Going full blast

GENE PEREIRA - Special to the Examiner

As a way to get around, Lex Albrecht would hop on her bike. She would take it to go visit friends, or use it as a way to get to her part-time jobs when she worked at Licks Restaurant in Barrie or Horseshoe Resort.

"I just started racking up the mileage on my mountain bike," says Albrecht, who grew up in Barrie before her family moved to Oro-Medonte Township when she was just 11 years old.

Albrecht and her bike would hit the road where she started seeing more and more cyclists in their Lycra suits. They started recognizing her and would wave and say hello as they flew by.

"I thought, man, I really want to ride my bike and have a real cool bike like them," she recalls.

So, she worked for a year, saved her money and got a road bike and started riding with them.

"That's how it all started," says the 24-year-old former Examiner newspaper carrier, who is quickly becoming one of the top female professional road cyclists in Canada.

"When I was younger, cycling gave me a real sense of independence because it was a way for me to get around, and it was really, really satisfying for me as well," says Albrecht, who was recently named a member of the new professional American women's road cycling team Optum Pro Cycling.

Albrecht remembers how proud she was, how at the end of the day, she would look behind her and realize just how many kilometres she had actually covered with her own legs.

She had control of her life and was doing pretty much what she wanted. It gave her a sense of accomplishment, which Albrecht believes is what really made her fall in love with cycling so much.

"I always loved riding my bike," says the bubbly, likeable athlete who now lives in Quebec City, which has a huge cycling community and ideal roads for her training. "It was just kind of a logical step in my evolution as a cyclist, I guess. I just started riding my bike more and more and I liked it more and more.

"I wanted to experience more and more of the sport, so racing just played into that. I started racing and starting doing bigger and bigger races and I started getting some pretty good results.

"Now, I'm here today. I became a professional road cyclist and it's like a dream come true."

Still, Albrecht never thought she'd become a bike racer. In 2005, at age 18, she moved to Trois-Rivieres, located between Montreal and Quebec City, to attend the Universite du Quebec a Trois-Rivieres (UQTR).

She received her bachelor's degree in medical biology and soon found a job working in a lab as a research assistant.

She continued cycling, joining a Tuesday night group ride and it was like her social night once a week.

"When I first had trouble speaking French, that was my one way to integrate myself into the francophone society," says Albrecht, who is now fully bilingual.

While her work career was taking off, it didn't diminish her love for cycling.

"I didn't really think I had what it took to become a professional," she says. "I almost didn't dare to dream about it, but when I started getting the results that kind of allowed me to take this step as a professional cyclist and then I started to dare to dream a little bit."

Her breakthrough came in 2009, when she was selected to participate in the Canada Games, a World Cup race in Montreal and the Tour de PEI, an international calibre race.

"Just the fact that I got selected to do these races and had these experiences showed me that it is possible to become professional," she says.

That required a full-time commitment to cycling, which meant walking away from her full-time job. It wasn't an easy decision, but one she believed she had to make.

"I just kind of recognized the fact that this is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity," says Albrecht, whose whole life now revolves around cycling and training. "Even though I've never really felt like I was making sacrifices to build up my fitness and build up my experience as a cyclist to reach this level, I realize essentially that's what I've done over years and years.

"I just thought I can't let all this go to waste,"?she adds. "This is my dream. I have to take my chance. I have to benefit from this opportunity, so I just decided to go full blast."

Her passion and dedication would lead her to some impressive results. A member on the Juvederm-Specialized-Mazda, Canada's only UCI professional women's road cycling team, she caught everyone's attention in 2010 with her 80-kilometre breakaway attempt at the Canadian Nationals road race in Edmonton.

She continued to have strong results last year, being named the best under-25 rider at San Dimas, best under-26 at Tour of the Gila, where she placed ninth overall, and winning the Tour of Battenkill.

She also became Canadian vice-champion.

"It's really exciting and I'm really happy because it's come to the point where I'm not going to put any limits on myself anymore," Albrecht says.

"I am going to accept the fact that the sky is actually the limit and I don't want to stop,"?Albrecht says. "I want to see how far I can take this."

Albrecht says she's thrilled to be a part of the Optum Pro Cycling. The new team was recently announced at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.

The American-based team consists of five Canadians, five Americans, a British rider and a New Zealander. They are expected to be one of North America's top professional women's teams along with Tibco and Team Exergy.

"I feel really fortunate to be part of this team," Albrecht says. "It's really good for women's cycling, the fact that there's been an addition of another professional women's team to the professional peloton.

"It shows that Optum and the rest of our sponsors really believe in women's cycling. It motivates me, as well."

Albrecht still has much to go on her road racing wish list. She would love to be selected to participate in the world championship races, which are held at the end of the race season, usually in September.

She also wants to participate in the Pan-American Games.

"I used to not allow myself to dream that big, but I realized that these things are possible," says Albrecht, who participated recently in an Optum training camp in Ventura, Calif., in preparation for three upcoming stage races there.

As for this year's Summer Olympics in London, England, Albrecht won't be competing, but she'd love to some day.

"I think 2016 is a possibility," says Albrecht, who was born in Owen Sound but moved to Barrie when she was just 10 months old. "(The Olympics) is pretty far away. It's four years away and I have to see how my cycling career evolves. A lot of things can happen in four years, but if I really wanted to, it could be a possibility.

"For now, I'm just taking it one season at a time and I'd like to focus on hopefully some day getting to the world championships and the Pan-Am Games,"?she says.

The hard work and training is a full-time job. Albrecht trains twice a day sometimes, once early in the morning and then another time later at night to allow her to recover.

In the winter, she'll spend most of her time in the gym, working on the weights to build up her leg strength. She also does a lot of interval training indoors, putting her bike on a kinetic trainer and riding it in her living room, often for one to two hours, up to twice a day. In spring and summer, her training is mostly outdoors, doing longer rides anywhere from two to four hours.

"I really like to challenge myself and I think that is something that really helps me be a really good cyclist," she says. "I'm often training alone and I really like to challenge myself when there's nobody else right beside me suffering. I can just push myself and show how much I can make myself hurt, so that helps me quite a bit."

Albrecht hopes her story will motivate young females to follow their dreams like she did.

She didn't come from an athletic family, nor start cycling seriously at a young age, yet with hard work and determination her dreams are coming true.

"I didn't think any of this was possible. I'm just a girl who loved to pedal and I just kept pedalling and pedalling and this is where I ended up," she says. "It's possible for anybody, especially girls. Women's cycling is getting more attention in the media and I think that's the greatest thing.

"It's a great sport regardless what level you make it at, whether it's a recreational thing, something they're doing with their family and friends, weekend races or if they want to make it all the way to the top and become an Olympic athlete."

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