’s an athlete, an avid climber, skier and mountain biker specifically. She had a goal to ride her bike 2,500 miles from Lake Tahoe to the tip of the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. But life was happening. She was busy raising a family and coaching mountain biking. So, that dream was left on the shelf.
But after a divorce and health issues, Alenka revisited that dream.
“What I started thinking is like, ‘Am I just going to talk about it? Or am I actually going to do something?’ And then I just couldn’t get rid of that idea,” she said.
She did eventually do the trek and wrote a book about it called “She Rides,” which is out today. The Sierra Nevada Ally’s Noah Glick chatted with Vrecek about the book and her journey.
Glick: Tell us a little bit about the book. What is it? And what made you decide to write this?
Vrecek: Well, to make a long story short, because it did take five years to write, I do have to say that COVID was an opportune time for me to just focus on writing the book. I had an idea of riding my bike from my home in Tahoe to, we have a little palapa down on the Sea of Cortez at the tip of Baja Peninsula. And I was in the midst of divorce, which is never fun no matter how people say that it’s amicable, I don’t think there’s ever really a fun time to go through. But in order to kind of regroup, I thought at that time that it would be a great idea to ride a bike. Well, my kids were still very young at that time, and to get away for that long of a period was just not really feasible. And 15 years later, things kind of started to unravel even more for me health-wise. I first injured my knee, which is obviously very common for anybody who skis and [does] sports.
Also very important for biking though, right?
Yes, but the surgery didn’t go too well. The nerve, my femoral nerve got damaged during the surgery, which so I still actually cannot feel my upper part of my quad. And it’s very painful to do anything. I was still on crutches. I got diagnosed with breast cancer and several other things that I touch on in my book. My husband, who is also my second husband, got diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and that was a big shock for both of us. I started running out of time with all these health issues. And I always wanted to do something bigger than me, something that would really challenge me as a person and as an athlete. So riding the bike idea came back and what I started thinking is like, ‘Am I just going to talk about it? Or am I actually going to do something?’ And then I just couldn’t get rid of that idea. It was just like, ‘Oh my god, I’m becoming obsessed.’ And I shared that with my husband, [who] says I’m really becoming obsessed with this idea. He just walked away and said, ‘You’ll get over it, don’t worry.’
It sounds like you didn’t get over it though, right?
I didn’t get over it. And a friend of mine who’s an avid mountain bike racer, told me about this Baja Divide, because the original thought was just to ride on the main road, which, if anybody who has traveled in Mexico or you know, on Highway 1, or any of those narrow, busy roads, it’s very dangerous driving. It’s not really something that I wanted to do. So, I found out about [the] Baja Divide, which was just charted the year prior to my idea of that [bike tour] resurfaced again. So, I thought it was really something that, ‘Wow, I can actually do this.’ And I am a mountain biker, obviously, living in Tahoe we ride bikes and I used to coach mountain biking with young kids here, so I thought, yeah, why not go for it?
So, you took a trip through the mountains from Tahoe to Baja, Mexico?
Yes, I followed the Sierra divide, which this is going to sound really kind of silly, but I’m not a very good planner. And also, I thought, well, I’ll just figure things out. I did have maps. I did look at all that, obviously, because I had to download maps to follow on my Garmin [GPS] and my iPhone. But I didn’t really know how much climbing it would take. I thought that climbing up into Yosemite was going to be my largest climb. Well, that turns out to be like one of the smallest ones of all of them.
So, quite a bit of ups and downs. No pun intended there.
Yes, the elevation change at the end, by the time I reached my home in Baja, I climbed Mount Everest five and a half times. That’s how much I gained in elevation by pedaling uphill – not just downhill, but uphill. If you think that you’re going downhill to Baja, well, that is not happening. There’s a lot of hills in between.
Okay, so just to give our readers and listeners an idea of what this trip is, just how long is this? I mean, I can visualize it on a map, but like, how many miles is that?
It was 2,500 miles. In the book, I have actually exact mileage. So, 2,524 miles and 158,263 feet in elevation in vertical feet. You know, riding flat is one thing and having so much climbing to do kind of puts it into a different perspective as well. It took me two months, and on average, I rode 50 miles a day, approximately. I did take altogether four days in between to rest here and there. It added up to four days of no riding, and there’s a lot of time to think and to process the events in your life when you’re riding that much every day.
I wanted to ask about that because you mentioned a lot of health issues, a divorce that was happening in your life…Did this ride become a way for you to process loss, a way to grieve? Was it spiritual in any sense for you? What did that ride mean to you beyond just the physical challenge?
You know, like I said, there’s a lot of time that you have when you go through everyday events, and you’re busy. You’re a young father, you just have to go-go-go, and you don’t necessarily have time to reflect on what are we doing in life, why are we doing that on an everyday basis, what really does matter? And it did help me to heal physically, first of all, but with everything that was going on in my life, I really needed to get away from things to be able to make sense of things that were happening because you lose control. And not that we can have control over certain events. Some things we planned, but a lot of things we do not. You wonder, ‘Why is this happening to me?’
