Most people go to Mexico to sit on the beach and drink margaritas. In May 2019, Elizabeth “Liz” Heller went there to burn up a velodrome instead, setting two Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) track cycling world records in the process.
On the steeply-banked, 250-meter wooden track in Aguesclientes — which Heller described “like riding in a salad bowl” — she grabbed the title as the fastest woman in the world in the over 50 category for both the 2-kilometer pursuit and the one-hour ride.
The one-hour ride is an event both legendary and insane, where a cyclist just climbs on their bike and cranks as hard as possible for 60 minutes, trying to cover as much distance as they can.
“I went just over 42 kilometers,” recalled Heller, who averaged more than 26 mph during that period. “The first 50 laps were so much fun. The last 120 were pure misery.”
The velodrome in Aguascalientes is renowned as a location where cyclists can go fast. Heller and a handful of other American cyclists traveled there to do just that.
“It’s a terrific track to begin with, but the high altitude and the heat truly make it ideal for track racing and setting records. When I heard they were putting together a group to compete for the [world records], I was lucky enough to be able to go. It was really an incredible adventure.”
Nailing these two world records was a great accomplishment for the Edwardsville, Illinois, attorney, but her year was not done. In July, Heller went to Trexlertown, Pennsylvania, to race in the US championships. Then, it was on to Manchester, England, in October to compete for a world title, where she took the championship in both the individual and team pursuit events.
Of course, life is a lot different now than in 2019, and for Heller, much indeed has changed. We wanted to check in with our region’s own world-class cyclist and see just what the past year has meant for her personally.
“The hardest thing is just being motivated when there’s no competition on the horizon to work toward,” said Heller, who admits it’s been tough to find the fire to push her training.
The closest thing to actual racing for Heller has been found in some of the smaller, socially distanced events, such as the Wednesday nighttime trials that took place this summer in St. Charles. She finds benefit in both getting that time on the bike that a racer craves and in supporting the local organizers still working to put on events.
“God bless [race organizer] Brent Stafford. He really works hard to put on the time trials, so a few of us can get out there,” she said. “I know I appreciate the opportunity to race so much more now than before. I certainly don’t take it for granted.”
Well before the pandemic set in, however, Heller’s bike time had already taken a big hit. She was out riding with a friend on Thanksgiving morning last November, getting ready to climb Marshall Road in Kirkwood. Next thing she knew, she woke up in the ER with a bad concussion and a broken collar bone.
“It was a low-speed crash,” said Heller. “I was going uphill, less than five miles per hour. Unfortunately, those can sometimes be the worst kind.”
It took months for Heller to recover from the incident, which was perhaps the only consolation to be found for her in the almost complete erasure of the 2020 racing calendar.
“It’s been tough coming back,” she said. “I’m not certain that I would have been able to compete at a sufficiently high level had those races been held as scheduled.”
If nothing else, this has made all of Liz’s accomplishments last year that much sweeter, especially because she almost didn’t make the trip to compete in the UCI Worlds in Manchester.
“I was really debating if I was going to go or not. We had just moved to a new house after 50 years of being in the Central West End. It was a very hectic time,” said Heller. “But you never know what the next year’s going to bring, so I said to myself, ‘I’m just going to do it.’ I went without my husband and had a wonderful time.”
When asked who has been an inspiration or influence on her career, Heller ticks off a number of people. Her friend, Patty Walsh, who first got her into cycling. Legendary local cyclist Vann Knight, who passed away in 2013 at age 58. (“He rarely won anything, but nobody worked harder,” said Heller). Local racers Carrie Cash and Britta Siegel.
“I’m motivated by inspiring people, and more motivated by failure than by winning,” she said. “The key to getting better is to ride with people who are stronger than you. Whether it’s men or women, people who push you make you stronger.”
The UCI Worlds remains the last event to be held at such a high level of racing. While no one knows how long this will all drag on, Heller remains committed to racing again when things return to normal. She definitely feels that she can get faster, even to the point of improving her grip on the records she already holds when that opportunity comes again.
“If you remember, we had a terrible start weather-wise to the year in 2019. It was 20 minutes at a time on the trainer in my basement. I barely got in any time on my bike riding outdoors, and I still managed to set the record,” she said. “Having done it once, I know now I can go even faster.
“Every year is sacred. I wouldn’t want to miss the chance to give it another shot.”
Author: David Fiedler is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.