All jokes about #crossiscoming aside, August is the time of year when cyclocross riders are putting their final preparations on for the start of the cyclocross season. ‘Cross-specific intervals, dialing in new bikes, making travel plans, it is all a part of getting ready for the hectic season.
A busy time of preparation is not limited to the athletes. There are also a number of folks who work behind the scenes to support the riders who are gearing up for the whirlwind of cyclocross season.
One of those busy at work is Brenna Wrye-Simpson of Portland’s Team S&M CX. Wrye-Simpson is manager, mechanic, planner and many other things for the team that supports Clara Honsinger, Beth Ann Orton and Sophie Russenberger. This coming season will be her third full season keeping things running smoothly for Team S&M, and even though it is a lot of work, Wrye-Simpson still enjoys the experience.
“I pinch myself a little bit on a regular basis thinking about this opportunity as it pertains to supporting the athletes and giving them the opportunity to ride in a positive caring environment that allows them to achieve their goals,” she said. “It’s also a huge opportunity for me in the development of my career and the various aspects I try to balance.”
After packing up the team equipment following Nationals and Worlds last winter, Wrye-Simpson has had some time for herself to race on the road with DNA Pro Cycling, but now with August here, she is putting the final touches on Team S&M CX’s plans for the coming season. No doubt, #crossiscoming came quite quickly.
“I’d say it’s a slow burn up through August,” Wrye-Simpson said. “It’s kind of a straight launch into my road racing season while still thinking about what has to happen for everything to be ready in August.”
Ever wondered what it is like to manage a cyclocross team while wrenching in the pits on race weekends? Wrye-Simpson has first-hand experience she was willing to share when I sat down to chat with her.
Brenna Wrye-Simpson’s close relationship with bikes started when she was a student at Portland’s Reed College, where she got a two-wheeled education to go with her more formal schooling.
Like many youngsters in the Pacific Northwest, she grew up riding her commuter bike around her home town of Corvallis. Once she got kick the tires and ride a bike made to go fast, it was love at first ride.
“When I was in college, I had the opportunity to borrow a friend’s road bike for the summer, and it was super thrilling. I had only ridden a really crappy mountain bike before that, and I love it. I really wanted to get one,” she recalled.
Cycling has long had a certain appeal for the mechanically inclined, and in due time, Wrye-Simpson—a music major in college—showed she too had that desire to better understand the machine carrying her around the Oregon countryside. With bike shops still in her future, what better way to learn than DIY? “I was like, ‘Cool I’m going to get a frame on Craiglist and figure out how to put it together.’ I’ll start from the bottom up,” she said.
Frequenting bike shops led to a part-time college job and plenty of mechanical training at a Portland shop, and that first job in a shop helped lead to a position in the service department at Sellwood Cycle Repair. Wrye-Simpson has now worked at Sellwood, the namesake of Team S&M CX, for five years now.
Sellwood proved to be a place where Wrye-Simpson could thrive. The shop is owned by Erik Tonkin, himself a former professional cyclocross racer and long-time supporter of grassroots and particularly, women’s cycling.
Tonkin described his philosophy for managing his employees. “Most successful businesses are successful because they can retain people over a relatively long period of time. The reason why people might stay someplace for a long period of time is because there are opportunities for growth and change within that same framework. It’s not that that I can offer all 16 of employees this open vision for their lives, but a good percentage of them can change and evolve without having to leave the business.”
Tonkin recognized he could create a unique role for Wrye-Simpson. “I knew she had the mechanical aptitude,” Tonkin said. “Brenna has been very dedicated to the business. She’s away a lot during the spring and summer with her road racing and she’s away a lot in the fall for cyclocross, so obviously that’s not a role I can offer to more than like one person.”
Wrye-Simpson’s combination of mechanical and management skills and her desire to hit the road to serve the team has helped her create a role that is also unique in American cyclocross.
Looking across the landscape at cyclocross races in the U.S., it is hard not to notice that Wrye-Simpson is one of, if not the only, female mechanics working the pits on race day. As she explained while recounting her long road from bike commuter to cyclocross team mechanic, getting there did not happen overnight.
“How do you get more women involved? I don’t think there’s a single answer to that, but you do kind of have to choose to want to employ people who might not fit the traditional mold or walk in with the traditional skill set. I know that I’ve definitely benefited from a willingness on the part of employers to help me learn skills on the job,” she explained.
