Vigland has, in many ways, “arrived” at age 41 in a sport generally dominated by people a decade younger. Watch her move a bike, handle it, cradle it, hurdle it, and you can see why she’s Michigan’s No. 1 road-race woman. Her legs circle, foot clipped to pedal, in a motion as mindless as breathing. She makes it look effortless.
She tempts you into buying your first road bike. And you find yourself on the killer hill on Tower Road in Leelanau County, walking the bike and cursing Vigland for the pain in your legs and the burn in your lungs. She’s wooed you, fooled you. But you forgive her—because her grace on a bike is a promise of what you can become.
“Just try it,” Vigland says, her face starting to reveal faint lines from the miles she’s ridden in every kind of weather. “Ilove the freedom on a bike. I love the speed—it’s exhilarating. I love the workout. I love the companionship.”
While Vigland’s skill and talent have inspired local bikers, she remains one of just a handful of women making the racingcircuit. “We are, unfortunately, a rare breed,” Vigland says. “Most people think racing is cool, but many women are afraidof racing, especially road racing. They are afraid of the speed and of getting hurt.”
Vigland concedes she, too, has crashed a few times. Her most embarrassing was in a road race where her husband, Todd,had crashed only minutes before. “I saw him on the side of the road with blood on his jersey and shouted, ‘Are youokay?’ It only took a glance away from the wheel in front of me to crash.”
Both Viglands came out the other side of it with just a few cuts and bruises. But the squad car that had stopped to helpTodd caught Susan’s crash on the dashboard camera.
“It was funny—but only for Todd and the cop!” Vigland says. The crash was in her first year of racing, in 2007. It wasthe same race where she won the state championship in 2009. Redemption on two wheels.
The Hagerty Cycling team, started in 2007, is getting in touch with its feminine side: 15 women are included among the roughly 50 members. This year alone, five new women have joined the ranks. Nicknamed the “Hags,” the team can be found most nights of the week building their strength and camaraderie on the winding roads of Leelanau County.
Vigland bikes between 150 and 200 miles a week, averaging 10 hours a week, March through August. Long before thebeaches have been churned by the first flip-flops of the season, Vigland has a tan that most wouldn’t dare display in a swimsuit. Her arms, legs and ankles show the telltale lines of the ever-present spandex shorts, riding shoes and blue-and-white Hagerty jersey.
Tuesdays and Thursdays are hard 2-hour rides with the Hags, with 1-hour recovery rides on Wednesdays. (Compare Vigland’s recovery rides to the typical cyclist, who thinks 1-hour rides are bankroll.) Vigland also strength trains two days a week to keep her upper body and core strong. The team gets really serious on the weekends, riding 2 to 4 hours bothdays, taking in the hills of Leelanau County and the views of Old Mission Peninsula.
“I can name most of the roads in Leelanau County, because I’ve ridden them hundreds of times,” Vigland says. “But I’ve never driven them. And I think that’s cool.”
On fast, flat sections of road the team reaches speeds of 25 to 30 mph, their wheels inches away from one other, everymove magnified by knowing they can take down one, two, three or more teammates with the smallest mistake. But it’s
that intensity, the whole team moving as one, that Vigland loves. The peloton moves together but they also win, fail,fall, climb together.
“I love the team strategy involved with road racing,” she says. “My closest friends are on the team and that’s what makesit so fun.”
Teammate and friend, Lauri Brockmiller, 35, is actually a little worried about what Vigland might do next. “Sometimes her physical ability outweighs her confidence,” Brockmiller says. “If she knew how good she was, she would be more aggressive and take more risks—that might be scary!”
Brockmiller, also a personal trainer, worked with Vigland last year to put together a nutrition plan incorporating a range of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and soy products. Vigland has been a vegetarian for 20 years and makes a point of avoiding processed food. Like most sports, weight is a big factor in cycling. Leaner in the saddle means faster on the pedal.
“When Susan is at her best, her strength and endurance over the long haul is unstoppable,” Brockmiller says. “I’ve been on 60- or 70-mile rides with Susan where it seems like she gets stronger and more comfortable with every 10-mile increment. When I start to fade, it’s like she’s just getting warmed up.”
Drop Vigland’s name within the open, airy walls of Brick Wheels on Eighth Street in Traverse City, and you can feel approval spin through the bike shop. David Bucholtz, sales rep, bike fanatic and all-around advice and wise guy, playfully offers a bow. “She has the respect of every man on the team,” he says, unprompted.
But before the words have made their way across the rack of pink jerseys (Ride Like a Girl!) and helmets of blue andneon green (macho colors swirled into flowery patterns), that mark the change in cycling in recent years, Buckholz hascorrected himself: “She has the respect of everybody on the team.”
Vigland has found her niche in the boys club—playing hard, clean and fair. “I want to win as much as anybody,” Vigland says, “but we’re all in it for the fun too.”
Female cyclist and fellow Hag, Johanna Schmidt, 35, calls Vigland the “ultimate competitor.” “When she rides up to thestart line, she is all business. She is there to win or to do whatever it takes to help a teammate win, and all of our competitors know and respect that.”
But when Vigland pulls off her helmet and lets her dark, shoulder-length hair fall, you look, look again. Blond highlights?Hey, aren’t biker chicks supposed to be tough? And that’s where Vigland bends the stereotype yet again. Tough biker babe isn’t part of her vibe. She’s testament that nice girls don’t always finish last.
“You can be nice and win races,” Vigland says. “I want to be respected by my competitors, and I enjoy getting to know them.”
Vigland makes way for new members on the team and passes on all she knows, from training to nutrition to technique.She loves to bring new people to the sport with encouragement and the push they need. (Thinking of walking a hill while biking with Vigland? It’s not an option; that’s why there’s granny gear.)
“One quote from Susan that I think everybody has heard at least a half a dozen times is, ‘Great job, buddy,’ ” says Schmidt, whose signature line on her email reads, “Did you ride your bike to work today?”