And when you are on a long bike ride, or if you climb the mountain, or if you’re really just worried about the very existence of the moment, you really are in that moment and everything else falls away. In a way, it’s like a moving meditation. You can call it spiritual. I did have moments of pure joy that was not long lasting. It’s just the moment that you feel, ‘Wow, I am doing this. I am alive. I am happy.’ It just all comes together in a split second. And if you miss it, it’s gone.
I do want to ask about the journey itself. Did you find a transformation? That sounds so cliché, but did you find some kind of transformation afterwards? Or I guess how did you feel things changed when you came back to Tahoe then after this ride? Did you feel different? Did you feel like you had a chance to process some things?
I was definitely processing things as I rode. Honestly, when I arrived at my house down in Baja, I was just really happy it was over. I was pretty over it at that point. And I was tired and I got quite sick along the way. As a matter of fact, I had to go back to ride the last section of the Baja Divide because I did get sick and about a month later I went back to do that. But at first, you’re just super happy that you’re done. The transformation of it comes back gradually, I would say.
I think one of the big things for me was that I regained confidence in myself. I’ve always [been] a pretty strong person. But, you know, with everything that happened I felt pretty defeated and scared of what can still happen. Once you go through cancer treatments, that’s always in the back of your mind. And I also gained strength to what was still to come, especially with my husband. I think at the end too, you’re just like, ‘Wow, I actually did this.’ It’s pretty cool. And then of course, I decided to write a book because I wrote a blog along the way, and people were really excited to read where I was and what I was doing. And a lot of people said, ‘Ah, you should really write a book, you know, this is just like Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” – which I have to disappoint the readers of my book, there’s no sex and drugs in my book, sorry.
Might be hard to do that on a bike.
Well, she had, obviously a very different experience. But you know, I was not a writer although I always kind of wrote just to clear my mind. I didn’t know how much climbing I was going to do on my bike ride. I didn’t know how difficult it is to write a book. But that is just how I am. I just kind of go for it, and then I’m going, ‘What the heck did I get myself into now?’ And then you figure it out.
It sounds like in some ways, the act of riding the bike from Tahoe to Baja, Mexico, is similar to the act of writing the book afterwards. It’s this solitary action, you’re clearing your mind, you’re processing things, but that’s a totally different physical experience. Are those similar in some ways for you?
I think you can compare the two. To start any kind of a journey in life, it doesn’t matter what it is, the first initial step is always the hardest. Once we get going, once we start getting into it, being riding the bike, being climbing the mountain, the beginning is the hardest, really. And then things start to come together and, in a sense, it becomes easier the deeper you go. And then there’s no way to return, you come to the point where you just cannot quit. You are so vested in it.
For example, on the ride, I didn’t want to disappoint my kids to quit, I didn’t want to disappoint my husband. And I know that nobody would judge me, but at that point, I didn’t want to quit for my own reasons for myself. I’ve had a few instances in my life that were climbing related, where conditions were difficult, the weather was bad, and I turned around before I reached the summit, and it always ate at me. I felt like it wasn’t that bad, I could have done it. But you always say that when you come back home and you’re comfortable and warm and safe. And the same thing was with the book writing, you vest yourself in it, and I was learning so much and it gave me also this new identity and new motivation. And when you’re motivated to do something, it changes your life.
Let’s talk about the book, can you just explain what readers can expect in the book?
I hope that at my age, I can share some wisdom. Yes, it is about the bike ride, but the bike ride is really just the backbone for connecting the stories. I am an immigrant. That has a place in my life, always searching to belong, which I still struggle with, because I feel like I’m never really at home, wherever I am. You know, people think that life in America is all great and wonderful. And we’re all rich and famous and, and I miss my home where I grew up [Slovenia]. But at the same time, Tahoe is my home, because that’s where my kids are and my grandkids. So, it’s that’s constant searching for home, and I think that is also the theme of the book, of belonging to the communities that we create.
The bike ride connects the stories, my personal stories. I didn’t want this to be a ‘poor me’ type of a book, like all these things happened to me. The editors that I had really had to encourage me to go a little bit deeper into the things that have happened. We all have challenges, but the challenges were a part of my life, a part of my story.
And I also want to share with people that, as difficult as life is, you sometimes just have to really dig deep and find your way forward. And sometimes that’s really hard to do.
Alenka Vrecek is the author of “She Rides” and is an athlete living in the Lake Tahoe Basin. She will be doing a reading of her book Friday, July 7 from 6-7pm at Sundance Books in Reno, as well as Saturday, July 15 from 5:30-7pm at The Radical Cat in Reno. You can learn more about the book and where to purchase at her website, alenkavrecek.com.