Interview with Elle by Natalie Tapias, Photography by Andy Bokanev
U.S. Women’s Pro Cyclocross is composed of a group of incredibly interesting and dynamic racers. Coming from a variety of different athletic backgrounds and from all over the country, these women compete week-in and week-out in Elite UCI races, often representing the USA in Europe, most frequently in the heartland of the sport in Belgium.
One of these racers is Elle Anderson, who’s talent has not gone unnoticed and who spent some time living and racing for a trade team in Belgium in 2014. Elle returned to the US and now races for a program she organized, SRAM-Strava and has had incredible results so far this season. She sat down with me at CXLA and gave me a glimpse into how she entered the sport, shared some insight into the challenges of living and racing in Belgium, and what the rest of her season looks like.
How did you find cyclocross?
It’s bit of a story and journey. I grew up in a family of athletes. My mom was a pro ski racer for ten years and I think she’s so badass, the best role model you could ever dream of. She traveled all over Europe and got paid to ski race back when there was a pro ski circuit for Alpine. I grew up seeing all of her trophies around. And my dad was a cyclist who got into cycling in college and even went to do some amateur races in Europe, so I just had two great athletic role models for parents.
As for me, I was a ski racer for the first part of my life and I think my mom’s success just really fueled me in the best way. I just wanted to be a pro skier and I wanted to be the best. I thought I was going to make the Olympics, to be on the US Ski Team, this was the dream. I went to a specialized sports academy for high school that was a boarding school just for ski racers and we studied half the day and trained on the hill the other half of the day. I just 100% 365 days a year pursued this quest for mastery in ski racing and really reached for the very top level. I felt like I had great support and then I had a few setbacks and I really went through this tumultuous transition where I had to figure out who I was as a person not as a ski racer. So I decided to leave the sport and it was really hard to take a step back and say, “well I guess I am an ok person if I am not a ski racer, and I guess it’s ok if I don’t accomplish this dream.”
This transition is what set the stage for my entry into cycling because I approached cycling as 100% a new hobby. I say this to myself all the time: cycling is not the new ski racing, there is no pressure for me to get to that top level in cycling, and cycling is just a free space for me to express myself athletically without any big dreams, without any trophies. For the first five years that I raced my bike it was a natural progression, and every race I approached with such an open mind, thinking, “it doesn’t matter how it goes, I’m just going to get to that start line and I’m going to give it everything and be really happy about that process.”
You work at Strava and you race at the highest level in cyclocross, how do you balance these different aspects of your life?
The transition from 100% focus on ski racing to enjoying bike racing and its natural progression allowed me to really develop this life balance. Even as a ski racer I had to balance studying with skiing so this already helped, but with bike racing and my role at Strava it also allowed me to really think of balancing various parts of life. So I really valued the role that Strava played in my life, a professional workplace that taught me what it’s like to work at a startup. I also have had a really great boss who helped me learn what it means to take my job seriously. I had this impulse to think, hey I’m going to go ditch work early to train for my other hobby and she’d say “no you have to prioritize your work at Strava above cycling.” So I went through the process conceptualizing that and for the first time maybe didn’t put sports first in my life. Going through that process really helped me learn about myself and achieve that balance.
I always try to get my priorities straight and work to keep everything in equilibrium. I always think that if you have to make too many sacrifices on either side, it becomes stressful. I’m also really lucky that Strava lets me work part time during the winter, my salary is cut accordingly, but the arrangement gives me the flexibility so that these two parts of my life fit together seamlessly.
Tell me a little bit about your time in Belgium and how you built your current racing program
After I returned from Belgium I knew that I needed a break and a chance to take some time off this Summer to rebuild. I knew that I did not want to return to spend five months in Belgium on my prior contract. As for the process of building my own program, overall it was really rewarding and not that stressful. I’ve been working with SRAM as a company for a number of years. They’ve been hugely supportive of me and are a really great sponsor. So I knew that I had really solid sponsor to rely on if I were to build my own program. Then Strava came into the mix really organically just because I’ve always envisioned Strava as being more involved in my racing because it is directly relevant. I approached the marketing team and they became interested because they enjoy having that kind of content and telling that kind of story. What the sponsorship means is that they’re able to expose me to their social media audience as I write and share stories from the road. Overall the process was about bringing together elements that were there all along.
What were some of the challenges of living and racing in Belgium?
Racing and living Belgian cyclocross is really unique and so different, so challenging, that it really pushed me as a person and really exposed some weaknesses and really pushed me to a level that I don’t think I’ve ever been pushed as a person before. In retrospect, I really see my last season in Belgium as a huge growing moment. I really feel that we grow the most in our darkest moments, so all the hardship I went through and feelings of isolation I struggled with will make me a better person. That dream that I have of continuing to go back to Europe and working up to being a key player on the Belgian circuit requires that I push through these lessons. As much as I hated every race towards the end of the season, I never considered a backup plan or leaving Belgium early. I understood that it was all a part of the journey and was still going to shape me as a person and as an athlete.
In Belgium regardless of how famous you are, if you are a cyclocrosser you are famous by default because of the significance of the sport in Belgian culture. The country just lives and breathes cyclocross in the winter, you get 300,000 viewers on the TV you get 30-50,000 fans at the races, you’re standing in line at the grocery store and people are talking about who won the race (probably not the women’s side but the men’s side) it’s just the heartland of cyclocross. So even if you’re not famous in their book, you’re by default a form of celebrity. There’s this very different environment that’s created by this difference between spectator and athlete over there. I found it to be a culture shock and isolating. It’s hard to build personal relationships when you’re put at a distance like that, when you’re judged and expected conform to some expectation of what it means to be a professional cyclocrosser. So that is very challenging to feel like the spotlight is on all the time, to feel like you are swimming in a fishbowl- and it’s literal! Spectators stand there and judge, point at you and mumble to each other in Dutch.
It’s cool at first but after a while I started to feel self-conscious and my assessment of everything really changed. It affected me and added this weight of feeling like I had failed.
I started doing bad at the races and my perception got really warped- so if i had a bad race (of which I had multiple because I was stressed out and struggling, the weight of feeling like I had failed was so intense. I lost that sense that “Hey, this is a bike race and I just need to walk away.” The whole experience affected my perception and just buried me further. I got so attached to those details because in that fishbowl it’s so difficult to maintain perspective. That’s definitely front and center to what was so challenging about racing in Belgium. Here in the US, it’s a much more inclusive, community, family-style cyclocross scene. I am here and am part of a whole, I don’t feel like I am any different than anyone standing on the sidelines here- they’re cyclocross racers, too.
What does the rest of your season look like?
For now I’m doing this (CXLA) then I’m going to go to visit SRAM in Chicago. We’ll drive to Iowa City together to do three days of UCI racing at Jingle Cross. I then fly right to Belgium, and set up shop in Sittard in the Netherlands with USA Cycling. I’ll be supported by them as I race a full month of European cyclocross through New Year’s day. I’ll come back to the US after New Years and prepare for Nationals in Asheville. If all goes well, I’ll return to Europe for Worlds. Then, there’s even a chance I’ll hang around in Europe after Worlds and race all the way to the end of their season. The races after worlds are a bit more low-key, the Belgian series races are finishing up and I could race until the second to last week in February.