When the U.S. cyclocross season starts in September, young athletes will be looking to replicate Elle Anderson’s breakout 2013/14 season. The latest in our #crossiscoming series takes a look back at Anderson’s memorable campaign from five years ago.
For three weekends in the fall of 2013, Elle Anderson was the Queen of U.S. cyclocross.
After finishing eighth in an international field at the 2013 CrossVegas, the 25-year-old Anderson headed to the Midwest where she won both days of the inaugural Trek CXC Cup in Waterloo, Wisconsin. She continued her roll closer to her Vermont home with another weekend sweep at the Grand Prix of Gloucester, and then landed on a podium in Providence with her idols Katie Compton and Katerina Nash.
If U.S. cyclocross fans did not know Anderson’s name before those 16 autumn days, they certainly did after her impressive rides. Her four wins were the first of many standout results in what proved to be a breakout season for the young rider. Anderson went on to win a total of 6 UCI races that season, finish on 15 UCI podiums and finish second behind Katie Compton at Nationals in Boulder.
Anderson used her breakout 2013/14 campaign as a springboard for living and racing in Europe full-time the following season. Even as she has finally found a home and consistent success in Europe, she said she still looks back fondly at that 2013/14 campaign.
“It always kind of reminds me that I’m always comparing myself to that season,” Anderson said looking back on her memorable 2013/14 season. “You only ever have one breakout season, and then every other season after that is more difficult. That 2013 season was really spectacular.”
Prelude to a Breakout
When the start of cyclocross season rolled around in 2013, 25-year-old Elle Anderson was ranked 52nd in the world and coming off a career-best 12th-place finish at the 2013 U.S. Cyclocross Nationals. The 2012/13 season was her second full season of racing UCI cyclocross, so finishing 12th at Nationals was a big accomplishment for the young rider. “It’s so fun to remember my first few Cyclocross National Championships,” she said. “If you look one year earlier, my race ended after 20 minutes when I got pulled by officials with Katie Compton about to lap me. So when I finished 12th the following season, I was stoked.”
We have all seen how the cyclocross discipline can humble even the most gifted rider when they first try the sport, so Anderson’s first seasons racing UCI cyclocross after graduating from Dartmouth were a constant learning experience. “During those two years, I learned about warm-up routines, tubular tires, dismounts and remounts and a lot of technical development,” she said. “I even learned how to win at three small UCI C2 races that season.”
Her 2012/13 season that included those three UCI C2 wins and several podiums caught the attention of some folks in the cyclocross world. During the summer of 2013, she signed a contract with the Cal Giant Berry Farms / Specialized team that was a big player in U.S. cyclocross at the time. She joined Meredith Miller, Logan Owen, Yannick Eckmann, Cody Kaiser and Tobin Ortenblad on the red-clad team of living legends and up-and-coming stars.
“It might have been the first time I actually signed a paper contract instead of a simple verbal commitment like in the past,” Anderson said about her big career move. “I felt like the team rookie, the wild card. I had cyclocross veteran Meredith Miller to look up to, follow around and be in awe of.”
The start of every cyclocross season is a bit of a wild card, even for the most established riders. Athletes can look at power numbers and make note of results on the road and mountain bikes, but those metrics do not always translate to success in the mud and ruts. Heading into the 2013/14 season, Anderson hoped to improve but was still relatively modest with her goals.
“Based on the goal planning worksheet that I still have, I hoped to be within the top-10-ranked U.S. riders, maybe snag a UCI podium at a smaller race and *gasp* try to make the Worlds team as my reach goal,” Anderson said. “I had no idea how badly I would blow those goals out of the water in the coming months, but my attitude was primed for the experience. I felt like I had nothing to lose, and I wanted to go for it and see what would happen. To surprise myself. It was a beautiful, simple and carefree time in my career.”
