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Human Race: Cait Dooley

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She got the tattoo—the one that says “You got this” on her quad in big letters—a year before doctors found the golf-ball-sized tumor in her neck. That was back in 2011, a simpler time when Cait Dooley was just daydreaming about a career in the bike industry and looking to express some playful inspiration at cyclocross races, not searching for a mantra to inform an exhausting tussle with cancer.

Words: Peter Flax. Image: Jason Scheiding

But it turns out the ink on her thigh was spot-on about everything, even the cancer. “In a weird way, it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me,” says Dooley, now 29 and a product manager at GT Bicycles, thinking aloud about how bikes got her through her health crisis and shaped all that followed. “Cycling has given me everything I have now. Cycling is my life—my job, what I do for fun, it’s how I know all my friends. Bikes honestly helped save my life.”

In her early life, Dooley hardly seemed destined for two-wheeled evangelism. Though she was born and raised in Fitchburg, Massachusetts—a community well known in cycling circles as the host of the historic Longsjo Classic, one of America’s oldest bike races—she says the thought of competing, or even sharing a ride with friends, never crossed her mind until she was much older. “As a kid and a teenager I always rode by myself,” Dooley recalls. “But still I loved to ride. When I was young I had a dirt bike and loved to do jumps. And I got a Mongoose mountain bike when I was 11 or 12.”

But after high school, she started riding local trails and making mountain biking friends, and one thing led to another. “When I was 19 or 20, I started racing track,” Dooley say “And soon after that I got into cross. Then it was game over—bikes were my life.”

Dooley quickly became a full-bore participant in the New England cyclocross scene, blessed with a competitive racing calendar and a close-knit social culture. Before long, she was dabbling in many disciplines—road racing, downhill, multi-day mountain stage races—and doing tons of ’cross races. It quickly became a lifestyle. She got the tattoo after hearing so many people tell her “you got this” as she waited nervously at start lines. “The phrase spoke to me,” Dooley says.

Image: Jamie Nicoll

She had a regular office job back then, but she had an epiphany while skydiving one day in 2012. “I really dislike airplanes, they make me uncomfortable,” laughs Dooley, trying to explain the peculiar decisiveness that came next. “I literally went in the next day and quit my job. I just decided that I would become a ‘fake pro’ for a year and do nothing but ride bikes.”

But strange health issues kept sidetracking her dream season. She was way more tired than she thought she should be—as if she were overtrained. During races, she experienced strange tingling sensations and during one event her tongue felt “fuzzy, almost numb, like something was medically wrong.” Both of Dooley’s parents are nurses, so after she talked it over with them, she went to an ER for some testing. Nothing.

So she just kept on racing and feeling funky and getting tests. In September of 2012 she got a scan of her cervical spine — and that’s when doctors discovered the growth on her neck. Her physician initially thought the mass was gout, but a fine-needle aspiration offered a scarier diagnosis: cancer. Dooley was 24 and was looking at surgery to remove the tumor in two weeks. (It’s worth noting that she spent most of those two weeks on a cyclocross road trip with then-pro Adam Myerson. “I didn’t know what was on the other end,” Dooley offers. “I looked at it as my possible last hurrah.”)

The surgery was a success and the recovery was a total bitch. The surgeons didn’t just remove the tumor—they also took out Dooley’s thyroid and lymph nodes. Her procedure was followed by a treatment in which she swallowed radioactive iodine. “They literally ran a Geiger counter over my body,” she recalls. “It’s one of those rare instances in life where being really radioactive is a good thing.”

The long list of procedures preceded a long stretch of profound exhaustion. “There were plenty of instances in which I didn’t have the strength to get out of bed,” she says. “It was a lot to get my head around. I was in my mid-20s, at a time in life where I’m supposed to be crushing it, but I was too tired to do anything. I remember one time I got off a bus and had only a short walk home but just sat on a bench and cried because I was too tired to do it.”