When I brought up the topic, Wrye-Simpson was willing to discuss her position and what it means in a broader context.
“It’s definitely something I think about,” she admitted. “I think about it in a more holistic context. Being a race mechanic is its own particular kind of mechanical work. It’s not the same as working within a controlled shop environment. There are certainly shared aspects, but overall, the gender ratio is pretty skewed toward men.”
Right Place, Right Time
Team S&M CX has provided support for amateur racers in the Cyclocross Crusade series for nearly two decades now, and in 2016, it did a soft launch of its Elite Women’s program, with Wrye-Simpson on the road with the team riders.
In 2015, a young college student named Clara Honsinger joined Beth Ann Orton on the Team S&M roster. Orton had long been racing the UCI circuit, and Honsinger had a clear future on the national stage. With strong riders, a mechanic and manager and willing owner, the timing was perfect.
“There were a lot of the right pieces in place at the right time,” she said about the program’s start. “The name Team S&M precedes us and this current iteration by a long time. There’s a long precedent for starting with grassroots racing and coming up through the ranks. Particularly with grassroots women’s racing.”
According to Tonkin, the Elite team might have happened if he did not have Wrye-Simpson to count on, but probably not. “One of the reasons I launched the whole team is because I have someone like Brenna,” Tonkin said. “That’s about the greatest complement I can give her. I wasn’t going to do this by myself. She is essentially my business partner in this venture.”
The team’s “test run” was at the 2016 CXLA weekend when Wrye-Simpson traveled south to support Orton and Honsinger during a weekend of UCI racing where they both pulled off top 10 finishes. The trip was a success, and in 2017, the team made its preparations to take the S&M CX show on the road for a full season.
Sponsoring athletes at the Elite level is nothing new for Tonkin—Sean Babcock and Spencer Paxson, as well as his ex-wife Rhonda Mazza, were once Team S&M Elites—but they often raced during distinct trips such as the CXLA weekend, not as an official program that even has its own van.
“This was the first time we tried to make it like what the ‘professional’ teams are doing. It’s a first in that sense,” Tonkin explained. “That was the risk we took, to really move it up to a spot where once I say go on this, it’s not going to stop. This isn’t just me flushing some bucks out of the shop to make some occasional trips, this is a full-on program.”
The team’s first big trip of 2017 was a cross-country jaunt to Jingle Cross and then back west with a stop at the final CrossVegas. The team’s launch could not have gone better for the team.
Honsinger turned heads with a second-place in the Saturday night race at Jingle Cross and then went on to finish sixth in the desert at CrossVegas on the return trip. By the end of the season, the team’s young star had taken silver at U23 Pan-Ams and Nationals and made the Worlds team.
With Orton consistently finishing in the Top 10 and providing invaluable experience, the team’s decision to build an Elite team was validated and then some.
“I realized we had the ridership and the interest of Brenna as a full-time accomplice in crime on it,” Tonkin said. “I was like, ‘We can do it,’ and we crafted our vision for it. We said it will be three years. We wanted to commit to a three-year program to hold ourselves accountable long-term.”
Life on the Road
Seeing the team riders have success on the course has no doubt been huge for Wrye-Simpson because life on the road for the team manager and mechanic is not an easy one. Wrye-Simpson maintains her day job as a mechanic at Sellwood while supporting the team on weekends. That usually means trips out east for the weekend only to return and hit the shop floor at the start of her work week.
Wrye-Simpson described her team responsibilities in the broad-stroke sense. “I refer to myself as a manager. I also handle our logistical details, how we’re getting to and from races and where we’re staying,” she said. “I also co-manage the budget with Erik and all the sponsorship interactions and general public output. That covers a lot of my responsibilities, to kind of help steer the ship.”
One unique challenge Team S&M CX faces is that of geography. The team and its riders are based in Oregon, but much of the cyclocross season takes place at points father east. This year’s World Cups are in the Midwest, Pan-Ams are in Ontario and the C1s are in New York, Iowa and Ohio.
“Each of the last two years we’ve had a preseason meeting where we try to sketch a plan and have a layout of what we think our season will look like,” Wrye-Simpson said. “We factor in rider goals and stuff like that. Being on the West Coast, we definitely try to create a few blocks for ourselves that we can easily travel back and forth from.”
