Interviewed by Anna Maria Diaz-Balart
All Images Courtesy of Koochella Racing
In cycling, a change of a title sponsor or redesign of a kit, can sometimes make it seem like a team has disappeared into thin air. Koochella Racing doesn’t have this problem. With some of the most recognizable kits in the sport, and gorgeous custom All City bikes they are hard to forget. And while it’s their Hi-Viz looks that may initially grab your attention, it’s the way they run their team that truly sets them apart. I spoke with Renee Hoppe, Anna Schwinn and Emily Wade of Koochella Racing to ask them a bit about their cycling program. With its unique structure and commitment to female urban riders, Koochella Racing works to lower the barriers that can sometimes stand in the way of getting involved in competitive cycling. As an organization they provide support to their individual team members, but also function as umbrella organization that supports and promotes women’s cycling.
Can you tell me a little about the history of Koochella? Is it a track team? Is it an open club? How does one become a member?
Anna: Koochella is an evolving advocacy vehicle for women's racing, I guess that's the best way of putting it. It started as a women's 24 hour street team for a single race, as an answer to the dominant men's teams that raced each year. When I found myself with a boatload of track certified novice women a few summers ago, Koochella became a USAC registered team that would support those women in getting into the sport. Really, we didn't know anything about starting a race team... as the most experienced racer on the team, I only had a handful of races under my belt. We didn't know anything about racing or running a team. We weren't athletes going in. We just went for it because it was fun.
When we needed to find competition on the track, the team turned into a recruitment mechanism for the sport, reaching out to the general cycling community and pulling more women in. We have grown women's participation to a point where we have to have multiple fields and the racing is getting faster and better. We have slowly worked our way into other disciplines, this season's focus being more in cyclocross. Next year, we might push more in road. We have also gotten involved with our USAC local association and have a team member on the board pushing women's cycling initiatives. I think it's all very exciting.
We're also actively helping women to start their own teams in other parts of the world and are happy to share our successful recipes (as well as our failures, we've had those too) with anyone who wants to give it a shot. We've helped Velociposse launch in London this past year with Jess Hayes; she's crushing it. We've had some people reach out from cities around the States. It's exciting!
We are not an open club, which seems to set us apart from the traditional women's developmental team model. We do this for a lot of reasons. As a small, more focused entity we can hold each other accountable to high standards of participation- something that we felt would be difficult with a large, open model. We also feel that it is healthier for the community for there to be many teams supporting women's racing rather than a single group. It's more sustainable to run smaller teams, both from a sponsor level and from a management level. And, one of the coolest things about being on a team is having one that you identify with; if there is a single catch-all women's team in town, it's unlikely that everyone will be stoked on its identity. We love the diversity that can come from many teams- diverse teams recruit diverse people. The more diverse the community, the greater number of people will be attracted to it. We actively recruit women who have little to no racing experience. In fact, last year we recruited a woman so green to cycling that she had only taught herself how to ride a bike a few years go. As far as how we recruit, we are always changing that up. Last year, we had an essay application for new members. This year, we are thinking of a winter training camp, so that if we don't take someone onto our team for whatever reason, we can still train them, enroll them in the community, and help them to find or start teams that will be better fits for them.
I know you all have a really cool velodrome. Can you tell us a little about it? Also, is it terrifying to fall on it?
Emily: I love the NSC Velodrome. It's kind of like riding in a life-sized fish bowl--and every bit as beautiful. 42 miles of African Afzalia wood shaped in a 250 meter bowl with 15-degree bankings on the straightaways and 43-degree bankings on each end.
The compact, dramatic setting makes track cycling the perfect spectator sport. And riding it is exhilarating, but it is pretty scary at first. In fact, only 15 minutes into my first time on the velodrome I got a pinch flat in my rear tire and slid about half way down the boards at the apex of the curve. Luckily, I was completely fine and didn't take down any of the riders around me. I was pretty shaken up, though.
With a spare wheel and a pep talk from Anna I reluctantly hopped back on the track in less than half an hour. The feeling of falling was stuck in my muscle memory until a month later when I started training on the track regularly. Each time I got back on I had to psych myself up big time, but I'm really glad I did. It's now my absolute favorite place to ride.
Your kits are awesome, and your bikes are beautiful!! Does this make you faster? And are your bikes custom or available to the general public?
Anna: In a way, I think they do make us faster. When you have loud kits and loud bikes, everyone sees you and knows who you are- there is some built in pressure when you're attached to something that recognizable. Not necessarily pressure to be the absolute fastest, but certainly pressure to try as hard as you can, to stay in the race, and to be a good sport. And it helps push team members to be good ambassadors to the sport and community- you can't be the jerk in the loud kit- everyone remembers that person. But if you make everything cool and interesting and fun, and you're a friendly, helpful, good person on top of all that... you can't have better advertising for bike racing than that, you know? The custom bikes have been through our sponsor, All-City. At this time, I don't know if they are planning on doing Koochella Edition paint jobs for the public (though, I'm sure they'd be popular, we get asked about them all the time). We will, however, have our 2015 Koochella Next Generation skinsuits available for purchase soon. Also, we have a few team frames that we occasionally auction off for good causes such as supporting our track... stay tuned!
