Hometown: Tarpon Springs, Fla.
Kids: Ryder, 7, and Canin, 4
After playing soccer most of her life, Boulder’s Nicole Duke decided she wanted to become a professional mountain bike racer when she turned 19.
She walked into a local bike shop, and told the shop employees her plan. They laughed, but she put a bike on layaway.
“They were like, ‘Mm hmm, yeah,'” Duke said.
Duke ended up racing mountain bikes professionally — for six years in fact — before she finished that dream, and was on to the next. She stashed her bike, went to hair school and started casually riding ‘cross.
Years later, she’s in her fourth season as a professional cyclocross racer with that same dream-it-do-it attitude she had as a teenager. Duke, 38, will race at cyclocross nationals in Madison, Wis., this weekend — the last race of her fourth season before she takes a much needed vacation from her bike.
Duke’s 2012 summer and ‘cross season were rough — she sustained a broken ankle, a punctured bursa sac, took care of sick kids, came down with random illnesses, had mouth surgery, went through a divorce and split from her racing team. All this strife weighed on the normally relaxed competitor each time she stepped to the line.
This weekend in Madison, Duke says she hopes to put the season behind her before starting over again for the 2013 season.
While dealing with the myriad of challenges that seemed to come week after week, one part of her life was constant — her bike.
“Everyone has their ‘something,’ right?” Duke said. “Some people have religion, other people turn to the drugs or whatever. But it’s my peace of mind. If I’m struggling with something in my life, usually I can just get on my bike and — I wouldn’t say pedal it away — but pedal through it maybe.
“The bike has saved me in a lot of respects where I would have otherwise maybe been depressed or gone through extremely hard times.”
Her bike, which she considers a piece of art, was her “savior” when Duke split from the Raleigh-Clement team mid-season for personal reasons.
In the days that followed, Duke randomly re-read “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, a book she read in her early 20s and had stashed on her bookshelf.
One of the book’s main themes, “Personal Legends,” is the idea that each individual should live in pursuit of their dreams or destiny, leaving behind distractions and material possessions, she said. Reading it again, that message clicked for Duke.
“Sometimes you read a book and it’s not the right time,” Duke said. “But this book right now in my life, I really got a lot from it.”
In the days after she started re-reading the book, she found a new team, coincidentally named Alchemy Bicycle Co.
Duke took it as a sign that the season wasn’t a total loss. She won her first race on an Alchemy bike, Big Ring Cycles CX in Parker at the end of November, and went on to win her third Colorado State Cyclocross title in December.
Her good friend and training partner Kristin Weber said she’s watched in awe as Duke handled each hardship “gracefully” this year, making her seem more “superhuman” each day.
Before a race, Weber said Duke calmly prepares herself, never letting on if she’s anxious.
Those same skills transferred to Duke’s mental toughness during the broken bones, her divorce and unsatisfactory race results.
“There’s been some really upsetting things, but she doesn’t dwell on them, she doesn’t hash it out, she doesn’t gossip,” Weber said. “She’s had her fair share of letting things go. She just takes everything in stride.”
Duke said it helps to have a little humor in her life, something she shares with boyfriend and Belgian ‘cross racer Ben Berden. The two have matching mustache tattoos on the inside of their right index fingers.
Whenever Duke catches herself resting her hand on her chin, her mustache tattoo tends to peak out. If Berden is around, he’ll put his mustached-finger to his upper lip, which always cracks her up.
“Now we have T-shirts with mustaches on them,” Berden said. “It’s more about me and Nicole.”
As she prepares for nationals this weekend, realistically Duke said she’s hoping for a top-five finish, which means she’ll stand on the podium to cap off the season.
After nationals, she’ll take a few weeks off from training and then get into her spring sport — another she took up on a whim: stand-up paddle boarding.
“I’m going in without putting a lot of pressure on myself,” she said. “I just want to be happy with how I raced.”
–Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.