She cried again a few weeks later when she went on her first post-surgical ride, but this time it wasn’t despair. “It was the middle of winter and I got on my Geekhouse bike and rode a tiny circle around the block like I did when I was a little kid,” Dooley recalls. “I got home and had a quick happy cry and went to nap-town.”

The recovery that followed wasn’t fast or easy or without stress, but inexorably it rolled along. Dooley did not keep her struggle buried in a private place; instead she shared many of her ups and down on a Tumblr page and other social-media channels. The posts were a raw and deeply personal window into what it takes to fight cancer. “Early on I decided that I didn’t want to be silent and strong about my illness,” she says. “I wanted to be public. It wasn’t easy to dump my soul on the Internet, but I thought it was a better way to help myself and help other people.”

Consider a post she wrote in 2013: “Having my thyroid removed made me seriously consider the zombie apocalypse…it was (and is) a strange notion to realize that as a previously healthy, athletic 24 year old that I now rely on a medication that I take every day, or I will die a slow, shitty death via falling into a myxedema coma.” Or this 2015 update: “I can’t remember a day in the last 3 years where I’ve woken up or fallen asleep without being in some kind of pain. I am much more functional than what 2012 and 2013 saw of me, but I’m still struggling.”

Yet slowly but surely, Dooley clawed her way back to health. She says it took several years before she could go “full throttle.” But before that, the epiphany she had from the terror of skydiving was coming into focus: constructing a personal and professional life built around the bike. “I told myself I’d have a career in the bike industry, and I’m proud how it’s worked out,” she says.

Image: JC Canfield

As a product manager at GT, Dooley develops bikes for all the company’s road, urban, track and women’s lines, essentially shepherding ideas from concept to the shop floor. It’s a job that demands communication and problem-solving skills, vision, familiarity with exchange rates and endless attention to detail. “Consumers don’t realize that bikes are actually spreadsheets,” Dooley laughs, before itemizing the 20 Excel documents open on her desktop and describing multi-week trips to visit suppliers in Taiwan, China, Thailand and elsewhere in Asia. “I’m working hard to learn Mandarin. I’ve gotten good enough to order food, get a train ticket and occasionally crack a joke.”

Dooley says that GT’s office is well staffed with women, but it’s not the case everywhere in the bike business. And just like when she was sick, Dooley is far from shy on social media about calling out sexism and hypocrisy in the industry. Whether it’s the use of insulting imagery in marketing materials, inequality in race payouts, “mansplaining” at the bike shop or the many expressions of general idiocy that regularly arise on Twitter, Dooley is vocal and on-point. “Whatever women do in cycling, they have to come prepared,” she says. “It’s rare that everything just goes great, where someone just hands us a seat at the table. Someone has to stand up to make it better for the next person. These days I’m optimistic because I see more people who are willing to call other folks out for sexism.”

But that fight is just a small slice of Dooley’s bike life. She says she tries to get around by bike as much as possible—“I’m stubborn that way,” she says. On a typical day, she lifts weights and rides for a couple of hours. (Like a lot of ’cross riders, she’s also a passionate runner, heading out regularly for 5- to 10-mile loops.) These days, she’s doing a lot of mountain biking. Dooley says she tries to do “one big stupid thing” every year. Last year she rode the six-day Trans BC Enduro event.

She admits that while she monitors her rest and nutrition like a hawk, she no longer thinks about the disease that changed her life very often. “Sometimes I’m out for a ride and someone asks me about the giant scar on my neck,” she says. There’s a long pause on the phone. “Whatever. It’s part of my being now.”

Like a lot of people who’ve survived a street fight with cancer, Dooley is fully engaged in her present and circumspect about her future. “That experience shaped me as a person—I’m so attuned to my health now, I have a greater appreciation for my friends than before, the kind of love I have for bikes is deeper,” she says. “But it’s not like I have this clear big goal in life. I don’t have illusions that it will be easy. I just like being in this place where I know I’m open to saying yes to something.”