Interview with Leah Kirchman of Optum Pro Cycling

By : Sarah Engen · August 15, 2014

“Bicycling is a symbol of freedom” for Marjan Siddiki, a female cyclist riding with Afghanistan's Women’s National Professional Cycling Team.  She reports to the Raykat Post in a heart wrenching interview on her team’s persistence through severe cultural gender inequality and cycle-shaming in a post-Taliban era.

The momentum of women in sports continues to climb upward.  We continue to see opportunities opening up for female cyclists. UCI regulations account for the natural differences in exertion between men and women, generally resulting in shorter races designed to facilitate faster, more competitive racing. Women’s races are limited to 6 stages and have a limit set at around half of the mileage of the men’s.  Nonetheless, as characters with exceptional talent lead the field - race after race & season after season - a relationship unfolds spectating the abilities within an individual and their team development.  It becomes a challenge to peel your eyes away from the intensity of this fascinating, grueling sport.

Women’s professional cycling recently took a sharp turn with Le Tour de France’s premier of La Course, a resurgent race for women at the tour running across the final circuit on the Champs-Élysées, taking place hours before the men’s Le Tour finishing stage in Paris.  It is not the first time women have raced Le Tour de France - Beginning in the 80s, a women’s “Tour de Feminin” was initiated, a stage race with courses resembling those from Le Tour.  The organizational efforts and support of the Women’s Tour slowly dwindled and lost steam over the span of 25 years, mostly due to lack of dough and lack of media coverage.  Nothing hurts the credibility of races more than the controversy of unpaid prize money.

Yet, as the cool breeze rounds one’s neck on the descent after a hard climb, the equality gap in cycling is slowing shrinking, thanks to the support of all those who know and understand the stimulating subtleties and ferociousness of female athletes.  

This is merely a battle cry for women to start competing, now. Interest is growing in the sport, but to keep things going, the key will be to introduce more women to bike racing when they're young. But for any female approaching the field: better late than never. There are countless stories of courageous women leaving the desk at the office to dash for the streets to saddle up and crush it in the professional field. Do not let your spirit be discouraged in the first several years of training, as it takes time to reach your full potential. The method of operation for cyclists tends to fall on the side of the lone wolf but don’t be shy! Try to join a community of other cyclists with the same goals as yours.

It is impossible to dismiss the significant gender gap in prize payout with the classic argument ruling, “it’s about the money.” Women in pro cycling are taking action in response to the inequality by speaking up and campaigning for more inclusive racing. La Course would not have been as successful without Dutch cyclist Marianne Vos, current Olympic Road and World Cyclocross Champion, driving the boat on the La Course campaign. As more gals arrive to the start line, prize money available to those who are willing to show up and work for it will grow. Opportunities will continue to open as women’s races merge with established men’s events.

I’ve asked our our neighbor to the North, current triple Canadian national champion and podium finisher at La Course, Leah Kirchman of Optum Pro Cycling, about her experience racing against world’s best female riders at La Course and her gorgeous third place finish.

Photo by Sam Wiebe

You have made history at La Course.  What’s one word that describes what was going through your head and what your soul was saying on the final sprint?


Working with teammates is what makes the win. Strength within a team comes from practice, trust, and familiarity of techniques. Was there an ah-ha moment of clicking with your team during the season or did it come naturally? Is there even a "naturally" when it comes to knowing how to read your teammates or has it always required work?

One of Optum's biggest strength as a team comes from our commitment and trust in each other as teammates. I have been teammates with a few riders for three to four years now so we know each other quite well and are good at reading and responding to each other while racing.  

Rio is in your field of vision as a goal for 2016. What steps does a professional athlete as an individual and within a team need to take to get to the top, to the freakin' OLYMPICS!?!

Getting to the Olympics in any sport is tough and takes a ton of hard work and dedication! In cycling, you need to show your country that you are strong and deserve a spot as an individual, while also showing that you are a great teammate by contributing to the team's overall success.

Cycling can be dangerous.  How do you respond to the natural worry of family, friends, and fans when you hop on a bike to become a human torpedo?

I find the risk is worth the reward, and have just accepted the danger as part of racing. If fear enters my head in a race, I just focus on the things I can control, like my own bike handling and positioning in the peloton.

Racing is all about ballin’ on a budget. Could you spare a few tips for other cyclist looking to conserve?

It is easy to get excited at the start of a race and burn all your matches right away, then proceed get dropped. Be patient, hide in the draft, pay attention and wait for those key moments to use your energy stores.

When you started racing, how did you familiarizing yourself with the peloton and what growth did you see with your performance?

This is my eleventh year racing, 4th as a pro, and every year I've made small performance gains.

With anything new, you reach a certain comfort level once you expose yourself to something enough. For example, when I first went to Europe, I was lucky to drink half a bottle in a 140 km race because I was too scared to let go of my bars, and I was lucky to get anywhere near the front of the peloton. After a few years of returning to those same events, I can now eat and drink when I want to, and feel like I'm actually a factor in those races, rather than just trying to survive. The best way to get good at racing is honestly just to race as much as possible.

Have you ever encountered a roadblock, specifically as a female, to your pursuits as a professional cyclist? If so, what kept you going?

I value education so much that I didn’t want to commit entirely to sport right out of high school. Trying to balance both a University course load and a professional cycling career was a challenge I experienced over the past few years.

Thankfully, I found a program that was quite flexible and allowed me to pursue both. The block program (one course at a time for 3 ½ weeks) at Quest University in Squamish, BC allowed me to balance my race and school schedules. I constantly set small goals and kept the big picture in mind to keep me going. Effective time management was the key to succeeding at both!

Community is essential to a growing athlete. Where did you find yours?

First, I owe so much to the Manitoba Cycling and Cross-country ski communities. I had so much support from both while growing up in Winnipeg. They were key in first getting me interested in competitive sport, and teaching me the fundamentals of racing and what it takes to be a good athlete.

I also have to give credit to the Squamish and Quest University communities for their support over the past few years while I pursued both school and cycling. The Squamish cycling community is incredibly friendly and welcoming, I felt like I had lived there my whole life.

I think Quest’s greatest strength as a University is it's amazing sense of community. Students, tutors and the university staff are all incredibly supportive and really care about helping everyone to pursue their passions.

Photo by Sam Wiebe

What motivates you besides winning?

There is a great sense of accomplishment that comes from setting goals, than actually achieving them.

Could you tell us your favorite sports drink, favorite portable snack, and non-cycling mode of transportation?

I'm a fan of the Cranberry Razz Clif mix.

I like to make date and nut bars as portable snacks, also chocolate chip banana bread.

I would choose cross-country skiing as my favourite non-cycling mode of transport, more cities should groom commuter ski trails.

Who is your female athlete inspiration/role model?

Clara Hughes has always been a huge role model for me, especially being a fellow Winnipegger. I always admired her commitment to both sporting excellence, and her humanitarian efforts.

I say to you women: grab the handlebars of life now. Encourage your youth to strap on their helmets and soar. Feel the lightness of air and space travel under your tire as your fire forth.  Fear not and squeeze your brakes gently to the dangers on road ahead. Familiarize yourself with your tool, your steed, your beloved bike in a pack that swarms feverishly to the front, grinding it’s gears over any rugged terrain. It doesn’t always matter what you ride, but rather how you ride.  Always with pride, with exuberance, with persistence, and always, with consistent hard work.

Now come, let us ride free like children of the night!

Photo by Sam Wiebe

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