If you look up ”hot vacation destinations,” Luxembourg at the end of January is not likely to be on the list. However, for the Swartz family of Madison, Wisconsin, their family trip to Luxembourg this week has the chance to be the best family vacation ever.
Emma Swartz qualified for her second straight World Championships in the Women’s U23 category and her younger brother Caleb will be joining her as part of the Men’s 17-18 contingent after both had top five finishes in their respective categories in Hartford.
Their parents Kris and Andy had already purchased plane tickets to attend Worlds, so the announcement that both Swartzi would be a part of Team USA for the 2017 Cyclocross World Championships meant it would be a family vacation to remember.
The Swartz’s memorable Luxembourg vacation is a dream that was almost unrealized. Emma suffered a serious head injury at the August Ore to Shore mountain bike race in Marquette, Michigan and missed the first month and a half of cyclocross season. If this story had been written in mid-October, Emma would have been preparing to cheer for her brother at Worlds,
“Coming into ′cross season this Fall, we were both like ‘It would be pretty fun to go to Worlds together,'” said Emma. “I crashed, and we were like ‘Ok, let’s focus on getting Caleb to go,’ and then we’ll see what happens with me.”
Emma returned to the ′cross course in late October and then had a tough crash at the Pan-American Championships in Cincinnati. She faced the tough question many riders face because of injuries and life obligations, ”Should I bail on the season?” Emma said she decided to keep going,
“Is it worth pushing this season until Nationals and still trying for Worlds or not?” she asked herself. “I ended up pushing through and got faster, which inevitably happens when you train for a month or two. So I’m glad I kept going.”
Caleb said he had faith in his sister’s recovery, “Emma’s racing started to really take an upturn in December with her almost-UCI podium [at Major Taylor Cross in Indianapolis] and we were like ‘Yeah, it’s probably going to happen Emma.'”
The selection criteria for the World Championships team is heavily weighted toward strong performances at Nationals. Given Emma’s late start to the season and another injury suffered during one of her comeback races, she knew she probably needed to finish in the top five. Was she nervous heading into the race? ”I did not eat too many Christmas cookies,” she said. “That was a big sacrifice over break.”
Emma’s calm approach to Nationals paid off in Hartford. She finished fifth in the Women’s U23 race after holding third for a good part of the race. Caleb also had a strong finish, taking fourth after an epic battle for third with Ross Ellwood.
On January 10 the Swartz siblings got the news they were selected to Team USA and the dream family vacation was on.
Just Another Swartz Family Cyclocross Weekend
Cyclocross races have become a family affair for the Swartz clan, with the family van becoming a regular on the Midwest cyclocross scene. Andy used to race singlespeed in the morning before Caleb and Emma raced in the afternoon and Kris once tried a cyclocross race, but in recent years Andy has taken on the role of mechanic and Kris serves as the chief “Swartzporter” at their races.
Emma has been racing at Marian University in Indianapolis the past two years, but the family has done their best to keep the trips in the family van alive. Caleb has been racing the UCI Men’s Juniors 17-18 races, so the family cyclocross trips have been to places such as Louisville and Cincinnati instead of Chicago and Milwaukee the past two years.
Even their grandfather, who lives in Madison, has caught the Swartz cyclocross bug. Said Emma, “The excitement from our family is always so nice. Our grandpa loves to come to the races. He came to Nationals with us.” Caleb added, “He’s come to every Nationals since Madison.” Continued Emma, “He’s 82. He walks around and pretends it’s not cold, but he loves seeing us race. It’s awesome.”
When asked about the trip to Luxembourg, both racers talked about how enjoyable it would be for their parents. Said Emma, “It will be exciting for them. It will be nice to have them cheering for us and to see them at the start and finish line. It will be just like our usual family races we go to.”
Caleb said it will be a chance for his dad to watch the race in civilian clothes and not his trademark pit apron, “My dad won’t have to do any work or anything. He’ll be able to spectate and enjoy it. It will be one of the first times my dad will be able to truly enjoy my race without stressing too much.” Emma quickly added, ”[But] he’s still going to stress, let’s be honest here.”
That is not to say the Swartz siblings do not have goals of their own. Emma was a member of Team USA at Zolder in 2016 after finishing 6th at the Asheville Nationals, so she is looking to improve her finish, among other things:
“I am hoping to improve over my 31st place last year and maybe try to be like top half of the race. And also get some good chocolate. Those are basically both my goals, and getting more experience racing European cyclocross. I think that’s something I can learn about over there and apply to racing here. The women race a lot more aggressive there.”