Cyclocross Magazine follows cyclocrossers’ offseason exploits in our Rumors and Rumblings column. Sometimes results are just results, but the journey on the road or mountain bike can also be a key part of cyclocross success. For Anderson, that was the case, even if she did not know it as September 2013 rolled around.
“In the summer of 2013, I got the opportunity to race on the road at some really fast and big races with Vanderkitten, one of the best elite cycling teams in the U.S. at the time,” she said. “Having the speed in my legs from all the criterium racing and hanging on in some of the fastest pelotons in North America gave me what I needed to be fast in cyclocross.”
She added, “This is something I only realized in retrospect. The connection between my summer program and the successes in the ‘cross season was mostly lost on me.”
Three Weekends in Autumn
The 2013/14 season started on a positive note for Anderson. After finishing second to teammate Meredith Miller twice at local NorCal races, she headed to the desert for CrossVegas. The race, which was won by Katerina Nash for one of her record five times, featured a field of the best North America-based women. Anderson finished 8th, which was a big jump from her 17th-place finish in 2012. The season was off to a good start.
The next weekend was the first-ever Trek CXC Cup held on the grounds of Trek Bicycles in Waterloo, Wisconsin. Anderson christened the new event by sweeping the weekend. Although she would later reveal those weekends were a blur, she does at least remember the prizes she got to take home. “I’ll never forget the Trek CXC Cup back in the day used to give these trophies that were like skulls,” she said. “They were deer skulls with little antlers that looked like they had been left out in the desert. Those were really cool.”
Anderson grew up in Vermont, but at that time she was living in the Bay Area and working at Strava. The races of the then Verge New England Cyclocross series provided her with a chance to race closer to home at some of the sport’s classic U.S. venues.
Up next was the famed Grand Prix of Gloucester. Anderson headed east and again swept the weekend. She had four UCI wins in the span of nine days. At that moment, Elle Anderson was the star of U.S. cyclocross.
She remembers those two weekends. Sort of. “I wish I could remember more clearly, but it just seems like a blurry highlight reel of some really amazing moments and elated emotions,” she said.
She continued, “The clearest memory I have from that time was just before Day 2 of Gloucester as I was getting ready to defend my win from the day before. I started feeling a bit nervous, like can I really repeat yesterday’s performance? What if I can’t? I was talking to one of the mechanics, admitting my uncertainty, and he basically helped me clear my head, relax and race like nobody was watching or expecting anything from me. I still consider those two wins at Gloucester in 2013 to be the high-water mark for me so far.”
“I still consider those two wins at Gloucester in 2013 to be the high-water mark for me so far.”
Anderson’s early-season momentum faced its biggest test the first weekend of October in Providence. Trek athlete Katie Compton missed the first edition of the Trek CXC Cup and Gloucester the following weekend due to illness. At Providence, Compton was back on the start line along with Katerina Nash, Helen Wyman and the full U.S.-based women’s peloton. Results at Providence would show Anderson’s success was for real.
At Providence, the young Cal Giant rider delivered. She finished second on Saturday, behind Nash and ahead of Compton and the rest of the field. On Sunday, she finished just off the podium in fourth. Ahead of her? Nash, Compton and Helen Wyman. You may have heard of them once or twice.
“I remember the race that I finished ahead of Compton to place second behind Nash in Providence,” Anderson said about that weekend. “It was crazy to approach the final meters of the race and to start sprinting past one of the biggest icons in the sport. I just couldn’t believe it.”
After Providence, Anderson went on to win two more UCI races and finish on a total of eight podiums by the end of the U.S. domestic cyclocross calendar. At the end of December, she was the fifth-ranked U.S. rider and had snagged far more than one UCI podium. In a way, the rest of the season was gravy.
A Night to Remember
When the 2012 domestic calendar ended, Anderson stayed sharp by jumping in an Elite Men’s race in California (she finished in the top third of the field). In 2013, she had a pro contract that allowed her to make her first trip to Europe. The NorCal weather was certainly better, but the Surf City CX just does not carry the same prestige as the Namur and Zolder World Cups.
