• Sunny Gilbert

The ride of my life


Post-race smiles. 📸 @snowymountainphotography

It's Sunday Night.

And probably way too soon to write this. I think I still have mud in my hair from when I flew over the handlebars on the last lap and landed on my back (more on this later). And, note to self, must take more thorough showers after races like this one.


@DougEFreshCX and I are driving back to St. Louis from Louisville, KY tonight. Back to reality (whoops, there goes gravity), as it were, because this weekend felt a little like a dream. I’ve mused before to my friend JP that what we do on the weekend as cyclocrossers (and bike racers in general) sometimes feels a little bit like Clark Kent/Superman, including the spandex, but without the underwear on the outside of our tights, the kryptonite (unless you count deep sand for me, and pollen in the air for him), and, of course, the superpowers.


At the beginning of the season, I wrote down a few goals: 1) Podium in a C1; 2) Earn enough UCI points to make it onto the first page of the World Ranking (top 40) and secure a spot at Zolder for the World Cup in Belgium; 3) Finish Top 5 at USACX Nationals. That third one seemed safe and doable. They all seemed doable.


And as the season wore on, some really cool things started to happen. I got to spend more time with and learn from Caroline "Frenchy"" Mani. On race weekends, she became part of our tribe. She in turn shared some of her extensive experience, and taught me a thing or two about being pro. Yes, there it is, I needed a few “pro” lessons. And then, she did the unthinkable thing, and stopped her race during an all-important C1 to help me out with a mechanical, that ended up saving my race. It also kept me on track to achieve goal #2.


Then, the @BikeShopCX crew of Mr. David Palan and ScottyD, and by extension of their association with the Wide Angle Podium, Bill Schieken (whom I’d finally gotten to chat with the previous year when I won the C2 at Jingle Cross in 2017) invited me to talk about Race Prep on the podcast at the Trek Cup. As Aaron from @TNR-tape watched on, we had more laughs than a laugh-track during an episode of I Love Lucy. Laughter is the best medicine, and it was the perfect antidote for a bit of a break-out World Cup race for me (UCI points!). It also helped set-up the rest of the season by nearly guaranteeing 1st row call-ups for most of the rest of the domestic racing calendar. This is something, I’ve been chasing For Years.


TNR-Tape is holding fast. No pins holding these numbers and all that mud to my skin suit. 📸 @snowymountainphotography

One other thing, you can’t pick the day when opportunity knocks. And for me professionally, opportunity pounded down the damn door in November. I was offered a position as Alliance Manager at a companion diagnostic company, a role, I’d been pursuing, and felt like I was perfect for. Also, did I mention it afforded the opportunity for us to move to Boulder, CO (or near to it), back to my graduate school stomping grounds? The move is still pending, but the wheels are in motion. And for the last six weeks, I have been traveling back and forth, working, racing on the week-ends, project-managing the move remotely, while Doug tirelessly prepared our beloved home for sale, and worked full time, as well. Two things were key: 1) Friends coming out of the woodwork to help us, literally, with some wood work among other repairs, and 2) “mise en place” – the preparations and plans we put in place at the beginning of the cyclocross season that allow us to pick up and go… for a ride, for a race, for a trip to Belgium to race Kersteperiode!


Two days later, Tuesday morning

Watching the sun come up from 10,000 ft., as I fly back to Boulder to continue working this week. And I love it. I finally got all the mud washed off. A lot of Kentucky came back to Missouri, and was power-washed into our yard by Doug. Mr. Mechanic also had to repair a flat on one of my Zipp 303 tubulars, because at some point during the race on Sunday, I flatted and didn’t even know it. On the walk back to the car after the podium, he says “When did you flat?” To which I responded, “Uhhhh…. “ I guess we could have lowered the PSI even more, and I wouldn’t have known it. For the record, I started with 19 psi in both tires.


Season Goals

With the new job, the travel, and yes, the stress, how many of my goals would still be achievable? The week-end before last, there was only one more domestic C1 race left on the calendar, Ruts ‘N Guts, a race I love. They were predicting 2-4 inches of snow. Good for me? And then the day dawned cold, dry, and windy. Not particularly good for a women built like a stork (thanks @gofahr for the simile). I did a lot of pulling at the front of the race, something Frenchy yelled at me for during and after the race – “Oh, Mon Dieux!”, but a smart move on the last lap, and by pressing my advantage over the barriers in the woods, I was able to pad my position with enough seconds to nab a 2nd place and my first C1 podium. Goal #1, check.


Collecting my numbers from the officials on Saturday at #USACXNats, “you’re ranked 39th, does that sound right?” Yes, yes it does. Goal #2, check.