How many women are on the team now? What are your race requirements?
Anna: This season, we had fourteen contracted women under the Koochella team. We required all team members to race two-thirds of all track races. We also had smaller contracts with requirements for team members if they wanted deeper levels of support. If you wanted your track pass paid for, you would have to sign on for a more rigorous training schedule at the velodrome. We also have asked team members to step up into different roles in running events, volunteering at the track with junior programming, track repair, etc.
Are teams just for competing in USACycling events? Or should women all over consider starting teams as a way to promote women's cycling? (i.e. accomplishment events like Grinduro and D2R2 and Bandit Cross type stuff)
Renee: Teams are a great way to support sanctioned cycling events, unsanctioned events, and build a sense of community within the cycling scene in general, in my opinion. Here in Minneapolis we have teams with riders that are really diverse. Shitgoose, for example, has at least a handful of people who compete in each discipline; track, cyclocross, road, alleycats, gravel, and bandit cross style events. Another awesome local team, Menstrual Cycles, loosely competes in sanctioned racing at this point (they’re new this season), but supports getting women on bikes through showing up to social rides, and participating in fun events like Babes in Bikeland. As a woman, showing up to any cycling event, whether I’m racing, casually riding, or watching, is a lot more fun knowing that there are going to be a bunch of other rad ladies there, and teams (no matter how “serious” they are), definitely help to get more women to show up.
What are Koochella's 2016 team goals?
Anna: We hit a wall as a single small team this year- we broke our old model. Older team members hit a threshold where they wanted to focus entirely on training, and less on advocacy. Other team members felt like they no longer identified with a single team model, or wanted to move into sports that the model would not support. And that's how it should be! It means that women on the team are growing and becoming more sophisticated athletes. I love it.
So moving into 2016, Koochella will be several teams under a single club umbrella. We will still have an organizational focus on growing women within cycling, we will just pursue it in different ways. The flagship Koochella development team will remain in its rigorous, recruitment-oriented form; that's where my focus will stay. There will be a small support team, Party Girl!, joining the mix in an official capacity, consisting of men in the community that have been in the periphery, cheering us on, feeding us at races, and riding with us. There is talk of a more dirt-oriented women's team, of a potential fat bike team- it's all really exciting.
How's cyclocross season going?
Renee: Cross season has been excellent this year. We had 5 women on the team try out cross for the first time, and many of them have completed a handful of races since then, picking up new skills along the way. Personally, my favorite race so far this season was Baker’s Orchard. It’s a race through an apple orchard that winds around a 100-year old barn in Wisconsin. The course was awesome, we had gorgeous weather, and the spectator were super enthusiastic.
I'm sure many of your riders are year round cyclists. Please share your infinite wisdom on cold weather cycling. Seriously, we are all ears!
Emily: I'm hardly an expert on winter cycling. For me, winter is about preparation and humility. Commuting at other times of the year is pretty grab and go. But in the winter, you need to make sure you have a safe route, the right clothing, and a keen mind. For me that sometimes means taking busier roads because they are plowed better and trading my usual solid black for a construction-grade high-vis jacket. Visibility is key. And wool. And deerskin mittens. And a good pair of goggles. But all of that means nothing if you can't make fun of yourself when your tires slide out from underneath you. Experiences like that bring my bike and I closer and give us something to talk about when I clean her off over hot chocolate at the end of the day.
Do you spend a lot of non-lycra time together as a team?
Renee: While we definitely see each other the most during track season, we definitely try to get together wearing regular street clothes when possible. This fall we went on a team retreat to Wisconsin, where we just hung out with each other, danced to Beyonce, and shot off fireworks…typical team bonding stuff.
How do you bring in new members? Recruitment rides, social outreach? And what can women everywhere do to increase participation in women's cycling?
Anna: It's interesting. Thinking about it, I feel that why we've been so successful as a recruitment mechanism to the sport is that we get excited about meeting and recruiting people we don't know. As a team, we formed as a group of women who really didn't know one another and who had no racing experience. And we grew as athletes and as individuals together, and then recruited more women we didn't know... and the cycle started again. When you come from that, you understand how transformative cycling and racing can be... and when you publicize that to the community, they can see it too. We are very open and excited to talk about the progress of our new racers. We encourage them to blog about getting into the sport, about their personal struggles and victories. It makes the sport more accessible. It makes the sport compelling. If these new Koochella recruits can get into it and fall in love with it, anyone can.
Also, as an advocacy based raced team, we love bridging the gap between the racing community and the rest of the cycling community. You never know where your next fan or newest competition can come from, and engaging the larger community is a great way of finding them. And we look for all kinds of opportunities for it. We've shown "Half the Road." We put on group rides. We put on races in the urban community and recruit from those races. We put on rides to sanctioned races so people can check out the scene. We have scholarships to support women in their first sanctioned race. We put on alley cats and parties. And we invite everyone to everything.
You absolutely have to appreciate that your next big competitor (or new best friend) could be the girl on the cruiser at the weekly donut ride- it's just that neither of you know that yet. The women of Koochella appreciate that because they've been her, and they are excited to get to know her. And I think that's where you have to be if you want to grow the sport.