Finding solace in discomfort: Meet Leah Thomas
Make the world a better place
Growing up, UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling rider Leah Thomas’ favorite book was the Caldecott award winning “Miss Rumphius” by Barbara Cooney. In it, Miss Rumphius’ sole purpose is to make the world a better place and, throughout the book, she hunts for a way to achieve it. Eventually the character grows old and scatters lupine seeds around her village. In the end, the flowers bloom and Miss Rumphius’ legacy is the beauty she created.
“I love the message that each of us can leave the world better in our own way and that it doesn’t have to be some grand thing,” Thomas says. “I’m not sure I’ve quite figured out my role in that yet, but it’s always something in the back of my mind. Watching my friends work towards it in their unique way motivates me each day.”
In college, Thomas was drawn towards people who were interested in social justice and working to make lives better. Some of her friends went on to start non-profits, some became counselors, journalists, and others went into the education field.
“I think hearing their stories and their efforts in taking an active stand against injustices is inspiring to me,” recalls Thomas, who became a sixth-grade science teacher and plans to return to the education when she retires from bike racing.
“Science is a great way to teach kids how to think critically and how to verify the truth in something,” she says.
I only hear the pedals spin
But for now, the Cupertino native has turned her full focus on cycling and it’s paid off. Third overall at last year’s Tour Cycliste Féminin International de l’Ardèche and Tour of the Gila, Thomas is a double threat in the time trial as well as in the hills. Her discipline and consistency was partly created out of her love of long distance running, which she was forced to quit in college after developing plantar fasciitis.
“Running was my breath, the pavement and a couple of hours helped my mind to quiet,” she says. “Normally my brain is swirling with a million and one things: expectations, responsibilities, relationships, the world, what’s next. While I was running, none of that mattered for a short time.
“Time trialing produces the same quiet. The same sense of calm. I only hear the pedals spin and my breathing and only think whatever simple phrase I am telling myself, generally something like ‘push.’ The effort is intense enough there is no room to think about what’s next, and having my brain quiet for a couple minutes, where I can be 100 percent in the moment, is something I deeply enjoy.”
The time trial can be considered one of the most challenging of bike racing disciplines, and that’s putting it mildly. However, Thomas says her whole adult life has been filled with uncomfortable things and racing against the clock is just another. College, a year studying abroad in Mexico and Teachers For America have forced her to learn, grow and develop a mindset easily transfers to bike racing.
“I think it’s important to push yourself to do things outside your comfort zone,” she says. “Oftentimes I would feel lost in that discomfort, but persevering through it – scrambling to find my way, has lead me to develop new skills and perspectives, unique experiences, and a better understanding of myself and the world around me. I have always been grateful at the end for sticking it out.”
Those skills included learning how to race bikes. When Thomas was first introduced to cycling six years ago, she lived on a Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona and spent many days riding alone.
“The feeling of just my breathing and the turning of the pedals was similar to running and I think is why I enjoy time trialing so much,” she says. “I love the simplicity of it and the solace. With running, you just throw on your shoes, head out the door and run as hard as you want to. The world would become quiet and my focus would shift just to my breathing and the pounding of my feet. When I began to ride a bike, I felt freer in some ways and more constrained in others. I loved the sheer distance you could cover in a ride. A long run would be 15-20 miles and you could easily quadruple that with a bike. I love the wind in my face.”
Just being around kids and watching them develop into their sense of self and grow in confidence and purpose is so inspiring
However, when Thomas moved back to her home state of California, she once again stepped back outside her comfort zone to understand race tactics, how to ride in a group and aerodynamics (which she says she’s still learning.)
“I remember being so nervous going on the local group rides, in part because I didn’t want to mess up and in part because I wanted to ride well,” she says.
But in the end, it’s Thomas’ foundation in education and humanitarianism that brings her solace when faced with nerves and hardships on the bike. Last year, a tonsillectomy didn’t bring her the success she hoped for, but the 28-year-old found ways to make the most of her down time.
“I like filling the off season with substitute teaching to keep me grounded and remind me how awesome and capable young people are,” she says. “It reminds me that after all we are just racing bikes. Giving a child an education and tools to better their situation is so important. And just being around kids and watching them develop into their sense of self and grow in confidence and purpose is so inspiring. When I am home I also work with high schoolers at my church where I grew up. There we discuss all sort of things and try to make sense of the complexities of life. I am always challenged and encouraged by their perspective, actions and acceptance.”