What a difference a year makes in the case of Sue Butler of the Hudz-Subaru team. Last year, she was battling serious breathing issues which jeopardized her racing and forced her to withdraw her petition to represent the US at the UCI Cyclocross World Championships.
Fast forward to the present where after battling for the win at US Cross races, she is now in Europe getting ready for the first two World Cups, in Aigle, Switzerland this weekend and in Pizen, Czech Republic the following. So far this year, she has claimed a podium at 5 UCI races, the opening NACT weekend with the Rad Racing Gran Prix, Star Crossed, followed by the Planet Bike Cup part of the Greenware US Gran Prix of Cyclocross and two out of three of Cincinnati’s UCI3 Cyclocross Festival races. Her top level goal this year is to do well at the World Championships in Germany.
Talk to Butler, and immediately you will get her love of all things bike racing. A late starter in the sport, she started at age 35 and races cross, mountain bikes and road and is still learning and enjoying the sport five years later. Walk around a cross venue, and you will see Butler cheering on her teammates and her west coast homies.
I sat down with Butler after her second place finish, again, at the second race of the UCI3 festival, on a very hot and dusty day.
What a difference a year makes, is it a new determination?
It’s not so much determination. Last year I wondered what was wrong with me because I had a pretty good start to the season and things went down hill. I just couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I had some low iron issues so I went to the doctor for that, and I went to see some specialist that someone referred to me, a sports doctor, and the first thing he said to me when he saw me was ‘you have asthma’. Like ‘no I don’t’.
So you had never been diagnosed with asthma?
No. I had some breathing issues but it’s cross so I just assumed it was normal. This is my fifth year now so you’d think I would have figured it out by now. Last year in Ohio actually, Tim, Barb Howe’s boyfriend came up to me after the third race, ‘Sue you sound like you have asthma’. I’m like ‘No I don’t’. I never thought of it and then when he said that, I was like maybe there’s something to it and so he did some testing, and ‘you definitely have asthma, exercise induced asthma’. And I think it’s because I keep improving my fitness and I’m pushing harder and once I got the iron okay – I actually got some IVs of iron last year. Then when I could push harder because I had iron in me I started up having attacks. I don’t know how it’s all related but it was a pretty rough year and after New Jersey last year I wanted quit, I was like ‘I’m done, that was not fun’. It’s not fun not being able to breathe and then at Nationals I had another attack. It was frustrating and having to say no to going to Worlds, talking to Mark about it, talking to my doctor, talking to my coach, I just need to take the year off. I had a pretty good mountain bike season and kind of quit before Nationals, because Nationals was at 9,000 feet and I knew that being a sea-level dweller, I said ‘naw I’m going to skip that’. And just doing other things, I did a 100-mile bike race and won that and that was fun. And I was like ‘how can you win a 100-mile mountain bike race and race cross?’ I don’t know, I just love riding my bike. It was just a fun summer and I want to go to Worlds this year and I want to be consistent and try improving.
That’s a difference this year, you’re pushing harder.
I’m definitely pushing. Now I know I can breathe now because I have medication so it’s fine. I’m not scared anymore. Last year towards the end of the season, Portland especially, it was my first race back after New Jersey of being able to kind of breathe and I was scared. It’s scary when you approach something and you don’t know if you’re going to be able to breathe. Yeah, I am determined because I really missed going to Europe last year, I really like racing over that Christmas season. I really like racing.
You really like racing don’t you?
I do, I really like racing. I do, I love riding my bike and I really do like racing.
What about the other aspects of it, the travel and being away from home?
I don’t particularly love being away from home but I don’t have to travel as much I think now. It’s hard living on the West Coast, we have to travel for every UCI point we get, except for USGP in Portland. And so, we’re at a slight disadvantage but I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve done well enough at the races. I’ll go to the first two World Cups and I don’t really have to travel to the East Coast. I didn’t go to Gloucester this year which was a good choice. Or LA, I stayed at home. It’s fun racing at home, just kind of throwing it back and not being greedy, you don’t need to go to all the races. I don’t want to race myself out either, I definitely want to save it for the big races.
So you say your goal is going to Worlds, what do you think you need to do to get there?
I just have to keep on being consistent and definitely I’ve been quite consistent this season so far. I’d like to go over next week to do well at the World Cups. Last year having an asthma attack at Nommay and I got seventeenth, I think that fifteenth is probably not a bad goal to reach for, top 10 would be great. It just depends if everything comes together, I’ve had a pretty hard training block coming into these races, so tried to rest up to do well here and get some more training and then rest up for the World Cups.
Is doing well at USGP races also part of that goal for you?
It is. I definitely want to do well in Portland, it’s so fun. Portland is a big goal, racing at home is so much fun, it’s really neat. Two years ago, I got my first USGP podium there, it was really exciting, probably the best day of racing I’ve had in my life. It was awesome, it was so exciting. You would have thought I was first the way people were cheering when I was finishing, it was pretty cool. And I want to do well at USGP Fort Collins, I’m just going to imagine that I’m at sea level there and know that it’s not going to bother me at all. I do have to go to the next NACT, they are both in Boulder, I’ll be going there. It’s a team thing, we’re out of Boulder. I might be a little tired from being in Europe but it’s a quick trip, it’s not that bad. Colorado is 2, 2.5 hours to fly so that’s fine. Getting to the East Coast is a good 5, 6, 7 hours it’s a big ordeal. It’s hard and I don’t think people realize that, especially the people that live on the East Coast and the time change is huge. When I’m waking up at 9 o’clock here, it’s 6 o’clock at home. Going to bed last night, I could not go to bed, I tried to go to bed at 9, 10 o’clock, well it’s 7 pm my time so I’m up a midnight going ‘tu tu tu, am I ever going to fall asleep’.