When European riders travel to the U.S. for the World Cups, they always find the concept of “supporter housing” a bit foreign. However, community and family support of cyclocross is an essential part of making the sport work in the U.S., and for Team S&M CX, the dynamic is no different.
“Our season starts with Erik driving the team van from Portland to Minnesota and parking it at his family’s, so it’s at least out there,” Wrye-Simpson explained. “The team has a pretty familial dynamic, so riders contribute as well with connections in the different areas we travel to.”
The beginning of the season will put Wrye-Simpson’s planning skills to the test in a big way. The entire team is traveling to Rochester for the C1 weekend there, and then the riders need to get to Minnesota and Tonkin’s parents before they head to Iowa City for the Jingle Cross World Cup. Honsinger and Russenberger are both Elites for cyclocross this season, but they cannot yet rent cars, which complicates things.
School is another factor for the team to consider. Honsinger resumed her college education at Oregon State University this fall, while Russenberger is a student at Fort Lewis College in Colorado.
While all of this is going on, Wrye-Simpson will likely travel from Rochester back to Portland for her day job before heading back on the road to Iowa City for the Jingle Cross weekend.
“I still work at the shop pretty much full time,” Wrye-Simpson said. “It’s a lot of back and forth. Get to the van, get to the race, pack up from the race. Work from the road during the week or travel back to the West Coast and go back to the bike shop on Tuesday.”
Despite all of the travel and responsibility, Wrye-Simpson is usually a relaxed, friendly figure at UCI cyclocross weekends. Her comfort in the role, however, has been hard-won.
A look back on her first weekend as a “professional mechanic” brought a good chuckle. “The first time I pitted for anyone was for Beth Ann in Louisville in 2014, I think. She had been in a couple muddy race weekends by herself before that. I flew in with a small tool bag and no workstand, so I did the bathtub setup and had the bike dangling from the shower rod for a while to work on it. That was a good introduction. *laughs*”
Wrye-Simpson recalled entering her role during the first full season in 2017 with a bit of a chip on her shoulder. Her background is in road racing, so the ins and outs of cyclocross were new to her. She also came to the role of mechanic in a non-traditional way, adding to her desire to be perfect when on the road.
“I had a little bit more understanding of time management and security in feeling like I knew what the hell I was doing,” she said about the recent cyclocross season. “I would say the first year I was very focused and concerned about putting my best foot forward because I knew I was learning the sport as I went. I didn’t want to mess anything up or be taken less seriously for lack of practical experience.”
Gaining confidence in her role has been extra important for Wrye-Simpson because during the summer, she races for herself as part of the DNA Pro Cycling crit squad. As one can imagine, finding time to train while traveling and working can be difficult. “I ride here and there, but I have to be okay with not riding,” she admitted.
While Wrye-Simpson is first and foremost a road racer, she has learned to embrace her inner dirt side during her time with Team S&M CX. She races Cyclocross Crusade races during blocks back at home in Portland—often finishing behind Honsinger—and even won the Women’s Cat 1-2 race at Jingle Cross when Honsinger had her breakout weekend in 2017.
Her cyclocross success has been hard-earned as well. “I try to get out and have my ass handed to me by the riders when we’re in-season. Between weekends I go on some training rides with them and do a little bit here and there.”
There is no question losing fitness during cyclocross season is difficult for a trained athlete like Wrye-Simpson, but it is a necessary sacrifice to make sure the team riders have everything they need to be successful.
“One thing she does really well is she has her own racing and ambitions, but she makes it very clear, even though the team members are her peers, she is very much there to do her job and help them,” Tonkin explained.
He continued, “There’s never a doubt in the riders’ minds that they’re the most important thing going on during race weekends. Brenna does a really good job of demonstrating that by how professional she is about it. I think that’s the most important thing; you can’t be there for yourself.”
Cyclocross mechanics need to be masters of bicycle mechanics and maintenance, but what they do not teach them in race mechanic school is they also need to be masters of relationship maintenance. A few years ago, former Aspire Racing mechanic Brandon Davis shared how his biggest challenge of working with Ellen Noble was building effective communication during high-stress times.
Wrye-Simpson too faces that challenge, but in her case, she has to maintain three relationships at once. Established relationships have fortunately helped make that process easier.
