Pennsylvania native Laura Van Gilder (C3–Athletes Serving Athletes) is a 20-year veteran road racer with hundreds of victories in her palmares. Only a few years ago, the former U.S. criterium champion took up cyclocross, and she’s currently ranked No. 1 in the world among women in the discipline.
In addition to her many road wins, the 45-year-old Van Gilder has earned an impressive number of ’cross victories and podium spots at both regional and national events, including those part of the UCI and USGP calendars.
This week VeloNews caught up with Van Gilder to learn more about her passion for racing bikes, how she balances the demands of road and ’cross, and the keys to her long, successful career.
VeloNews: How does it feel to be ranked the world’s No. 1 female cyclocrosser?
Laura Van Gilder: It feels amazing! I realize that this will be recalculated in a few weeks, but still it is a testament to my consistent results so far this season.
VN: You’ve been racing bikes for two decades, but you came to ’cross only a few years ago. Why was that, and how do you explain your fast rise to the top of the sport?
LVG: I was looking for some sort of goal to have in the off season, since I spent a lot of time training in the fall. It was the right time for something new and challenging. I guess my mountain-biking roots have helped me with some skills, and my determined nature as a bike racer has given me an edge.
VN: What got you into cycling in the first place?
LVG: I started to ride to get in shape, then had a goal of completing an MS ride — accomplished that and raised $1,500 — then started MTB, met a road racer, and the rest is history.
VN: What attracts you to ’cross?
LVG: I love that ’cross is so engaging, both mentally and physically. You get a lot of opportunities to put your skills to the test, to fail and succeed. You need luck, skill, physical strength and mental prowess. I also really enjoy the vibe at the races, between racers and also with spectators. It’s a very welcoming atmosphere, super fun and social.
VN: Will you race ’cross nationals and worlds this year? What are your priorities, and how do you decide your goals?
LVG: I’ll race nationals, and I’m hoping to make the worlds team. My priorities are to win races, improve my weaknesses and enjoy pedaling my bike. My goals are loosely based, since it’s important to see where I rank against the other riders. I enjoy racing, so I either do local racing or seek out bigger races to showcase my ability to the national coaches. I think it’s important to support races that treat the women equally and give a good prize payout.
VN: How do you manage the conflict between road and ’cross?
LVG: Fortunately, there was only one road conflict this year, and that was between the TD Bank Mayor’s Cup Criterium, in Boston, and the Wisconsin ’cross races. For me, there was a better chance of winning and making money at the criterium, and I needed to support that race. They gave a fantastic prize list, and you just can’t ignore those kinds of efforts. There was a UCI ’cross race in New Hampshire the day before, so I was still able to get some ’cross racing in, which was something that was also important to me. Right now I manage them both just fine, but if the calendar continues to grow I’m sure that it will be more difficult.
VN: When you’re on the podium you often talk about not just the physical challenges of racing but also the psychological battles. How important is the mental game?
LVG: The mental game in cycling is very important. If you’re not constantly evaluating the competition, the terrain, your weaknesses and those of your competitors, then you aren’t making the most of the opportunities that are presented to you that lead to success. What I do is talk to people with more experience, pick their brains, discuss options so that when I am in a situation and need to act quickly I have the tools necessary.
VN: Who have been your fiercest rivals, and who are the riders you admire most?
LVG: My fiercest rivals were Tina Pic and Ina Teutenburg, and the cyclists I admire most are Karen Bliss, Georgia Gould and Katie Compton.
VN: You’re 45, which is considerably older than most pro cyclists. You’ve won hundreds of races and you continue to win a lot. How important a role does age play in your life and career?
LVG: I think experience plays a bigger role than age. Look at Jeannie Longo at 50-plus years old winning races and national titles. She has set the standard. I just have lots of experience in my suitcase of courage that helps me along the way!
VN: What advice do you have for women just getting into cycling?
LVG: Enjoy yourself, try to find balance between your life and your sport and give it time. There is more to riding than just the physical output. Find a mentor or two.
VN: Have you considered what you might do after cycling?
LVG: I’d love to do something involving dogs. I’m a huge animal-welfare advocate, and finding homes for unwanted animals is very dear to my heart.
VN: How long will you continue?
LVG: As long as it takes! I’ll continue to race as long as I am enjoying it and am able.
VN: With a long career behind you, what have been the keys to your success?
LVG: Balance between my home life and my racing life. I have always loved riding my bike, and I believe that has been the solid foundation beneath me. I have a supportive boyfriend who isn’t jealous about what I have achieved and has been there through the thick and thin of 20 years of racing. He is my mechanic and my mentor and an all-around nice guy who loves bikes.
VN: In what ways has cycling changed you personally?
LVG: It has sharpened traits that I always had: motivation, dedication to goals, problem solving and an ability to suffer for success.
Daniel McMahon is editor of cyclingreporter.com, a contributor-based blog devoted to road and cyclocross racing in the New York City area.