Dr. Ainhoa Perez-Diez exults after winning a district championship race.
Photo: Mark Lester
Competition knows no boundaries—you’ll find it on almost any path you pursue these days—on the gridiron, on stage, in the business world, in scientific laboratories and, for one researcher, in bike-racing circles.
Enter Dr. Ainhoa Perez-Diez, an investigator with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who says, “I don’t consider myself overly competitive, but I think others do.”
The native of Spain competes regularly against elite cyclists—both amateurs and professionals— not only in local contests, but all over the United States. Along the way, she’s captured 10 medals and strives for more.
With her doctorate in hand from the University of Navarra in Pamplona (a city noted for the annual running of the bulls), Perez-Diez came to the U.S. in 1999. For the past 4 years, she has entered some of the most competitive races in the country.
“It’s clearly a sport where you need to push the limits of the body,” she noted. “Some races can go on for 70 to 90 miles, or in some cases even more. That’s where athletic training, a desire to excel on the course and playing your cards accordingly truly come into play.”
The challenge of the sport is enjoyable and occasionally even social, she noted, “but I must say it can be quite tense and stressful also, especially in the pre-race hours.”
Perez-Diez, a researcher in the laboratory of Dr. Polly Matzinger for the past 10 years, investigates mouse models of tumor immunology, in particular, CD4 cells. Away from the lab, she heads for the open road to pursue her passion for bike racing, which she says both stimulates and captivates her mind, while keeping her in shape.
Crediting her late father for fostering her interest in cycling, Perez-Diez says the fever to race emerged by a stroke of luck that didn’t seem so fortuitous at the time. “Years ago, my orthopedist let me know that my knees were basically shot. I could no longer play soccer or perform tae kwon do (she is a 3rd degree black belt and former Spanish national champion) or any other activity that involved repetitive kicking. I had to find another sport.”
Perez-Diez (c) participates in the Liberty Classic in Philadelphia, which brings professional riders from all over the world.
Photo: Tara Smith
Disappointed but determined to remain an athlete, she was encouraged to take up bicycle racing by her spinning instructor and later mentor and coach, Jim Youngblood. Once she began the sport in 2007, Perez-Diez was amazed to learn how many local bikers raced competitively.
According to the researcher, competitive cyclists must train rigorously. Perez-Diez rides most days of the week and on weekends, logging 150-200 miles per week on her carbon-fiber bike. But the arduous regimen has paid off handsomely.
In both 2010 and 2011, she won the Mid-Atlantic Bicycle Racing Association (MABRA) Road Race Championship, a 52-mile event that pitted her against cyclists from Maryland, Virginia, D.C. and Delaware. During the past year, she also participated in a master’s national championship in Oregon, placing third. Even more recently, Perez-Diez captured the mid-Atlantic BAR (best all around rider) competition among top-category senior women, which is based on placing in more than 15 MABRA races throughout the season.
Aside from the medals, what else does she get from cycling? “Oh, there’s nothing like the freedom you get, with the wind on your face,” she said, adding that biking keeps her weight down and offers mental release.
“I think about my work in the lab when I’m riding; it helps generate ideas,” she explained. Plus, biking can be social. “It’s not like running, when you’re winded and really can’t speak. There are moments of coasting that allow you to converse with others and that’s always nice.”
Perez-Diez hopes to ride competitively for at least several more years, noting that age won’t present a barrier. “As long as you train properly, have the desire and know how to adapt to certain circumstances within the race, you can compete,” she said. She knows of bikers well into their 60s and 70s who still race and win.
When she eventually gives up racing, the NIAID scientist says she wants to keep cycling just for fun. “After all, cycling keeps you looking younger too.”