“I am hoping to improve over my 31st place last year and maybe try to be like top half of the race. And also get some good chocolate.” -Emma Swartz
The Worlds trip will be Caleb’s third trip to Europe this year. He raced the Zonhoven/Valkenburg and Namur/Zolder blocks of Euro Cross Camp in 2016 [See Caleb’s rider diary from Namur here], so he is hoping to be less fazed by the excitement of racing abroad,
“I’ve been over twice this year, so I’ve definitely had tons of fun over there already. I really want to enjoy myself, I want to have fun, but more than anything, I want to absolutely race my heart out and finish this season as strong as I possibly can to really end on a high note and positively impact my season next fall.”
“Somewhat Racing” to the Top
Emma and Caleb Swartz grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. Madison is known for being one of the top biking cities in America, and Wisconsin is home to a solid mid-sized cyclocross scene. The area has recently hosted Nationals twice – 2012 and 2013 in Verona, a Madison suburb – and the prestige of the Trek CXC Cup in Waterloo has been growing each year.
The one thing, however, Madison does not have is a cyclocross junior development program. With no institutional support, the Swartz siblings have developed into star riders their own way.
When you talk to Caleb and Emma now, their passion for and love of cycling is palpable. However, the love of the sport was not always there for the siblings.
Their parents Andy and Kris have always been really into biking, so when Caleb and Emma were younger, they would often spend vacations on bike tours with Emma and Caleb tagging along on a trail-a-bike or in a trailer. Instead of an allowance, their parents would give them a dollar every time they rode somewhere around town.
As one might expect, the young Swartz cyclists were not the biggest fans, “We didn’t really enjoy it, because they were making us do it,” said Caleb.
The two started racing cyclocross in 2008, or as Emma put it, ”I’d call it ‘somewhat racing.’ It was little Emma and little Caleb running around bike courses on our bikes.” They both did well and got the opportunity to head to Nationals, but it would be several years before they would get the drive and determination to be among the top cyclocross racers in the country.
Taking a different path in cycling also kept Caleb and Emma playing other sports through their sophomore years in high school. Caleb played soccer and joined a snowboarding team and Emma competed in soccer and cross country. They said the other sports allowed them to develop their fitness while not getting burned out on riding and to get an opportunity to enjoy being part of a team.
If it were not for a soccer injury her freshman year of high school, Emma would likely not be a part of the U.S. Worlds contingent. After suffering a bad ankle sprain, the bike became a way to stay active.
“I was so desperate for exercise, I was like ‘I can’t run, I can’t walk but I can ride my bike,’ so I rode my bike all summer and was like ‘Oh man, I’m going fast,’ and I really enjoyed it. I liked having the fitness and I liked being fast and it felt good because I had actually kind of worked for it instead of going off soccer fitness to race. It was exciting, and I really think I had a breakthrough season that got me excited for ′cross the next year.”
For Caleb, it was a tough afternoon at the 2014 Cyclocross Nationals in Boulder that helped motivate him to strive for success,
“I got my ass kicked at 2014 Nationals in Boulder, and decided I wanted to start working with a coach. That season I started working with my coach Joe [Maloney] and it really helped my fitness a lot. That’s when I really decided I was motivated and wanted to do well in mountain and ′cross. I wanted to train and work hard to do that. That’s when I decided I really did like riding my bike and that’s what I wanted to do.”
The competitive fire and desire to work harder that was lit inside Caleb and Emma has helped them improve each year they’ve raced at Nationals. Caleb finished 31st in Boulder, 10th in Austin, 7th in Asheville, and in Hartford missed the podium by seconds after an epic duel for third with Ross Ellwood.
Emma took 9th in Boulder in the U23 race, 6th in Asheville, and 5th in Hartford after riding in third for part of the race.
Wisconsin could be defined as a mid-sized ′cross scene. It is largely focused in the Milwaukee and Madison areas, and races typically draw between 200 and 250 racers. One benefit of a scene that size is people get to know each other pretty quickly. As Caleb and Emma were working their way up from Cat 4 to the P/1/2 level, they could always be seen chatting and joking with riders twice their age after the races they usually won.
It is likely a testament to their character and Upper Midwestern friendliness that Facebook and Instagram in southern Wisconsin basically imploded after their top five finishes at Hartford. It would not be surprising if “Caleb Swartz” and “Emma Swartz” were trending on Facebook that day.
“Emma was like ‘I’m not going to turn on my phone,'” said Caleb about their post-race discussion.” Emma was not joking, “There were too many Facebook messages.” Caleb continued, ” She’s like ‘There’s 46 Facebook notifications, I’m not going to open Facebook.'”
Both Caleb and Emma have been racing for the Trek Cyclocross Collective since 2015. Trek provides generous support of cycling in Wisconsin, so having the opportunity to race under the hometown Trek banner has one they both appreciate. They both expressed gratitude to Trek and the larger Wisconsin bike community for those Facebook messages after Nationals.
