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Interviews

French Flair

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In the United States, Julie Krasniak is best known for two things: cyclocross and socks. In 2013, she and her husband Jeremy Dunn started a business selling brightly patterned cycling socks. Their first product is emblazoned forever into the psyche of any road rider worth their weight in fashion sense—the famous PDX airport sock. The green pattern, inspired by Portland Airport’s now well-known green carpeting, won the hearts and minds of the subset of equally quirky athletes known as cyclists, and the phenomenon spread.

Words: Heidi Swift

Images: Swift & Jeremy Dunn

Their company, The Athletic Community, now sells socks in nearly 40 different designs and has added running, basketball and cycling apparel to the mix. At their storefront in northwest Portland, you can also peruse a meticulously curated selection of everything from eyewear to rare quarterly magazines—it’s a beautiful space with a lounge area fit for flipping through your favorite publications, or just catching up with friends. As Krasniak puts it: “The Athletic Community, well…it’s a lot about the community.”

You can find her behind the counter (or working furiously in a tucked-away office space nearby) most days of the week, but the 28-year-old French national boasts an impressive cycling career that pre-dates her ambitious foray into the challenge of bringing sport, art, community and culture together in a creative expression. Krasniak is a fourth-generation racing cyclist and 12-time French national champion who racked up titles in time trialing, cross-country mountain biking and road racing all before the age of 23. She made the jump to cyclocross in 2011, racing two seasons for the iconic Rapha-FOCUS team, and she eventually moved across the pond to start a new life with Dunn in Oregon. The couple quickly realized that they had a unique creative chemistry and it wasn’t long before The Athletic Community came to life.

Krasniak is infinitely prolific and it can be as challenging to keep up with her stream of big ideas as it is to hold her wheel on a climb. We chatted about the journey from “growing up pro” to co-founding one of the most exciting and unexpected new sports brands to hit the market.

Tell us about the day you won your first national title in road cycling. It was in the category before junior: cadette. It’s a tricky one because nationals groups girls aged between 13 and 16 years old—I was 14, so that is a big difference. It’s a short race, around 40 kilometers. I didn’t have any teammates so I made a plan in my head to attack at kilometer 5 and go by myself. The coach did not want me to do this. I was pretty stubborn in a naïve way so I didn’t listen—I attacked until I was by myself up front. The chase started right away and I never had more than 30 to 45 seconds’ lead. I TT’ed the whole thing and I broke the record of average speed for a race in this age category. It was something like 40 kilometers per hour, and this is with limited gears. After that, I was on a national podium every year—nationals was my race.

French Cyclocross Championships, 2013. Image: Dunn

What was it like to be an elite athlete from such a young age? It’s a dangerous line to be an athlete so young because you are really vulnerable. People need to use you for performance because they need results, so basically all those adults you meet in your life are using you for their own personal purpose, but you’re too young to know what you want. You’re there basically feeding everybody’s needs but nobody is actually looking at what you need. But when you’re there you just assume things are right. Everyone assumes it’s a wonderful world of awesomeness, but it’s not always. It has been an interesting journey.

Your father Zbigniew Krasniak was a very successful Polish, then French racer, winning more than 300 times in road racing, cyclocross and mountain biking in his long amateur career—he was also your coach. What was that dynamic like? My father is bigger than life and like most people who are like that, their closest friends or family become victim of it. Being a pro athlete has something really selfish built in. You have to put your practice on your top priority. He traveled a lot and was quite a mysterious character when I was little. I don’t think my dad was there when I was born—there’s a story of him coming back after a race or the next day.

Anyway, what I’m trying to explain to you is that with this as a base and my dad becoming my coach for a long time, it was a ticking time bomb. I know he always meant well and was trying to be really sweet in the hard times, but we had a tough run, period. And the success barely made up for the bad time. I finally had to ask him not to coach me anymore and he was sad—and it was sad for me to have to say it. For a long time, we talked without listening or even trying to understand each other. But it’s a good coming-of-age story, and somehow, even if it was hard, I’m glad we lived it together. At the end of the day, we both used cycling as therapy!

What’s your single greatest memory on the bike so far? In 2006, I went to New Zealand, in Rotorua, to race at the mountain bike world championship. This was a great racing year for me but a tough one on a personal level because my mom was going through chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. That trip was a much-needed mental escape. Also, since she was still alive and doing well, I finally started to see the light at the end of the tunnel for her. The landscape there is magical, the riding was amazing, I had a great race—I finished second—and I was in a really peaceful state of mind.

Talk about your years racing cyclocross for Rapha-FOCUS. What was it like? What did you learn? That was fun, and I’m happy to say that from this time I still have contacts with my teammates Chris, Zach and Gabby—which says a lot about the positive energy that we were sending to each other. It was only two years, but to this day it’s probably for what I’m the most known for on American ground. I learned to speak English mostly!!!

Rome Cyclocross World Cup, 2013. Image: Dunn

I had a lot of conflicts with the French federation during these years, and I had to deal with the disappointment of not being selected for the 2012 Olympics. But looking back it taught me that it’s better not to do something with the wrong people, even if it’s worlds or Olympic Games. I like values. I like nice people. This is what I learned about me during my Rapha-FOCUS time.

I spoke to Jeremy right after he first met you and, among other things, he was clearly smitten with your speed! Ahem, he specifically said you dropped him. Are you two competitive with each other on the bike? I need to drop him at any occasion I get. But he doesn’t take it personally; it’s just something I do with people [laughs]. Those occasions have become rare now so I tend to take all of them! We ride quite a lot together, but I’m not that fast, or I don’t want to be, because it hurts and I’m past that! We ride at least two times a week together but I cannot be competitive with Jeremy, I just want kiss his face off.

