For two weeks this year, Laura Van Gilder (C3 – Athletes Serving Athletes) was ranked number 1 in the UCI Cross Rankings, a huge achievement for the 46-year old on her third of racing cross. But of course, it’s not as if she’s new to racing her bike, she has over 300 victories on the road as a top sprinter for the past twenty years.
After sweeping the 20th annual Cycle-Smart International weekend, Van Gilder was asked if it was her 372nd win. Her reply sums up her approach to racing, “I’m not really quite sure but if you do it long enough I guess that’s what happens you get to have a lot of victories and I’m very proud of that but I love racing my bike. The wins don’t matter the competition does.”
Van Gilder is now ranked third in the world in the updated cross rankings from earlier this week and she’s not done yet. She will be racing at the Greenware US Gran Prix of Cyclocross New Belgium Cup this weekend in Ft Collins.
I sat down with Van Gilder last Saturday morning at the Cycle-Smart Interational race where we discussed the cerebral side of racing, and yes her age.
What does it mean for you to be ranked #1 on the UCI for weeks?
It’s been a really amazing accomplishment. I know that it’s only until they recalculate the UCI points but I think that it really shows the consistency I’ve had this season at all the events and it shows that I’m gaining more experience. And I’m very happy to represent both the East Coast C3 and the US to hold the number one ranking right now. Katie has done that in the past and it’s nice to see an American rider on the top.
Coming into your cross season this year what was your goal? What did you want to accomplish?
This season I tried to pick and choose my road races more carefully so I would come into the cross season a little bit fresher. I’m always enthusiastic but sometimes I’m just tired from racing so I felt that I did that but I knew that there were going to be a lot of new competition and current competition and so I just really once again have some success and victory and get more experience. The long shot is making the Worlds Team and just maybe podium at some of the bigger races that I never had against the best competition. Those were the goals but just to continue to enjoy myself and race my bike.
When do you think you are now with your goals as we’re halfway through the season?
I feel like I’m actually a little bit ahead of them, I’ve achieved a little more than I thought I would and so my focus is turning more towards making that [Worlds] team but again the field is so deep and they only take five riders if they choose to even take five riders so there’s a lot of competition. I’m trying to figure out where to spend my money and where to spend my efforts in order to do that because I really do enjoy racing and I want to make sure that I’m fresh when it comes to participating at Worlds and ready for that. So I’m considering a World Cup race, maybe Koksijde, I’m on the fence about that I think it would be really fun to get called to the line as number 1.
That would be amazing, are you kidding me? That would be more than fun.
And I’ve done that one before and I enjoyed it so I’m thinking about that and of course that’s part of the selection process, a good placing at a World Cup is going to go far so we’ll see. I’m not really sure about the Christmas Cross and I would love to top 5 again at Nationals. Nationals is always so competitive that would be great as well. So I think I’m right on track, a little bit ahead but you know it’s a balancing act it is a long time to Worlds.
It is. There are so many races, the competition is very deep. How do pick your races?
I feel really fortunate being on the East Coast we have a lot of very good events and with deep fields. I try to balance those between going to some of the USGPs. I found it hard this year I haven’t really known whether to chase series, I just really have always liked to support promoters that are supporting the women’s events and there have been a lot of races this year, at least eight if not more, eight regional races that have matched the top 3 prize money for the women as for the men and a lot of those were MAC races, Adam’s race in New Hampshire and then of course you stick in the USGP with one of their days with a bigger prize list, Cincinnati was huge prize list and to me, it’s about supporting the events that really support you and hopefully they in turn get the good field. So that’s been the hard part knowing how to spend my money for travel because our team isn’t big and again you don’t want to have those expenses.
Do you race every weekend?
I do race every weekend.
This year a lot more people are taking breaks.
I’ve noticed that too. I really enjoy it and I feel it’s giving me more experience and as I said I like to support these series, I really like the MAC series and coming up here to the Verge series as well, so it’s hard. Maybe it’s not a wise choice but I’ve always been a racer that’s raced a lot so that’s not new to me and we have a great team dynamics, C3 does, and I enjoy being with them and that’s part of it too. When you have a chance to be at so many races with such a good support group I think it makes me a better racer.
Every time I talked to you you mention that you’re still learning a lot but could you be too modest about your own skills at cross?
I don’t know. Cross is an event where you’re consistently tested, each lap and each portion of a lap. For me maybe because I’m a perfectionist I know immediately when I’ve just lost some time and made a mistake and so you’re always thinking I can do this better. When you’re racing against someone whose strengths are technical strengths you can see those gaps opening and then you go ‘mmm I need to improve that’. Obviously if I was great at it all I would be right there with Katie and Georgia and Katerina and a lot of these people who just walk away and so maybe I do sell myself a little bit short but I think that probably just helps me in the long run because I’m thinking each lap about where I need to be to make up the time.
So it’s very cerebral for you, not just physical. You’re always thinking then.
