After 18 seasons of racing and winning on the road, American Laura Van Gilder took up cross racing in 2008, where she managed to have quite a rookie season with a 4th place ride at Nationals and a top 20 finish at the world championships.
She’s back at it again in 2009, starting off her cross season with a sweep of the first two races of the Mid-Atlantic Cross (MAC) Series Nittany Lion Cross and Charm City last weekend. But before solely focusing on cross for the year, one more order of business on the road, the finale of the USA Crits Series in Las Vegas. Van Gilder with the help of her lone Mellow Mushroom teammate, Kristen LaSasso, as it has been throughout the year, won the final race and the overall series.
Van Gilder had to use her knowledge and experience to take on full squads and leadout trains throughout the season.
“There has been two of us all year.” said Gilder. “You just ride smart, you have to ride as smart as you possibly can and you have to know your competition, and you have to know the course. And all those elements combined with a little bit of luck have really gotten Kristen and I success.” explained Van Gilder.
The two teammates had to race to each other strengths to compensate for the minimal resources.
“We’re very committed to each other, she’s super strong, I couldn’t do it without her and it makes a difference when she’s able to cover the things that I can’t, I can sit and rest and she knows that, she know that I am going to be covering the other things. I’ll read the race right and if I need to sit in for the sprint I will, if I feel something is dangerous then I’ll do the work. So in a way, we give each other a rest.”
With a mountain biking background, Van Gilder took the plunge and started racing cross with the C3- Athletes Serving Athletes squad where she found that the challenges spoke to her.
“It really merges the two things I love about most sport, I just find that I always have to be on my toes and I really like that and I always feel a sense of accomplishment despite my result.” explained Van Gilder. “Whereas in a criterium, you sprint to finish, you get second, you get third and although there are a lot of people that would want to be second or third, as someone who has been a winner, you want to win, so in a way you feel a little bit let down. In cross, of course I’m not always winning in cross, but I feel so challenged that I can’t wait to come back. So that’s how it speaks to me as a competitor, I really like it.”
So what is it about cross that challenges such an experienced athlete?
“I find that cross is very mentally engaging the whole time, the strategy is different than the team strategy on the road but it’s a strategy of trying to take the technical aspect on the course properly so you don’t lose time getting a chance the next lap to do better on the runup, to do better in the sandy corner, to do better in the mud, and I like that you keep on getting those chances to improve and I like being able to chase those around you, chase them or keep away from them.”
With a year of experience under her belt, Van Gilder who won the 2008 MAC Cup Women’s Champion will be looking to make an even bigger splash on the cross scene.
“I have really really loved my cross experience,” said a smiling Van Gilder. “I am hoping that I improve in some places where I was weak, I hope that I can have the same success but I know that I am going to have the same amount of fun because it’s agreat sport.”
Over her career, her championships include the National Criterium in 2000, NRC Champ in 2002 and 2007 and USA Crits in 2007. While many of her contemporaries are retiring, the 44-year old Van Gilder has not plans to hang up the bike and will return to road racing in 2010.
“I am coming back,” concluded Van Gilder. “I feel I’m still successful so I’m going to keep on going as soon as I can, I’m enjoying it.”
Van Gilder is racing at the opening weekend of the 2009 Verge New England Championship Cyclo-Cross Series in Williston, VT today and Sunday.