Anderson fared well during her first two World Cups. She finished in the top 20 at Namur and then followed it up with a strong ride at Zolder. Before she headed back to the U.S. to get ready for Nationals in Boulder, she got one more taste of the famed Kerstperiode racing.
When we spoke with Anderson earlier this year, she said Superprestige Diegem is her favorite race on the European calendar. It might be the party-like atmosphere the Belgian fans bring to the streets of the Brussels suburb at night, but it might also be because Anderson did pretty well there in 2013.
That December night, Anderson turned in, as she describes it, an “absolute surprise, out-of-the-blue race.” She finished third to land on the podium along with Sanne Cant and Eva Lechner.
Looking back, Anderson described the experience. “I found myself standing on a podium in Diegem, Belgium with Sanne Cant and Eva Lechner. I was shepherded into the special podium tent just after the finish, where a coke and a warm bucket of water with a towel waited for each of us. There was so much buzz around the podium, the ceremony of it all and the many photographers clicking away. I could hardly believe that cyclocross was such a big deal in Europe, even though I had heard the stories. Being at the center of it, standing up on the stage holding the flowers, getting on TV and grinning from ear to ear.
“It was an unbelievable moment that would change the course of my career indefinitely.”
To this day, Diegem is still a special night for Anderson. Last December, she finished sixth at the race against a field that has only gotten more impressive since her first trip to Europe in 2013. “I think I get really excited for that one race, regardless of whether it suits me or not because it was my first ever podium in Europe when I came over in 2013,” Anderson said. “I’ll always remember that. It really does make a difference when you line up to race and you’re excited about the race. There are all kinds of positive energy you get from a memory like that. Every year, I think I feed off that and end up having a really good time at that race.”
“It was an unbelievable moment that would change the course of my career indefinitely.”
On to Nationals
For some athletes, unexpected success can lead to more confidence that delivers more success. For others, the burden of building on success can lead to self-doubt and unmanageable pressure. During her memorable run of 2013, Anderson found a winning strategy for managing success and expectations.
“The crazy thing is that more or less, I remember living in the moment, not worrying too much about what lay ahead,” she said. “I was just riding the wave and it was awesome.”
She continued, “I don’t know how I did it, but I feel like every race I showed up with a blank page, with the attitude of let’s see what I can do, let’s surprise myself. It was almost like there was a magical element to that time like I was just floating through the races so effortlessly. Just keeping the magic of momentum and confidence going until the end of the season.”
After returning from her first European cyclocross trip, Anderson still faced her biggest test of the season: U.S. Cyclocross Nationals in Boulder. At that time, Katie Compton had only won a *mere* nine straight national championships. After her early-season illness, Compton entered U.S. Nationals having won five straight UCI World Cups.
Still, Anderson felt like she had a shot at the champ. “I think people told me I could beat Compton, and I went for it.”
Compton missed her pedal at the start but soon recovered to take the lead early in the first lap. Anderson’s live-in-the-moment, go-for-it approach propelled her to the front and midway through the first lap, she was leading the living cyclocross legend. Compton took the lead shortly before Pit 2 and then did what Katie Compton does.
“When she passed me after my early lead I knew I couldn’t follow her pace,” Anderson said. “Those were the days when Compton regularly had slow starts but got into her groove soon enough and was unstoppable. I remember thinking, yep catch that wheel, but then seeing it disappear slowly. I don’t know what I was expecting for a result, but I just remember attacking from the start like I owned it and then just hanging on for the ride.”
Anderson more than held on for the ride. She went on to finish second, 30 seconds ahead of her idol and teammate Meredith Miller. Her silver medal was a fitting reward for an incredible breakout season that put her name in the upper echelon of U.S. cyclocross racers.
