Gravel and Grassroots Organizing: Mari Holden’s Next Challenge
#IWD2021 • Interview by William Tracy w/images Courtesy, Backbone Media
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Winner of a world time trial championship, multiple U.S. national titles and an Olympic silver medal, Mari Holden’s cycling accomplishments precede her. Now 49, Holden is in a different phase of her career, one focused on mentoring other athletes and coaches, as well as on grassroots efforts to get more kids on bikes. For 2021 she has joined Pinarello’s new ambassador program, the Scuderia Pinarello, which brings together a diverse group of athletes, including a pro surfer and a BMX rider, into the world of gravel racing, with a focus beyond just results. We talked with her about being a Pinarello ambassador—a brand which she rode during her decorated professional career—her goals off the bike, trying gravel riding and more.
Peloton magazine: The Pinarello Scuderia is unique for a cycling ambassador program in that it brings together people who have made their name in cycling and others who have found success in other sports. What made you want to be a part of this group?
Mari Holden: I had ridden Pinarello when I was racing in Europe the ‘90s, and I’ve always had a great relationship with Pinarello and basically considered myself an ambassador even though they didn’t have an ambassador program. So when they brought this to me and explained what the Scuderia program is all about, their goals were in alignment with where I am in my life right now and so it just seemed like a really good fit.
PM: Are there any opportunities this ambassador program opens up for you that may not have been available to you in the past?
MH: I think what makes it unique is that they’re so focused on inspiration and inclusion right now, which are two things that are really important to me. I think that being able to be with other athletes who are focused on the same thing, they may be at different points in their career—I mean, I definitely retired a long time ago [laughs]—being involved in it now I’m looking at it more from a mentoring perspective and how to get more girls on bikes, and more community level things. And so it’s been nice to be back and involved and have people who are racing like Jess [Cerra] and Amity [Rockwell], but be able to highlight the things I’m interested in, which is getting kids on bikes, more women in the sport and diversifying our sport. Since those were important messages for Pinarello and aligned with what I’m doing in my life, it just seems like a really good fit.
PM: Tell us more about the grassroots programs you’re involved with.
MH: Right now, I am working at USA Cycling with their grassroots effort with this program called “Let’s Ride,” and we are trying to get more kids on bikes. For me, it’s really fun. We’re going to be partnering with groups across the country to reach kids who are in underserved communities. And for me it’s super important because every kid, you want to see them get on a bike and feel that freedom and the lessons that you learn from riding a bike that help you throughout your life—besides the fact that cycling’s so healthy and you can do it as a lifelong sport.
PM: Have you had a chance to check out other Scuderia riders’ projects? Are there any you’re hoping to get involved with?
MH: I am going to be working with [Scuderia member] Anthony Carter. He’s just starting in the sport but he has a great club system out there in Baltimore. I’m going to be mentoring him with his coaching program and his club and his personal development as a cyclist. That for me is really fun because it touches on a lot of the things I care about.
PM: What do you hope to get out of your time with Scuderia Pinarello?
MH: For me it’s about adventure and pushing my personal boundaries to try something new. I raced my road bike forever, but I never did any mountain bike racing, or any of that kind of stuff. So for me it’s a totally new frontier and it’s kind of fun to get to learn from Jess [Cerra], who I actually directed on a team before, and Amity [Rockwell] who is such a wonderful, free-spirit person, and I get to learn from them and get out there and try something new—and hopefully stay healthy and have fun!
PM: What’s it like being in the same program again with Jess Cerra?
MH: It’s good. I mean, it’s so funny. We had our camp in Arizona and had so many laughs. It was really nice. For me it was special because when you’re someone’s director you don’t get to have that kind of same friendship; you have a different kind of friendship. To be able to hang out with her there, and talk with her as a teammate, was a really nice feeling for me, and getting to know her on a more personal level like that that you wouldn’t normally do with your director or coach was special for me.
PM: Tell us about your on-the-bike plans for 2021.
MH: I am looking at some gravel events. It’s going to be exciting. I’m 100 percent doing Jess’s ride [The Last Best Ride] in Montana. And it’s possible that I’m going to be doing UNBOUND Gravel. Right now with things that are happening with USA Cycling and events and stuff like that, I’m trying to get there, but that’s not 100 percent. I’m also going to do the Belgian Waffle Ride. It’s going to be fun.
PM: The Scuderia team is such an eclectic group of athletes. Is there anyone you’re interested in getting to know more?
MH: I really want to get to know Amity [Rockwell] better. She really interested me when she came out a couple years ago as a standout, winning DK, now UNBOUND Gravel. I had actually reached out to a few people, because I was running a road team at the time, about her interest in road racing. And so I’ve had an interest in getting to know her for a long time. And she also lives in Santa Barbara, which is just down the street from my parents’ house in Ventura. I’m hoping to get out there and ride with her sometime. She’s someone I’ve wanted to meet for a while.
Definitely the other athletes who are coming from other sports I’m so excited to meet them and find out more about them, because it’s such a different thing to have teammates who aren’t from our sport. And I say “our sport” like I’m a gravel cyclist! [laughs] I’m already adopting it.
PM: You’re new to gravel cycling, but you’re certainly no novice to cycling as a sport. What is the most valuable advice you can bring to the other Scuderia members?
MH: I think the best advice I can give them is that it’s a process, and: trying to break things down into smaller pieces, more manageable pieces, as you’re trying to work on your racing career. It’s something that I learned over a long period of time on the road, that you may have success, but you then have a lot of times where it’s really difficult, and having the confidence and a good team around you to support you through the difficult times is really important.
And I think that’s one of the things that’s interesting about Pinarello, too. Over in Europe there’s so much history and tradition [in cycling], and people really understand how the sport works more. It’s different culturally. I think as we build the gravel culture here in the States, it’s going to be important to remember the lessons that have been around for a long time in road racing.
There’s one other thing I want to bring up. I’ve been riding a road bike since I was 12 years old. I started in triathlon, went into road. It definitely was a long process. One of the things that was exciting for me about this program with Pinarello is that they embrace that, that lifetime of experience, and now they’re letting me come back and try something new that’s not something that I’m experienced in, but want to give it a try. And they’re completely supportive of me and of allowing that to happen. To me, that’s really special, that they’re wanting to see me make this full circle kind of thing where you’re starting again and still being inspired and learning things even though I’m almost 50. And hopefully that’s going to inspire some people, too, that you can be healthy as you age, and that we’re resetting what expectations are for aging.