BEND, Oregon (VN) — Teal Stetson-Lee is back. After a tough end to her rookie elite cyclocross season in 2010, the Cal Giant-Specialized rider is coming on strong, winning at Jingle Cross Rock in late November and finding her first Exergy U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross podium at the Deschutes Brewery Cup on Saturday.
Stetson-Lee fought through the end of a 2010 season that saw her burnt to a crisp. It was the Fort Lewis College product’s first full season on the elite cyclocross circuit, and coupled with her mountain bike schedule, made her competition calendar too long. A midseason knee injury suffered in a bad crash at the USGP New Belgium Cup plagued her and the week-in, week-out grind of the national calendar was wearing hard on her.
A constant top-five contender for much of the fall, Stetson-Lee fell off the pace by almost four minutes each day at the USGP finale in Portland. The 2009 collegiate national champion considered walking away before nationals, but took the start and finished 16th, almost six minutes behind winner Katie Compton.
“That was the longest race season that I have ever put in,” she told VeloNews. “It was really hard for me. I didn’t realize how much traveling takes a toll on you.”
Stetson-Lee has rolled through an up-and-down 2011 campaign that saw her win at the Gateway Cup in St. Louis in September, but not again until Jingle Cross Rock on Thanksgiving weekend. Not only was she not winning — Stetson-Lee wasn’t even courting the top five on the national circuit.
By the middle of November, she reached a breaking point.
“I was realizing that I’ve been right on the edge there,” she said. “I’ve been mostly top 10 and I just know I can be faster than that. I just know I have that ability and I just needed to finely tune it. I’m tired of hanging out there and waiting for someone else to make it happen for me. So I just took it into my own hands and said, ‘It’s time. It’s time for me to tap into what my potential is.’”
What a difference 20 hours a week over the course of a month makes. Since cutting down at her day job as the community organizer and prevention specialist with a community tobacco-prevention group in Durango, Stetson-Lee has experienced an ability to recover more quickly and go deeper in training.
She said she feels renewed — in her fitness and in the amount of fun she’s having on the bike.
“I’m just really risking it right now,” she said. “I didn’t make a lot of money before and I’m making even less now, but sometimes you have to make sacrifices like that in order to get to where you want to. I’m taking a risk and I hope it’s going to be well worth it. I just had to do it. I had to make that change in my career in order to pursue cycling the direction I want to.”
Teammate Meredith Miller sees the difference, too. The pair swept Jingle Cross with Stetson-Lee winning the second of three races in Iowa City in late November. From there, she rode well at L.A. Cross last weekend and stormed to third on Saturday in Bend, one spot behind Miller.
“I think she knows what she’s capable of now after having the win there,” Miller told VeloNews. “She knows she has to race her race instead of focusing on everybody else that’s in the race, and have the confidence and the mental bit to take some of those risks and really go for it and not worry about what’s happening around her, just within her.”
According to Stetson-Lee, that confidence is just as important as her new approach to training.
“I went into Jingle Cross feeling mentally like I was in a really good place and that’s half the battle,” she said. “Rolling up to the line knowing you have the ability to throw down, as opposed to having that nagging question of whether I can do this. That was the first time I rolled up to the line that way and I felt it again (on Saturday).”
Another factor Stetson-Lee pointed to is her situation at home. She recently moved in with her partner, former BMX racer Ben Peterson, whom she met in February.
“He’s been instrumental. He’s a huge, huge advocate for my racing,” she said. “Whenever I’m having a mental breakdown and struggling with things, I can always call him up and he sets me straight: ‘You’re doing this because you’re passionate and because of that you’re going to be successful.’
“I have that extra support now, too, of having a home to come home to, instead of being strung out on my own with roommates and such.”
Looking ahead, Stetson-Lee is setting her sights reasonably for the remainder of the 2011-12 season. She doesn’t plan to go to Europe, unless her ideal situation presents itself and she wins the elite national championship in Madison, Wisconsin, in January.
“I’m just really happy to be on a podium at a USGP. I’m certainly striving for a podium (at nationals) and the top of the podium would be ideal, so that’s my goal,” she said.
“I want to take it slow. This is my second year racing elite and I know I have a long career ahead of me. I’m racing against women that are 10, 15 years older than I am, so I’m trying to pace myself. There will be plenty of time for Europe in the future.”
At 25, Stetson-Lee does have time and with her renewed spirit, she’s having fun. At the same time, her racing has taken on a more serious tone and she replaced her easy smile with an all-business posture on the turbo trainer warming up next to Miller on Saturday.
It worked. And she’ll likely have her game face on again Sunday when she closes out the USGP series on what she hopes will be another podium — and perhaps a step or two up.