“It felt really good to be second at Nationals, a more than satisfying conclusion to the U.S. racing that season,” Anderson said about that January day in Colorado. “We had the podium ceremony for the ProCX calendar in Boulder too, which I won that year and cleaned up big time in terms of prize money. I clearly remember the huge checks they gave to Jeremy Powers and me.”
“It felt like a lot of consistent racing paid off. It felt like a dream, and it still feels like a dream.”
“It felt like a dream, and it still feels like a dream.”
A Tough Act to Follow
Not surprisingly, five years later, Anderson said she still reflects on that five-month period in 2013/14 where everything came together perfectly for her as an athlete. She was living in the moment, racing her bike and many days, it was darn near perfect.
“When I close my eyes and imagine the perfect race, the sun is shining and my legs burn from the effort,” Anderson reflected. “I feel like nothing can stop me and I feel that warm sensation of glory and self-fulfillment that we all chase in competition. I’m putting my hands up at the finish and the moment feels so sweet. It’s all I ever want from the sport, that joy and sense of accomplishment after so much hard work, grit and determination.”
She continued, “When I imagine this perfect race, I am always wearing the red and white jersey of Cal Giant-Specialized and it actually happened multiple times that season. The feeling I had that season, how easy everything seemed and how flawless my mentality was, I tend to put it up on the highest pedestal and nothing that I’ve done since can touch it.”
Any athlete will tell you that winning the second championship is infinitely more difficult than winning the first. Once you break through, everyone is gunning for you, and internally, it is difficult to maintain the same fire. Elle Anderson finished the 2013/14 season ranked 11th in the world and 2nd among all U.S. women. There would be no sneaking up on the domestic and international fields the following season.
Even with her easy-going approach, Anderson was not immune to the internal pressures that come from rising to the top of her sport in the U.S. She made her task even more difficult the following season by joining a European team and racing full-time in the Motherland of cyclocross.
“It’s a blessing and a curse,” Anderson said about her memorable run. “The road has felt much more difficult since then by comparison. I am much more critical of myself and I put more pressure on myself. I can sense that it’s counter-productive, but I just can’t help memorializing the experience in that way. It’s almost like I was a different person when I accomplished all those things, some version of myself I’m still chasing and yearning to get back to. It’s definitely motivating but not always productive!”
Cyclocross season starts in about a month. Young athletes and those relatively new to the sport are looking to follow in Anderson’s footsteps and have their own breakout campaigns. For those who have already made their mark, the task is a lot more difficult trying to stay at the top.
“For me, what is most difficult is the mental part after the breakout season is over,” Anderson said about the last four years of her career. “For a breakout, there is usually only one, and it passes too fast. I remember people telling me that but I didn’t understand it at the time. There is only one chance at a breakout season, to be the rookie that upsets the scene, the new rider no one has heard of. After that, it’s the pressure of the repeated performances.”
When Anderson looks at athletes such as Katie Compton, Jeremy Powers and others who have stayed at the top of the cyclocross world, there is no question she has a special level of respect colored by her experiences.
“There’s no feeling quite like blowing expectations out of the water. Not even a repeat performance can compare. Meeting expectations still feels great, but greatly surpassing expectations is, quite frankly, a pretty surreal high. So maybe it was a bit naive of me to assume that the following season would feel just as amazing.”
Anderson’s path after her breakout 2013/14 campaign has not been an easy one. Her first year in Europe was marred by illness and other issues. She nearly quit the sport in 2015. It was only this past season where Anderson finally felt like she had found a home living and racing European cyclocross. With an eighth-place finish at Worlds in Valkenburg-Limburg, she was justly rewarded for her dedication and as she says, stubbornness.
Elle Anderson had a memorable 2013/14 campaign that was the true definition of a breakout season. Maybe she can score a Worlds podium to top the feeling of that five-month period, but even if she reaches the pinnacle of the sport, that season will always be a memorable part of her career and life.
“I’m not sure if I will ever let go of the incredible moments I experienced during the 2013-14 cyclocross season,” she concluded.