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From Inside Peloton: The Gamble

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Jade Wilcoxson came to cycling late. Very late. And when she decided to go all-in, she walked away from a successful and fulfilling physical therapy practice to pursue a lifestyle characterized by constant travel, cheap hotel rooms and occasional road rash.

The gamble apparently paid off and this year, at age 35, Wilcoxson, who rides for Optum Pro Cycling, won the USPRO National Road Racing Championship in a dramatic race that featured brilliant team tactics, gutsy attacks and a down-to-the-wire finish that had every spectator on the edge of their seat. When she finally posted up for the victory salute, Wilcoxson looked more surprised than anyone. “I kept looking back on the finish straight thinking, ‘This is crazy. How is this working out this way?’”

Words & images: Heidi Swift

For all of us back in Oregon who had ever been beat by her in a race (and there are a lot of us), it was far less shocking. Locally, Wilcoxson is known for her outright power and extreme competitive nature on the bike. “In a race, I turn into an entirely different person. There’s something in my brain that clicks and I go into this competitive mode,” she says. Before making her brisk ascent through the pro ranks, she honed this competitive drive by racing, and regularly beating, the local men’s pelotons. But it wasn’t the drive to win that initially brought her to the bike, it was a doctor’s visit.

When she was 26 years old, she was told that she was pre-diabetic. She had just earned her clinical doctorate in physical therapy and was only moderately active. The diagnosis was a wake-up call, so she bought a bike and, egged on by a competitive brother, trained for her first century. She’d been a casual mountain biker for a few years, but something about road cycling got under her skin. Her friends urged her to try her hand at racing, and the rest is history.

Since turning pro full-time in 2011, she’s finished top five in a handful of big stage races: 4th in the Tour of California time trial, 5th in the time trial at road nationals, 2nd in cyclocross nationals. She now gets to spend a year rolling around in a stars and stripes jersey. After her victory in Chattanooga, she went down in a nasty crash that earned her a broken wrist and cost her the GC win at Nature Valley Grand Prix, but has healed quickly and since rejoined the peloton. We caught up with her to talk about her fancy new striped jersey, the state of women’s pro cycling and the infallible awesomeness of dark beer.

The women’s USPRO National Road Race was one of the most exciting races I’ve seen in a long time. Tell me about the last few laps on the finishing circuit. What happened after Mara Abbott got off the front? When Mara got off the front no one was helping with the chase, so I started talking to Tayler Wiles. I said, ‘This isn’t good. This is a very, very bad thing,’ and the two of us went to work trying to bring her back. We were pulling on the front just basically pulling the chase group around. I knew that if I pulled them up to Mara, as soon as we got there I would be spent and then Exergy would attack again and we’d be in the same boat, so I decided to hit a corner really hard and really fast to see if I could get a gap and that’s how I bridged up to Mara.

As soon as I got up near her she flatted and I could see it all happening—she was bouncing on her bike, riding gingerly through this turn, and I started to smell blood. I just blew right by her, put my head down and pushed as hard as I possibly could to get a gap. So I was off the front for a while and then Kristin McGrath bridged up to me and started working with me; we were taking pretty equal pulls but we weren’t working hard enough. We had 45 seconds when she bridged, but over the course of the next lap we were down to 5 seconds. I didn’t know that we were down to 5 seconds at the time or I probably would have just given up. There was a series of turns and we strung it back out to 15 seconds again.

With 5k to go, Kristen attacked me and I was able to stay with her. At 3 or 4k out the moto told us we were down to 10 seconds and I thought, ‘It’s now or never. If I attack I’m either going to stay away or blow up and if I blow up then my teammate Lauren Hall is right behind me to take the sprint.’ I really didn’t think I could stay away, but I didn’t think I’d be able to ride away from McGrath either, and I did. She burned a lot of matches bridging up to me so by the time she started working with me I definitely had more left in the tank. I got that gap on her and I thought, ‘Is this really happening?’ Then I just put my head down and went as hard as I could until the finish. I kept looking back on the finish straight thinking, ‘This is crazy. How is this working out this way?’