Wrye-Simpson first traveled with Orton back in 2014, where the cyclocross stalwart taught her bike exchanges on the fly and what equipment she needed to bring to properly clean bikes caked in mud. She also started racing against a then-16 Honsinger on the road that year. Russenberger is the newcomer to the fray, joining the Elite team this past cyclocross season.
“We work hard to have good personal relationships between riders and staff,” she said. “I think we are naturally good at communicating with one another. I try to be super attentive, especially when we’re at a weekend with all three athletes.”
Tonkin agreed when talking about his team manager. “Brenna stays very level and even-keeled. The riders have very different personalities, and they’re very focused and want to perform well, but for each one, that shows itself in a different way. She knows how to make sure she can be there for them.”
A mechanic’s relationship with riders is two-fold. The functional process of fitting and maintaining bikes is certainly in the job description, while the more abstract process of keeping riders happy and thus fast is a challenge working with a wrench cannot prepare you for.
In the case of the latter, racing cyclocross is stressful, especially as tension rises moving into the afternoon. Wrye-Simpson has developed the skill set necessary to be a comforting presence as she has grown into her role.
“As it gets closer to race time, they all have different personalities and things they need while they’re managing the mounting stress. You try to be an as observant and sympathetic person as you can and keep track of that emotional change as it morphs over a several-hour period. I know that’s a touchy-feely answer, but I think that’s the biggest thing,” she explained.
Maintaining the team’s Kona Major Jake bikes? That’s kind of the easy part. “When it comes to equipment, all three of them are very communicative, and I just try to time my questions well,” Wrye-Simpson said.
It also helps that the riders are all similar in height and equipment tastes. “We’re all between 5’5″and 5’9″ and we all ride the same frame size, so it works out really well. It’s pretty sweet. We’ve been able to make substitutions as necessary. My bike lives in the van and usually serves as a B or C bike.”
Wrye-Simpson said she knows there will come a time when she moves on to something else, but when she looks back at this part of her life, it will be the relationships and not the derailleurs she has fixed or tubulars she has glued that she will remember.
“I got into road racing and I love road racing because it’s a team sport. You find success when you have to work together collaboratively. When you approach cyclocross at the Elite level, the same thing is true, and the team includes the staff. I know my role is valued, and I know it brings me a lot of genuine joy to see women succeed on the bike.”
Two Days to Remember
When you are working in a position such as Wrye-Simpson’s, putting in countless hours of behind-the-scenes work pays off when the athletes you support succeed and achieve their goals.
After the team’s successful season on the road in 2017, 2018 proved to be a worthy follow-up. The team added Russenberger as a U23 rider, and Honsinger won U23 Pan-Ams and finished on 5 UCI podiums during the season.
All of that success, however, was prologue to two special days in December and February.
First up was Sunday, December 16 in Louisville. After finishing second at Pan-Ams and Nationals the previous season, Honsinger entered the season as the favorite to win the U23 race in Louisville, but Katie Clouse had recently beaten Honsinger in the C1 at Ruts n’ Guts. There was certainly some pressure on Honsinger to finish her strong season with a win on that muddy Sunday.
Russenberger finished 7th under the lights at Jingle Cross earlier in the season, and her most recent national-level result was an 11th at the Pan-American Championships. However, she did finish 4th for Fort Lewis College in the Collegiate Varsity race, suggesting something special could be in store for her in Sunday’s U23 race.
Wrye-Simpson described what the start of the U23 Women’s race was like on that muddy afternoon at Joe Creason Park in Louisville.
“Standing in the lane you could see a little window to the first sweeper for a short period before they dropped into the woods and head back to the pavement. It was amazing to see the start go off and see one orange jersey go through this window. I was like, ‘Cool, that’s Clara.’ Then Katie [Clouse] went through, and then my jaw just dropped, and I started freaking out with excitement when I saw the second orange jersey go through with a gap already. It was like the best day.”
Honsinger went on to win the U23 Women’s National Championship with a dominant performance. “Clara was not going to be denied on that course,” Tonkin recalled. “When she got out front, I knew there would be no turning back. I wasn’t surprised, but there was a big sense of relief and accomplishment. Clara and I were pretty ecstatic at the finish line. It was so nice to see that come together.”
Honsinger was not the only rider to have a day in the Louisville mud. Russenberger held her strong start to take bronze. Caked in mud, a jubilant Wrye-Simpson could be seen running from the pit to celebrate with the young women she had supported throughout the season.