I think that first time I dropped him, I technically dropped Slate Olson [then general manager of Rapha North America] and Jeremy was collateral damage. I didn’t know him, but I figured if I wanted be on the Rapha-FOCUS team, I better drop the guy in charge. It happened that his decision-making system was as simple as that.

You moved from Metz, France, to Portland, Oregon, in 2012—how has life changed for you since then? Radically. It was a big move. When I started seeing Jeremy in 2011, I had no idea it would work out this great. At that point, I kind of assumed that it will be a miracle if our relationship would survive a cycling season as intense as an Olympic trial year, because I already had done the trials in 2008 and, well, it was bloody. So, from day one, I made him the list of all the crazy things that were going to happen that year and I told him I needed a lot of love, like so much, like all the time…. His answer was: “Deal.” For me, it meant a lot. I never had someone on my side who supported my career like Jeremy did.

You’ve been racing and riding for so long; can you share some of your experience with women’s cycling apparel? When I was 14 [in 2002] and I won the French road nationals, I found that Assos was making a women’s-specific chamois and told my parents that I wouldn’t ride unless I had it. We had to special order it from our bike shop. I’m not doing training six days a week in a men’s short—it’s a nightmare!

Even much later we still didn’t have women’s chamois on the French national team. In 2007 or 2008, we had to ride the Route de France, which is a seven-day race. So, on my first night in my hotel room before that race I took the chamois out of the team short. I cut all the seams. I spent probably three hours and then I wore my national team bib short on top of my Assos bib short. Then I made a huge case with the federation that they were finally like, “Okay, fine. Yeah.” And they only had to order them—they didn’t even have to pay for them. All they had to do was ask for it to be the sponsor, but they didn’t even want to do that. It was insane.

Pétange, 2012. Image: Dunn

Let’s talk about your business, The Athletic. It famously started with the PDX airport sock—when did the idea strike you and Jeremy to make the airport sock? Did you ever think it would become as big as it did? It was in September 2013, and it was great because I was bored to death. We were tight on money—what’s new here? Jeremy asked me if it was okay to spend $300 to make 72 pairs of socks. Of course, I said no, pointing out his habit of giving everything away. So he promised he would only keep some and put them on Instagram for sale the next day. He sold out in two hours and I was an idiot. I apologize.

The Athletic has grown way beyond socks. It’s a brand, it’s a retail space, and I hear it’s now an art gallery? We wanted a place to bring our people together and bring to them things they are interested in. It’s a niche and it’s really nerdy but it’s what we are into, and ultimately we are just part of a bigger pool of people who are into the same thing. We love fashion, art, design and sport. So we put it all together with the little resources we had in an online business, then a storefront and now an art gallery call ESA gallery which stands for Espace Sportif and Artistique—a play on the name of the community center in France. We design and produce a line of accessories for exercise: running, cycling, basketball and pretty much whatever you want.

Bande de Filles is a kind of a brand-within-a-brand at The Athletic that is focused on women. Can you tell us about this side project? Bande de Filles is my really personal answer to the lack of community around women in the sport industry. A magazine is in the works, a cycling kit collab with Attaquer will release in June, and more casual apparel is on the way. The marketing build around the sport for women is often filtered through big corporations to sell a specific product. It’s like processed food: you lose the vitamins and the good stuff in the process. What I want to achieve with Bande de Filles is more around messaging: Be your own role model, and do it so you are a happier and healthier person. Do sport with other men, do sport with other women, crush it, smile a lot.

Tell us more about the Bande de Filles magazine project. The magazine is about not only women athletes but also women who exercise as a lifestyle. Because of my mom’s experience with ovarian cancer, I want to integrate health of women into the magazine. It’s interesting that a lot of medical conditions for a woman you only talk about one time a year when you go to the gynecologist—it’s not something people talk about in a public space. It wasn’t until I was 23 that I finally had a coach who recognized that I needed to eat and recover differently, because, for one thing, women’s hormones are different from men.

Shop image: Heidi Swift.

I feel like as a woman athlete you should know about all of that. When I was a teenager, I didn’t get my period a lot and they said, “Oh that’s normal…you exercise a lot.” Nobody told me that actually that’s not normal…that’s not how it’s supposed to work.

I think that everyone is under-informed. I’m older now, 28, and I still have my menstrual cycle very infrequently. I went to the gynecologist and we talked about whether I want to have children and they tell me it might be difficult because of my intense endurance life. And I’m like, “What the fuck!?” Nobody ever told me that 15 years down the line it could be really hard for me to get pregnant. Even athletes don’t want to talk about it and I don’t know why. I guess it’s a stigma. So I want to make a place to start having those conversations.

You list rollerblading as your favorite sport in your profile on The Athletic Community website. Consider our curiosity piqued—please discuss! I was big at rollerblade as a kid. I loved it because I was ice skating all winter, so in the summer I will keep the vibe going. Nerd alert. Roller-blade is my madeleine de Proust [“sweet moment in life”]. It’s how bad it is.

Besides the new magazine and related Bande de Filles projects, what does the future hold for The Athletic? So much. We are starting to work with a really rad designer, Garrett Chow. This is a big deal for us because so far we have been designing everything on our own, but we don’t have the process and the precision of a trained designer. We are working on cycling apparel for the summer and the cyclocross season, which will be available to the public. We also have a great photography show coming in the art gallery featuring abstract ocean landscapes from Steven Nero. And I’m sure the future holds lots of surprises too. All I want at The Athletic is for everybody to have a fun and simple life. It’s the rollerblade life, baby!

theathleticcommunity.com

From issue 55. Buy it here.