Your team was phenomenal that day. How important is that chemistry? How do you communicate and make decisions out on the road? We have three captains on the road, which is unique. Lauren Hall, Janel Holcomb and myself. So basically any one of the three of us can make any call on the road and the rest of us support it a hundred percent. So, there’s no discussions, there’s no debate. We just follow orders. There’s a lot of trust. 

In a race I’m very focused, so if I want Brie to go work a break, I’ll say, ‘Brie, get your ass up there!” I might even throw some F-bombs in there. It’s not because I’m mad, it’s just the way I communicate. Whereas Janel will ride up next to you and put her arm on your back and she’ll talk to you for a while and say, ‘Hey, how you feeling? Good. Well, listen, this is what I’m going to need you to do ….’ I tell her that I only hear a few words at a time when I’m racing … I need bold print. We’ve worked on that.

This was the first time that USAC has run the men’s and women’s national championship races on the same day, with the same level of coverage. What kind of impact do you think this will have for women’s cycling going forward? Women’s cycling is making huge strides right now and things are starting to happen that people have been pushing for for a long time. For USAC to stand behind equality in racing for women in racing is huge because they set the standards for the race promoters. For them to demonstrate how to have a women’s race concurrent with the men’s race and do it successfully and have people excited about women’s cycling is huge. 

We’ve been pushing for that with the Tour of California, The Tour of Utah, the US PRO Challenge, all those big races, and it’s beyond me why they can’t have a women’s race in conjunction. Most of the time the reason they give is about the sponsorship and the cost … and that’s bullshit. If they just said, ‘This is the race that were running. This is the men’s race. This is the women’s race. This is how much money we need.’ The sponsors aren’t going to withhold money because there are women racing. You just have to say outright, ‘This is the race that I’m running. Period.’

At this point with ProTour races we’re not even pushing for equal payout the way we are with NRC races. We just want to be able to race. Once you get the race in place then the media follows, and they’ll cover our race and see how exciting it is.

The time trial for pro women at the Tour of California this year raised a lot of eyebrows. Race coverage cut to a blank, black screen before the race was even over. How did you feel about that race and the way things went down? It’s really hard to have to express appreciation for something that is unequal. I feel like I can’t say, ‘No, this is bullshit’ because then they’ll come back and say, ‘Well fine, we’ll take the women’s race out entirely.’ They crunched us into 30 second time gaps, which is not appropriate for the caliber of racers you have at that race. You can’t run a time trial like that, and they only saved about 7 minutes doing it like that. They’re explanation was that they could only have the roads closed for so long, but they ran a full amateur time trial before ours, and those amateurs were still on our course while we were racing and we were having to go around them. 

We do want to race and we do want to take advantage of every opportunity, but when it’s run like a sideshow it’s embarrassing for everybody. I think Tour of California should have been embarrassed about it. The women that are racing are being treated like a sideshow and are embarrassed about it, but yet we don’t want to say no. It’s a catch-22—you can’t win.

How important is mentorship to the future of the sport? Mentorship is incredibly important in women’s cycling because most of us didn’t grow up watching cycling or racing. I didn’t grow up watching the Tour de France or the Giro, so all these things that seem obvious actually aren’t. I think it’s very important to establish a learning environment to keep bringing up successful athletes and grow the sport. It’s a grassroots effort for women; we fight for everything that we have and it has to be a supportive environment or the sport will not grow.

You mentioned that women’s cycling is making huge strides. What’s working right now? What are we getting right? A lot of the world-class riders standing up last year and asking Pat McQuaid, ‘Why don’t we have minimum salaries? Why are we treated like second-class citizens within the cycling community? Why don’t we have equality?’ Just asking those questions on an international forum was hugely important. To put the spotlight on our issues really started to drive it forward. And I think social media is also important. I think we’re using it well to grow women’s cycling. I think that’s going to be a key factor in continuing to fight for our rights.

Tell me about your experience racing with the U.S. national team in the spring classics last year. What did you learn? After every single race I felt like I’d been hit by a bus. My entire body hurt. I was fully cracked. Totally over it. But the classics went well. I stayed in top 20s for almost all of them. It was the coldest month on record for the Netherlands and Belgium, so all of our races were hovering around 32 degrees. You wear everything you brought, you get rained on … we even had one race cancelled because of snow. It was just brutal conditions. 