Said Caleb, “Having the whole Trek community, which is a huge part of the WCA [cyclocross] and WORS [Wisconsin Off-Road Series] community, is absolutely phenomenal. We have been able to work with and communicate with Trek Headquarters, which is 25 minutes away from our house.” He continued, “All the racers we’ve raced with throughout the years are so supportive of both of us, and it’s just awesome and it’s really satisfying to have reached this level, to be going to the World Championships, and know that all these people are so happy and have helped us so much.”
Emma agreed with her brother, “Trek’s been very supportive, and a lot of people have reached out and helped us. Just being able to get extra derailleur hangers is so helpful, among so many other things. And the nice messages we get, the support has been awesome. We are very grateful for it. And our family. The excitement from our family is always so nice.”
One big effect of doing things a little bit differently is Caleb and Emma have had to grow up much quicker to adapt to spending so much time riding with adults. Instead of goofing around at junior ′cross practice, they have found themselves out on group rides or riding solo on the bike paths and roads around Madison.
Wisconsin is a mid-sized state, but it does have a solid contingent of talented riders. Being able to ride with these men and women has greatly benefited both Swartz siblings.
Said Emma, ”Having so many people to look up to and learn from, even if we may be faster than them now. So many women, I thought they were amazing, and still think they’re amazing. It was cool to have those role models when I was growing up.”
She mentioned several specific people, ” Diane Ostenso, I can’t ever say how grateful I am for her. She just took me in and helped me love cycling. Then Heidi Beck and Julie Phelps and the women I raced with. The Cat 3 women and then the Cat 1/2 women. Just racing with them and learning from them and having their good attitudes around was really good for me.”
This past year, Caleb’s hard work and dedication have allowed him to graduate from rides with this author to throwing down with some of the best riders in the Midwest. He said he is grateful for how their support and how hard they push him on the bike.
”There’s such a big community of support for Juniors,” said Caleb. ”The number of people, regional pros and national and international pros like Brian Matter, people like that to help coach us and train with us. I can go on a group ride with Isaac Neff, now two-time National Champion. I can go on a group ride with Max Ackermann, U25 development rider for Harley Davidson, all these guys who are so strong. I can just go for hours with them and they’ll rip my legs off, it’s so good for me.”
Brother and Sister Reunited at Marian University
Emma is currently in her sophomore year of collegiate varsity racing at Marian University in Indianapolis. She has thrived at Marian, making the Worlds team twice for cyclocross and adding some road skills highlighted by a third place finish in the criterium at last year’s Collegiate Road Nationals.
Caleb is in his senior year at Madison East High School, so when it came time to decide if he wanted to race on a varsity cycling program next year, Emma’s positive experience at Marian played a big role in his decision. ”It definitely influenced me a lot because she benefited from it so much, and she’s done so well in the program. She’s been able to give me tons of insight into how well-run it is, and the resources they have. It was a true inside view into how much they can really help me.”
Emma said she’s looking forward to have her brother as a fellow Knight, ”I am very excited. I am excited to show him the roads and the trails and then do the team relays together. I am so excited.”
If you met the Swartz pair today, one would think they have been close forever. However, like many siblings, their relationship has grown as along with their bike skills. They say absence makes a heart grow fonder, and for Emma, the old adage proved true. ”I think me going away to college helped us get closer, she said. “Less ways to annoy each other. I think we realized we kind of missed each other.”
Caleb agreed, ”When we were younger we fought a lot and messed with each other a lot. Then senior year when Emma realized she was leaving all her friends and everything, she wanted to just hang out with friends and hang out with me a lot more, so we were a lot closer. Once she went away to college, it’s been kind of a treat to see her and hang out with her.”
They both said in addition to a stronger personal relationship, they have also learned about racing from each other. What are some of those things?
For Emma, ”I think being able to learn from each other and having Caleb to remind me to drink a recovery drink, that’s pretty helpful sometimes.”
And Caleb, ”She helped me, when she came home from college this year, she helped me get into the habit of showering after every single ride. It’s really important.”
But more seriously, Caleb said their shared success has pushed each to work harder, “We both see the success both of us achieve and the dedication each of us has to our sport, and that really brings us together as a family and as competitors. To just keep pushing each other.”
“She helped me, when she came home from college this year, she helped me get into the habit of showering after every single ride. It’s really important.” -Caleb Swartz
World Championships or Bust
The Swartz family will be descending on Bieles, Luxembourg this weekend for a family vacation to remember. Saturday is the big day for Caleb and Emma; Caleb races at 4:00am CST and Emma races at 6am CST.
Caleb, Emma and other Team USA racers are fundraising for their current Worlds trip. You can learn more and support their efforts here.