Former Steamboat resident rides through cancer
Jo Rolls overcomes, wins 18 Hours of Fruita endurance mountain bike race with Bec Bale
May 14, 2011
Steamboat Springs — The soundtrack was rap.
That's what echoed through Jo Rolls' head last weekend as she thundered across a sandy mountain bike trail laid out near Fruita, on the western edge of Colorado.
She didn't grit her teeth and fire her legs, cursing the cancer that had swooped so suddenly into, then out of, her life. She grit her teeth and fired her legs listening to curses of rappers.
Rolls, a longtime Steamboat resident now living in Salt Lake City, joined Steamboat's Bec Bale, and together the pair crushed the 18 Hours of Fruita endurance mountain bike race last weekend, winning the women's duo division after leading it nearly wire to wire.
The race, which triggered a celebration, was a party in and of itself, marking Rolls' victory over the breast cancer, which seized her nearly a year before.
"But the amazing thing about the race, it wasn't about the cancer," Rolls said. "This was the first time for me where cancer was the background.
"These things that happened, they won't ever go away, but for that weekend, for the first time, it wasn't the major part of me, and that was the best thing about it."
Home in Steamboat
Rolls, who married Eric Rolls last year, lived in Steamboat for 10 years as Jo Richards and was every bit the typical local.
She stopped in town to see friends and snowboard for a few days, found a job and woke up 10 years later. She became a regular on the town's mountain biking scene by summer and a snowboard instructor by winter, first with Steamboat Ski Area and more recently with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
She also worked at Yampa Valley Medical Center.
Her whole life changed when, after weeks of desperate encouragement from her then fiance, she had a lump, more in her armpit than her breast, examined.
"It was horrible," she recalled. "Every day, Eric would ask me if I'd had it checked. Finally, one day he said, 'It's all I think about.' I went to my doctor. We got the biopsy results a day later, and they were positive.
"I have no family history for that. It was completely out of the blue."
She sped up an already-planned move to begin a graduate physician assistant program at University of Utah and moved in with her mother in Salt Lake City. Her wide network of Steamboat friends gathered to help her pack and move, and she settled in and began treatment with a nasty six-hour surgery.
That was mid-February 2010, 15 months before last weekend's mountain bike race.
Top of the pack
The course at Fruita is easy, compared to some other super-endurance courses, anyway.
There are a few short uphill segments and some sections with tough, technical riding but large stretches where passing is possible. The loop is six miles, and Rolls and Bale agreed to ride two at a time to allow the other rider more time to rest.
Bale, who worked with Rolls as a snowboard instructor at Steamboat Ski Area after moving to town in 2005, hadn't seen her friend ride a bike in nearly two summers and definitely not since she'd gone through four surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments that left her as weak as she's ever been.
Bale took off from the midnight starting line and pedaled into the darkness having little idea where she and Rolls would stack up. Bale had great trust in her friend — "If anyone can do it, I knew Jo could," she said — but she also wondered if she'd end up riding three consecutive laps at difficult moments in the race.
Rolls never backed down, however, and when Sunday dawned, and they got their first look at the standings, they were shocked.
"We were in first," Bale said. "I knew we were doing well, but I had no idea we were winning. It was a surprise.
"After that, I knew my laps needed to be quick. There was no way another group was going to catch us. We were going to hammer and stay ahead. Jo deserved to win."
Rolls had her first surgery, a mastectomy, soon after her diagnosis to remove a large tumor from her left breast and armpit.
The news never seemed to get better. Doctors put her in for surgery two more times soon after to clean up potentially cancerous tissue. Chemo treatments started in April and lasted all summer and were followed by 25 doses of radiation.
Rolls, a natural athlete who rowed crew at Boston University a decade earlier, struggled with the effects.
"I tried to ride a little bit, but then I couldn't do that any more," she said. "I ran, but eventually my blood counts got low, and I couldn't run. After that, I'd walk five minutes and jog for one. Then, I'd just walk.
"I had never experienced not feeling strong before."
She fought back where she could. She and her fiance had set a mid-August wedding date before the diagnosis, and even as cancer changed her life, she refused to let it change her plans.
"I said, 'I'm going to get married on my wedding day. That's what we're going to do,'" she said.
The couple wed Aug. 14 in Yampa River Botanic Park in Steamboat Springs.
"I didn't have any hair," she said. "They make really great wigs, though."
Through the finish line
Rolls got through the radiation and, a month after the final dose, began feeling better.
The energy that had slowly been leaving her slowly began coming back.
She had one final surgery in February and was quickly recovering.
"These last three months, it's just been real quick," she said. "Every day, I feel a little stronger now."
That was never more evident than it was last weekend as she helped her team slug it out with top riders.
When the standings became clear, Bale and Rolls' opponents opened up their pursuit and cut into what had been a 15-minute lead.
The pair, riding for Honey Stinger and Yeti, surrendered little ground.
Rolls said as she hopped on and off her bike, it sometimes would strike her how lucky she was. As serious as her tumor was, there had been relatively few complications that hindered her recovery.
She said her family, her husband and her friends offered up incredible support throughout the ordeal, and she became more grateful for those and many other aspects of her life.
Those flashes only came off the bike, however. On it, she focused on the trail beneath her and the rider in front. She focused on the teams charging to catch up and the support crew waiting back at camp.
She and Bale finished with a 10-minute cushion. They dominated.
It hadn't been her fight against cancer that fueled Rolls' ambition. It had been her love for riding and competition.
It hadn't been her incredible story that echoed inside her head. It had been rap songs.
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com