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How to Win a Triathlon—on a Divvy

Emily Rowlands will be out to reclaim her crown this weekend.

Emily Rowlands competing in 2014 (left) and, in 2015, with a medal made of old Divvy parts   Photos: Courtesy of Emily Rowlands

The 34th edition of the Chicago Triathlon takes place this weekend and among the competitors tomorrow will be about 100 athletes doing the bike stage on those heavy, lumbering blue whales known as Divvy bikes.

It’s the third year that the event has included a Divvy category at the “super sprint” distance, in which competitors will swim 375 meters at Foster Beach, cycle 10 kilometers, and run 2.5 kilometers. Since the category’s inception, one of the fastest Divvy riders has been Emily Rowlands, a 31-year-old actuary for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois (which happens to be a Divvy sponsor).

Despite being new to the sport, her winning 2014 Divvy performance qualified her for the triathlon national championships in her age group. Last year she finished second, but with an average speed of about 15.5 mph, she rode her bike faster than more than half of all super sprint riders, male and female, Divvy and non-Divvy.

So she’s fast. Very fast. But we still managed to catch up to learn about tomorrow’s race.

Why do a triathlon on a Divvy bike and not a $10,000 time-trial bike, like a normal tri dork?

There’s fun doing it both ways. Once I heard that the Chicago Triathlon was opening this new Divvy wave, I immediately signed up. I thought it would be a really fun thing. I love Divvy and the flexibility it gives you, and I love promoting biking. The more people on bikes, the more cars will be looking out for us.

I encourage anyone who’s thinking about doing a tri to try out this one. And the super sprints are such a good option. They’re much less crowded than the sprint or Olympic distances the next day. It’s a much less intimidating way to get into the sport.

Will you have to finish within the 30-minute rental limit?

No. A lot of people ask me that though.

Is there any special training you do with the Divvy race in mind?

I make a point to use only Divvy to bike to work every day during August. Other months I usually go between my own commuter bike and Divvy. I also throw in a few short “Divvy brick” workouts to get used to running on tired Divvy legs for race day.  Otherwise my normal training consists of running 3 to 4 days a week, biking a few days—and never swimming as much as I should be.

There’s no way to attach aerobars to a Divvy, which some cyclists use to be more aerodynamic. How do you compensate?

You don’t, really. You just embrace the fact that you’re on a 40-pound bike. The handlebars are big and wide, so I would kind of rest my arms on them. My friend [and 2014 men’s Divvy winner] Jonathan [Dugas] would reach down and grab the basket, but I didn’t do that.

Even some non-athletes think the Divvy bikes are geared too low. How do you overcome that?

It’s hard to go fast. But I generate less power than the men. I don’t feel like I really spun out, except maybe on the downhills.

Last year the Divvy wave started last. Did you end up passing non-Divvy riders who had started ahead of you?

I think I did. I felt really bad. I’m here on this 40-pound bike and they’re on a regular bike. It was kind of fun to ring the bell as I passed.

Did any of them say anything or do a double take?

A lot of people just cheered me on. “You go, girl!”

You’ve placed in your age group at other triathlons. How does the Divvy race compare?

With the Divvy it was such a surprise. I didn’t realize I’d won until Jonathan came up and said, “I think you just won!" I thought it was hilarious. It was such a fun day riding around on those Divvy bikes. 

What are your goals this year?

I recruited my friend Kristin [Salkas] to do the Divvy triathlon, and last year she won. This year I hope to reclaim my title. We train a lot together. It’s good to have someone to push you like that.

Do you have any advice to commuters who need to get across downtown in a hurry?

It’s definitely quicker on a Divvy than in a car. You just have to be kind of aggressive but also defensive. You can’t be too conservative. 

Would you advise getting into an aero tuck in traffic?

Probably not. I would advise sitting up tall so that all the cars can see you. And assume that every car will pull out in front of you, because inevitably one will.


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