Over a week ago, before anyone had pre-ridden the course, and before the Louisville weather forecast was confirmed, only two people vocalized the possibility that I could actually land on the podium (and apparently 9 people in the Cyclocross Magazine fantasy league), much less race into the Top 5. Mr. David Palan, threw my name into the hat on the @CXHairs #TDDTIE National

s preview show. As a regular “viewer”, and WAP supporter, it made me smile. And, the other? A text from coach, Isaiah Newkirk of @fastcatcoaching, just as I was about to get on the rollers for an evening “ride” while watching the latest season of the Great British Bake-Off. “You need to listen to the latest Velo News podcast. Just listen.” Because, one of my personal heroes, Katie Compton, was being interviewed about her season and the upcoming Nats. And when asked who had a chance of surprising people, my name was the first one she uttered. Heart rate sped up a little. I know, because I was already wearing my heart rate monitor.

Race day.


Edwin, Van Dessel Cycles Founder, Heart and Soul, was heroically promoting the bikes and brands at a trade show, and had to miss the race. But his presence was felt on social media, text, and, in mind. Jessica Cutler’s NWCX develop team, supported by Van Dessel had six brave young women racing in the U23 race, and Bones, Peter and Cam of Rage Cycling were muddy, busy, focused, and on point to support all the racing. It takes a village. Cassie and I were able to show up and do our thing. The ubiquitous mud, now reaching epic proportions every spot one wanted to step in Joe Creason Park, required some last minute jiggering. And my “thing” was welcomed into the Team S&M tent. I wasn’t the only one who had to relocate their “thing” this week-end. Word on the twitter is that @gofahr camped in the Shimano tent when the Kona/Maxxis tent flooded!


I did not pre-ride a single lap. I sessionned various parts of the course on Saturday and Sunday. And I spectated the singlespeed races on Saturday for ideas (Thank you @gholicky for smiling when I told you to).


The start

There will be mud. My friend James would later say that he thought he could see who had the Look of Grit on the starting line. Green, means go, and I was my quickest off the line, and able to get a clear path into the first mud puddle and right turn, unlike the Jingle Cross World Cup. On a clean line on the far right of a sweeping left turn, I was coming around hot. And then a perfectly appointed blue and white arm appeared in my field of vision, sending me on a trajectory toward the fencing. It was almost poetic, how I pirouetted to the ground, uttering only “Oh no.” Back on the bike, I could only acrobatically bob-and-weave through the field. By the time we hit the fly over, I was back into the Top 10, and @DougEfreshCX was none the wiser.


Lifting the bike became an acrobatic affair at times. 📸 @snowymountainphotgraphy

If you are reading this, probably by now you’ve seen the race feed, or, at least know how this story ends. 2nd place, podium, silver, on the right-hand to @KatieFnCompton. But until two laps to go (BTW – thank you to the officials for giving us four laps!), was I even in the picture? When I really acknowledged in my brain that I was in 4th place and vying for a podium spot, somewhere on lap 2, maybe at the flyover at the start of lap 3, here is the sentence that popped into my head, “I will not get 4th today.” I was either going to turn myself inside-out to finish as high as I could, or I was going to turn myself inside-out, and stagger across the finish line.


Running through the pit lane at USACX National Championships 📷 @snowymountainphotography

Pressing every advantage, on and off the bike. I focused on being in the right gear when I jumped off the bike, so that when I jumped back on, I could pedal immediately. I looked ahead of me, instead of down. I stuck my feet directly into the holes that past racers had made, taking short, fast, choppy steps, and mentally thinking about all the times I have ran up the stairs at Castlewood State Park carrying my #FullTiltBoogie, much to the chagrin of hikers. I got out of the saddle and hammered the starts of the concrete straightaways to garner some speed. When I passed Ellen for the first time, I don’t know how, but I found the breath to say “Let’s go Ellen,” because, we both came here to race.


And the clean bikes kept coming, twice per lap. On that last lap, I didn’t look back much. I could feel Ellen pushing behind me; she was never going to give up until she could see the finish line. For me, all was almost lost when on a clean bike for the descent, I careened down the hill in full two-wheel-slide mode, like I had done on each of the three-laps before. This time, the front wheel ended on the wrong side of a stake, went perpendicular to my direction, and, proved once again the laws of physics, when Gravity and Momentum sent me somersaulting over the handlebars where I landed in full “mud-angel” mode on the ground. Critical seconds lost. Where’s my bike? Time to shift the legs into overdrive, focus. I had Goal #3 to Fn’ check.


The BIGGEST smile coming across the line. 📸 @snowymountainphotography

After that, the crowds, the cheering, seeing friends along the course tape, the shouts of “Dr. Gilbert”, the voice-over from the announcer, the support from the mechanics in the pit, and husband fixing me with the biggest smile as I took my bike hand-up, all brought me to the finish line. Somewhere, I found even more speed to attack the barriers before remounting on the finishing straight. I balanced myself for all the waiting High-5s, threw a quick look over my shoulder, and was helpless to keep the goofiest and grittiest of grins off my muddy face. I had had the “ride of my life”.



Special thanks to Nathan and Morleigh of Snowy Mountain Photography for sharing their creative talents with me.

@run4funner

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