“Sophie is a joy to be around. She’s a hilarious and just a lighthearted, happy rider,” Wrye-Simpson said. “She ended her season on a very high note coming away with a great result at Nationals. For me personally, that was so amazing.”
Orton joined her teammates in making it three riders with a career afternoon. “Beth Ann had her best finish ever at Nationals,” Tonkin said. “That was really special too. I’ve seen her fight and fight and struggle, and to see her put together her best race in those unusually tough conditions. That was a great effort, and I was super proud of how hard she fought through that total mess out there.”
“That was a special day at Nationals. It was really really something else. I don’t really have words for it. ”
After her win in Louisville, Honsinger was named to lead the Team USA contingent in the U23 Women’s race at the Bogense World Championships. Wrye-Simpson made the trip to support the young woman she had been advising, wrenching and planning for all season. This time, with USA Cycling handling logistics and pit duties, Wrye-Simpson got to enjoy the experience as a fan.
One moment from that trip sticks out in her mind as representing so much of what the team has achieved since that first trip to CXLA.
After a fast start on the frozen Bogense course, Honsinger and Clouse found themselves in a small group dangling about 15 seconds behind the lead selection midway through the race. From that point, Honsinger dragged the group back to the front second by second and made contact with the leaders with two laps to go.
Everyone awake in the U.S. and the Americans in attendance in Bogense were tensely cheering for Honsinger to finish what she started—totally unbiased journalists included (we are human, after all). After I brought up that moment, Wrye-Simpson remembered the rest.
“It was a very emotional moment,” she recalled. “I’ve watched Clara grow for a long time, beyond just the last two seasons on S&M. That was a critical moment in the race, closing the gap and getting back to the front group. Expending that energy because you know that it’s the job at hand.”
“Long story short, it was a very emotional, spine-tingling moment to get to see in person and just having witnessed many race scenarios over the years, to know how strong and how deep she was digging in to own that race for herself.”
Honsinger went on to finish 10th in a fast and furious last lap, but the experience is one the team will look to build on as both Honsinger and Russenberger move into the Elite category this season. “We worked hard together as a familial team, and Clara is having an amazing career, and to go to Denmark and see her race at Worlds was so awesome,” Wrye-Simpson said.
When looking back on those special days, Tonkin echoed similar sentiments. “I think one of the things that was really cool about it was over the last couple of years, it has been a pretty good team. Everybody involved genuinely care about what is happening with the other people. There is a lot of collective ownership of it.”
Take Care of Your Relationships
For better or worse, solo privateer programs are more common in North American cyclocross than well-supported teams. Last season, we profiled Stu Thorne’s Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld program, and Team S&M CX joins that program as one making a mark on the ‘cross landscape.
I asked Wrye-Simpson what she thinks she is doing right to be an integral part of her team. When responding, she drew on her experience as a racer turned saleswoman turned mechanic.
“Take care of your relationships. We do what we get to do because it’s a collaborative effort,” she responded.
“Our roles in the sport continue to evolve over time. You might come into the sport in one way and then become involved in it in a completely different way within a span of a few years. The people you meet over the years, you can continue to interact with them. We all look for opportunities for each other.”
“Take care of your relationships. We do what we get to do because it’s a collaborative effort.”
Wrye-Simpson has had her current opportunity in part because Tonkin believed in her ability to help run the Team S&M CX Elite program. Wrye-Simpson said she found a lot of similarities between what Thorne has done with his program and what Tonkin has brought to cyclocross and women’s cyclocross specifically.
“He definitely believes in cultivating opportunities for athletes,” she said about Tonkin. “He puts his money where his mouth is in terms of getting people to the races and making sure they have an opportunity to ride and put themselves forward.”
“By way of being a small business owner, he gets to enact a small amount of change in the world the way he wants.”
Sponsorship in cyclocross is fickle and often ephemeral, so there is no guarantee the Team S&M CX Elite program will exist even next year. However, thanks in large part to the quiet work of its workhorse, the team enters its third full season ready to make a mark on U.S. cyclocross.
Whatever the future holds, Wrye-Simpson’s position has brought her invaluable experience, and we will likely see her supporting the sport in some capacity for years to come.
For more stories on folks behind the scenes at cyclocross races, you can read out interview with race announcer Scot Herrmann.