You definitely learn how to race more aggressively. The roads are terrible. You’re so stressed out for four hours. You’re just waiting to get in this really bad crash and the mental toll that takes on you is just incredible. It’s just mentally exhausting being that scared shitless … and then having to sprint at the end. It was crazy. My cross skills definitely came into play—they were huge over there—because you’re racing on these wet, nasty muddy cobbles. It’s basically a four-hour cross race because it’s so fast, you’re on all the time, you’re getting bumped, people are crashing all around you. It’s just carnage.

But it’s great to get that European experience. Racing in the U.S. is just as hard physically, it’s just not as mentally taxing and it’s not as technical. You go over there and you get a skill set that you can’t replicate here unless you’re doing four hours of cross races, which might be how I’ll train for the spring classics if I go back.

Speaking of cyclocross, you snuck up on some of the most talented cross racers in the U.S. last year to take 2nd at nationals. Will you be back for more this year? I’m really torn between cyclocross and the track. I wish I could do both. I’m probably going to try some World Cup track races with the U.S. national team in team pursuit, so we’ll see how that goes. The thing with the track is when you’re training for it you’re not actually on the track a hundred percent of the time Cross is an incredibly good workout—it’s great for training, it’s great for skills and it’s also great mentally because it’s so much fun. It really gives me a break from the stress of road cycling. Track is pretty stressful too because in team pursuit you fly halfway across the world to race for 5 minutes and then you’re done. 

Was it hard to leave behind a successful physical therapy practice to chase your bike racing dream? Do you ever regret it? I spent eight years getting my doctorate in physical therapy and I’m still paying for those student loans. I didn’t want to do anything half-ass, so if I was going to race my bike I wanted to be able to quit my job and do it a hundred percent, see where it takes me, and once I feel like I’ve plateaued then I’m done. I just want to see how far I can push things. So it was basically all or nothing for me. I decided I’m going to do this and I’m going to do it now. I’m not getting any younger. 

I miss physical therapy. I miss having a direct impact on people’s lives. My specialty was in geriatrics so I worked with mostly the elderly population—stroke rehab, joint replacement. I love that population and I love making that difference for them. They get out of the hospital and go to rehab and they’re either going to graduate from rehab and go home or they’re going to stay in the hospital for the rest of their lives. Being able to help them navigate through that process and get them back home is so rewarding.

I’ve thought a lot about what I am doing with cycling. It’s so self-absorbed. Everything is about me all the time. How am I really improving the world with cycling? When it comes down to it, it’s just a sport. People always tell me I’m inspiring people to stay active, but to me that’s not a tangible thing. Maybe I am, but I want to have a direct impact on people’s lives and I want to feel that change. How long can I be selfish before I need to really fulfill that need to help people and watch somebody’s life improve dramatically?

How are you healing up after the crash in the final turn of Nature Valley? How did you feel about the officials’ ruling, which ultimately meant you lost the GC win by 8 seconds to Shelley Olds? My face returned to normal size. They put a plate on my radius, so that’s helping the healing process. The biggest issue has been my broken middle finger. It has taken a full six weeks to heal. It’s amazing how weak your grip strength is when you can’t use your middle finger, which makes it really hard to grab onto your bars in a sprint. The psychological scars have held me back a bit, too. It’s been tough to get comfortable again in the peloton. I lost my shit a couple times at Cascade after seeing other people crash and get hurt. Post-traumatic stress rearing its ugly head. 

It was obviously disappointing to lose the jersey on the last day. I can blame it on the officials making a bad ruling, or I can blame it on the fact that I overcooked a corner and launched myself over the bars at 30 mph. Either way, it is what it is and I’ve moved on. I’m proud of the way my team raced that week. We were able to ride together so strongly as a team that we beat one of the best sprinters in the world in three of five stages. That’s awesome and that’s what I’ll remember. 

You are wearing a Beer Citizen T-shirt, so we’re obligated to talk about beer. What are your top three right now? I am mostly into porters. IPAs are too hoppy. I like the smooth, thick beers. 1. Caldera Brewing Company “Mogli” 2. Southern Oregon Brewing “Pin-up Porter.” 3. Black Butte Porter is my go-to when I’m traveling because it’s so readily available.

From Issue 24. Buy it here.