What’s the goal for Worlds?
I want a top 10. I’m not quitting until I get a top 10 at Worlds man.
How ofter have you gone to Worlds?
Twice. And last year, I just had to forego. It was a very tearful decision to talk to Mark Gullickson and withdraw my petition, like ‘I’m not healthy, it’s unfair for me to go represent my country and stink it up over there’, I definitely was willing to forego that, it was the right decision and this year I can’t wait to get back, it’s so fun.
Back to this year.
I started off well last year but I think I can continue. I’m not feeling like I’m totally maxed out which is good, I’m not trying to chase Katie down either. I tried to stay with her on the attack up the hill, I’m like ‘eh forget about it’. I thought about it and then ‘wait, it’s really hot out here and you’re going to explode, don’t do it’. I’m starting to get a little smarter and knowing my limits and knowing my strengths. For me this course was hard because I’m struggling on these dry corners because I haven’t had as much time on my new bike, I don’t know that the tipping point is so I’m a little more conservative, they’re awesome though.
Push it here before you go to Europe.
It was good practice today, I kind of see how far I could go. The bikes ride so awesome, riding that Ridley this year, they’re great bikes. I hadn’t ridden any other bikes than Cannondale since I started racing cross nationally so this was a big change for me. Yeah, I’m determined.
And then Europe where I assume it’s not as hot as here right now.
It’s not cold right now, 50s and 60s. I didn’t look like rain in the forecast but anything can change. I’ve never done these courses before so I’m going into totally unfamiliar territory, it will be interesting to see what this is going to bring. It will also be fun also because I’m going to see old friends that I haven’t seen for awhile, when I fly into Switzerland, I’ll spend one night with a friend I haven’t seen since ’94, then I’ll spend the week with my exchange student from when I was in high school and we’ve kept in touch, and seen each other frequently throughout our lives. So I’ll stay with her and she’s going to come to the Czech Republic with me, it will be nice. Katerina will be there. Having done these races enough, it’s kind of like these races, you can go to the races alone but I never feel like I’m alone because you know everyone, it’s fine. It’s gotten to that point in Europe where you can show up, you know Gabby, you know Helen, you know all the English speakers, Daphne knows who we are. It’s not like you’re going over there and don’t know everyone, everyone is pretty cordial and pretty friendly.
And you are the doing the nutso Chrismas season of racing too?
The women’s is never so nutso because there’s not as many races but yeah, I’ll probably go over there. I think we only have 3 or 4 races in 2 weeks, and then I’ll come home and then I’ll go back over, hopefully, for the next 2 World Cups before Worlds. Although one of the World Cup is way over on the west coast of France which makes it really inconvenient, way too long drive so I don’t know how that’s going to play into it, we’ll see.
How important are the 2013 Worlds in Louisville for you? Are you thinking about that now?
You know my husband and I were just talking about that the other day, because truth by told my husband is my biggest sponsor, supporter, he is amazing and he races as well. We started racing together so it’s been fun. We did you first cross races, our first mountain bike races together and he’s doing all the USGPs in the Masters. He’s going to go to Louisville without me and I’m like ‘wow’. (laughs) He’s still going even though I’m not which is cool. That’s only two more years so you think about that.
People in the US are starting to change their schedule for that now, adding World Cups.
It is important, if you don’t race at that level all the time. You need to get used to it, you need to be there in it and then it’s not such a traumatic experience.
It is only two more years.
It is only two more years. I take it year by year, my whole thing is as long as I’m still having fun, as long as I’m still improving. I started late in life.
When did you start?
My first ever mountain bike race was when I was 33, and then I started getting serious about it when I was 35 and I’m not 39 now and this is my fifth year of doing this seriously. So far, so good, I keep progressing, I keep getting better. My coach, I use Kendra Wenzel and she’s amazing and has been there, she knows what my goals are and she supports them and works with me, it’s nice to have your coach at home too so she can see me race. She watched me race locally and she’s like ‘okay this is what we need to work on’. I know what I need to work on at this point, it’s little things and smoother transitions and better, faster cornering.
And you race mountain bike and cross. What is your transition like between the two, is it easy?
This last summer I actually did a bunch of road racing too. I did four stage races two local races Cherry Blossom and Mt Hood, Nature Valley and then I did Cascade, I guest-rode for a team there. I think that helps too because the crits are a lot more like cross, like accelerating out of the corners, it gives me a different skill that I don’t necessarily have like sprinting as you saw today as I got crushed in the sprint. Actually I could have played that smarter, I don’t know what I was thinking, I was thinking ‘oh God here goes nothing, sprinting with Laura again’. It’s funny because I struggle at the 1.5-hour, 2-hour mountain bike race, I haven’t found myself – and our podium are 5-deep in mountain biking – and I still haven’t gotten to that. I finally got a short-track podium in Wisconsin at the Pro-XCT and that was exciting, because it’s like ‘finally’ but it was short-track. I want to figure out how to conquer that 2-hour race but at the same time, maybe this is where I’m best but then then the 100-mile long mountain bike race I was fine.
How long was that?
9.5 hours. It makes no sense.
So you like really long or short.
Yeah and I love stage racing and that’s the other thing. This last year I couldn’t afford to stage race for mountain bike because I didn’t have a sponsor, I was riding for my local bike shop and you can’t do those long mountain bike stage races unsponsored because one, it costs a lot and you need support at those. Whereas road racing, you can show up, you don’t need much, they don’t cost very much and you can still get five days of racing in.
Is that why you were doing more road races?
I really like doing day after day after day.
You just like racing.
I do. I try to not race so much but it’s too much fun.