Yes, that’s really what I love about it. I say the word and I mean it, it’s engaging, I feel that I’m consistently mentally challenged whether it’s about something that I’m going to approach technically or tactically – here I am in this position and how am I going to race this person for the win or the podium as the race evolves. I like that because it takes your mind off the suffering, it’s exactly why I couldn’t be a great time trialist because I prefer to have a lot of mental stimulation. I think that’s what I’m good at and that’s my strength on the road, it’s evaluating a race situation and making the most of it, I don’t think I’m perfect there either. I think that the more you think about that, the more that when you’re faced with race situations you can easily go ‘that’s what I’ll do’, I plan where I’m going to attack in a course and not leave it to a sprint.
Were you always able to read a race like that? I know you get better at that through experience but were you able when you started to do that?
Not when I first started, my boyfriend right away [after] we’d race, we’d drive home and we talked about it and we still do, and I think that’s made all the difference because I have a natural sprint but I think a lot of times people move up the ranks because of their physical ability and yet they don’t have people who are coaching them as to what to expect to encounter in a race. So I think it developed, he kind of taught me these skills right from the beginning, it’s not just about your legs you have to be able to out-think people because you’re going to come to the finish in a group. I didn’t maybe have it naturally or maybe I had a little of it and he just tapped into it and reminded that this is the most important part, the physical part a lot of people can do.
You started cross late in your career. Do you regret not starting earlier?
I don’t think I do because it was always there and people were always saying to me ‘you should try cross’ and I always felt tired from the road. The same way people kept telling me ‘you need to get on the track’ and I said one more day in the car to drive there, you have to dedicate time to it in order to be good and I think it was just the right time. I don’t know if I would have had the passion for it, I was heavily involved with some serious road teams and needed to make those kind of commitments and had I started cross maybe they would have said you can’t do this until December. So no I don’t and I guess I don’t because I feel competitive with most everyone out there, maybe if I wasn’t I would say ‘oh I wish I was younger’ but I feel really excited that I can be this old (laughs). I don’t even think about it, I think because I’m short I think I’m young.
How old are you again?
I’m 46 and I’ve been doing this for 20 years.
Are you still planning on racing road next year? Will you be reducing your calendar?
I’m going to race road again, there are great races and I enjoy it. Again I want to support the promoters that are out there putting on great events for women, obviously I’m going to pick and choose again because I’d like to do another cross season.
Okay let’s talk about age. Are you watching your body? Are you thinking about retirement every year, that it might happen one year that your legs are not answering?
I am and I have and I wondered if last year was the time, I wondered if coming into this road season I was going to be as hungry for it and I was. I built into it because I was tired after a long cross season and I was competitive again. Maybe not as many victories but I also was trying to chill out a little bit. I did think about it a little bit, it’s such an encompassing sport that I’m going to have to find something that, I don’t know, you always have this goal you prepare all week, you pack, you plan, you race, you evaluate how you’ve done, what you could do to be better so you’re just consistently moving forward and even when I’ve taken time off the bike and haven’t had that goal, it’s difficult, like I have all this momentum and nowhere to go with it.
You wouldn’t be happy just sitting at home.
No. I volunteer at our animal shelter and I have at times been there six days a week walking dogs, depending on my schedule and my heart is really for the animals. I would love to do something to make a difference and find more homes, educate, mostly walk these dogs that have been left. I sometimes wish I could do more to get them homes but that to me is such a passion that if there was a way to do that and live, because those are things are not high-paying jobs because the money needs to go to the animals, but that I find very motivating so if it was something like that. I’d love to give back in some way to the sport but I don’t think in the women’s side there is no job security for a director or a rider and 20 years of doing it like this, wondering if you’re going to be able to make a salary or not, it’s difficult and I want to continue but… And how can you give back because no one has made hundred of thousands of dollars, not that they’re going to personally financially give back but you need to go get a real job now to go get some savings behind you. So I hope in some way there’s some aspect of it that I can give back whether it’s mentoring but I enjoy riding and racing so maybe even at a local level I’ll just remain involved so that I’m accessible to juniors.
Being driven like you are, I assume that you evaluate your competitors. How would you evaluate yourself both as a roadie and a cross racer?
I’m not going to answer that because somebody will use it against me. (laughs)
Because people say too much but I do feel like I’m pretty open with people. My competitors should know my weaknesses just as I know theirs and I hope soon that some of those things will be my strengths.
You’ve seen a change in the past years.
I think probably the year I started is when it became to change because prior to that, I know Mo had done it for a long time. I would always read about the cross result, Lyne [Bessette], I could tell you the names of people that were dominant and it seems like the year I started several roadies started, and maybe also the mountain bikers, I can’t speak because the mountain bikers I mostly know have come and gone and are no longer involved.
It’s been a surge and I think there’s lot more depth in different directions so when the courses are more mountain-bikey the mountain bikers have more advantage and when they are more road like [it's good for the roadies], and then you have people who are good at all of that. I think it’s great, this is the second time in New England with the B women had 75 starters. That is exciting you cannot get that in a ¾ women’s crit and I think it’s wonderful. If that’s the direction that it’s going we’re just going to send stronger teams to Europe and have stronger regional competition.