VERONA, Wisconsin (VN) – Not the mountain biker Georgia Gould (Luna), nor the young and fearless Kaitlin Antonneau (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) could muster a silver medal at the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships on Sunday. Nor could the experienced Maureen Bruno-Roy (Bob’s Red Mill-Seven), nor the ever-talented Meredith Miller (Cal-Giant-Specialized). Not even the former downhill mountain biker Nicole Duke (Alchemy Bicycle Company), though she came closest.
No, none of these riders slayed the rutted, frozen track of Prairie Badger Park in Verona, Wisconsin, quite as well as the 34-year-old Jade Wilcoxson (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies). Except, of course, for the indomitable Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective).
Compton won her ninth straight cyclocross national championship title on Sunday; it’s as if they are automatic at this point, though the Colorado Springs resident said it was anything but, proclaiming that the course conditions in Verona were the most difficult she’d ever raced on.
Yet it was the unknown Wilcoxson who had jaws dropping in the frigid mid-January Wisconsin temperatures.
Out of nowhere
How did this relative unknown take on what one of the most prolific cyclocross racers of all time described as one of the most intense courses she’d ever raced, and not only come away unscathed, but beat up on the competition?
“I don’t really ride my bike in these kinds of conditions!” Wilcoxson said just before stepping onto the second step of the podium Sunday night. Incredibly, she had just come off a nine-day training session on the track; the warm, indoor temperatures and pristine track surface were surely a distant memory after the jackhammering sensations of the rut-laden, lava-like surface in Wisconsin.
“Having just come off the track, I was really worried about the technical parts of it. But I just got out there and felt great, and for some reason today things were just clicking. Skills that I didn’t think were there, were there,” she said. “I think it helped that I was so nervous about the technical aspects that I just didn’t care what anyone else around me was doing — I’m not going to try and go faster if somebody passes me because they might crash. I’m just going to do my own thing. And having that track fitness, just laying down the power really helped.”
She steadily worked her way through the field, riding her own race, until she caught the audacious Duke with just under a half a lap to go; Duke latched on to her wheel until they hit the finishing stretch of pavement. Wilcoxson powered away from Duke on the tarmac, taking silver by a comfortable margin.
“My bike was so gunked up with mud that I couldn’t shift into my big ring, so it was a little ring sprint,” she said. It would turn out to be the second fortuitous advantage of having just come off the track, another cycling discipline she has started just recently. “All week on the track I’ve been hating this cadence, 120 rpms! But I had to use it today.”
She crossed the line over a minute behind Compton, but put in such an impressive ride that people immediately began wondering if she had any chance of garnering a discretionary selection for the U.S. team at the cyclocross world championships, which take place February 2-3, in Louisville, Kentucky.
Unfortunately, Wilcoxson had not applied for a discretionary spot; however, immediately following the race she spoke with Marc Gullickson, the cyclocross program director for USA Cycling and advisor to the committee tasked with making final selections. Gullickson told VeloNews he was willing to see if an exemption could be pressed so that Wilcoxson could at least be considered. The final team will be announced later today.
How’d she get here?
Wilcoxson’s road to the silver medal is not an uncommon one in the world of professional women’s cycling — it started with a career change well beyond the teen years when the majority of males start their rise through the ranks. In 2012, that career led to a road contract with Optum and Velo’s Domestic Road Breakthrough Rider of the Year award.
A little over a year ago, Wilcoxson was working as a physical therapist in Oregon and dabbling in elite-level racing. Armed with a doctorate in physical therapy from Pacific University, the mountain biker-turned-road racer took aim at the Nature Valley Grand Prix in 2011, earning a spot with the Pro Ride amateur team after she won a regional qualifier in Oregon. From there, she’s shot to the front of the women’s peloton and shown herself as one of the most talented all-rounders in the country.
When Optum boss Rachel Heal came calling late in 2011, Wilcoxson decided to put her PT practice on hold, rent out her home, move into a suitcase, and fully dedicate herself to a new career. It paid off quickly.
Wilcoxson established herself fiercely in 2012, riding to an impressive fourth overall at the SRAM Tour of the Gila in early May, before winning the overall at the Joe Martin Stage Race on the strength of her final-stage criterium victory. Podiums at big-time criteriums like the Sunny King in Alabama and Grand Cycling Classic in Michigan followed, as did wins at the Blue Ribbon Alpine Challenge, in Aspen, Colorado, and the Tour of Elk Grove, near Chicago.
Wilcoxson finished the season third in the National Racing Calendar rankings, just 13 points behind second-place Alison Powers (NOW-Novartis for MS). She was a key piece of the team’s overall title and was instrumental in every one of Optum’s stage race successes in 2012, from the Gila all the way through to Elk Grove.
Her first year of ’cross racing was equally impressive; she notched a number of solid results, including seventh- and ninth-place finishes at the Trek U.S. Grand Prix of Cyclocross Smart Wool Cup and a three top-six results at Jingle Cross Rock. A late-season fourth place on the second day of the USGP Deschutes Brewery Cup showed Wilcoxson was on the rise.
But nothing compares to her latest performance.
“Everybody — even people on my team — were, like, ‘What the hell? Where did she pull that out off?’ It was just one of those days where things just clicked,” she said.