The last few years have been a roller coaster, to put it kindly, for Caroline Mani (Pactimo / Colorado Proud).
In early 2016, the French native turned American resident reached the highest point of her professional cyclocross career, finishing second at the 2016 World Championships in Zolder.
Mani continued her strong racing into the 2016/17 season before a falling out with sponsors Raleigh and Clement left her without a team at the end of that season. She still managed to win the 2017 French National Championship despite the off-course stress.
However, as the 2017/18 season approached, Mani was still without a sponsor to race cyclocross. She went as far as to start a GoFundMe to seek out funding for her season, before Van Dessel and Atom Composites stepped up to add her to their roster of sponsored athletes. Mani went on to finish second at French Nationals and 10th at Worlds, showing she still had the potential to be one of the top racers in the world.
Then, at the start of last cyclocross season, personal and professional stress caught up with the rider affectionately nicknamed “Frenchie.” Mani joined the footsteps of her working-class teammate Sunny Gilbert and took on a full-time job at a Colorado bike shop. The stress of working and training while also dealing with personal issues became too much and finally caught up with her.
She had probably her worst season ever as a professional, including having to withdraw from a race at Jingle Cross due to a panic attack. As she fought through the season, she considered leaving cyclocross behind. It was only her latest French National Championship that helped provide some redemption for the terrible season.
“I was ready to say ‘Eff it, I’m done. I cannot do it,'” Mani said. “I was in a deep, deep hole, and I tried as hard as I could, but it wasn’t working. It was painful, and I think it was painful to watch.”
This season, Mani is back with renewed vigor, and she has the results to show. Mani and Gilbert have teamed up to form the Pactimo / Colorado Proud team, a program that includes a horse trailer converted to the team’s rig, and both riders are thriving in the laid-back environment.
Mani already has six podium finishes this season, a win at GO Cross and her *lowest* results were an 8th at the Jingle Cross World Cup and 6th at World Cup Waterloo.
In one of the stories of the cyclocross season thus far, Caroline Mani is back. Back to being aggressive and leaving it all out on the cyclocross course, as “The Animal” has gained a reputation for doing.
I sat down with Mani in the Pactimo trailer during one of the UCI weekends last month. She was gracious enough to open up about her situation and the challenges she has overcome in recent years. You can read our conversation below.
Interview: Caroline Mani, Live from the Pactimo Trailer
Cyclocross Magazine: We’re hanging out here in the Pactimo trailer with Caroline Mani. How has it gone for you guys putting together this program?
Caroline Mani: It was not easy. I’m super grateful we are able to pull it together with Pactimo jumping on board. I think people think it’s a Pactimo team, but Sunny and I pulled it together with Pactimo as the main sponsor. They kind of let us manage everything, and the trailer and truck are coming with us. We have a nice setup for sure. So far, it’s been pretty good.
CXM: So you’ve been dealing with some shit the last couple of years, huh?
CM: Hmmm, yeah. I mean, it’s life. Sometimes you make decisions and life, in general, is pretty challenging. But I have to say the last couple of years have been pretty rough. I’m still dealing with some luggage and finalizing a divorce is not easy, but I think my head is way more well put together this year. It was affecting me quite a bit last year.
And starting to work full-time on top of that last year was just too much. It was the first time I was like, ‘Oh, I have to work 40 hours a week and put in training on top of that.’ Altogether, I couldn’t manage it. I had a panic attack when I was racing. I usually pretty strong mentally, but I couldn’t recognize myself.
Then working was just a lot. Standing on my feet 8 hours a day was hard. I was picking sleeping over training, honestly. I had a schedule where I could wake up early and train and then go to work, but I was so tired. I don’t know if I was having some depression or whatever, but I had no energy. Mentally, physically, it was just really really hard.
But I’m not the only one to get through some tough times, so I kept going and I think I saved the season by winning Nationals. I was definitely in a hole for a while there just trying as hard as I could to fix the situation to get that win. But man, it was tough for sure.
CXM: Where are you working at?
CM: Right now, I am doing sales at a bike shop in town, one of the biggest.
CXM: In Colorado Springs, right?
CM: Yeah. I want to find something that will be a little more challenging. I mean, I like the ambiance there, and they are awesome people. When I have to leave, they are pretty flexible. But the thing is, if I’m not working, I’m not making a dime. If I’m traveling, then I am being stressed financially because it’s like, ‘You better be good on your bike and make some prize money.’ It’s a little stressful.
I wish I could find a job where I manage my own work more. Like right now, Sunny is probably working; we have Wifi in the trailer so everyone can work on the road. I think next year I would like to find something a little more manageable.
I don’t race during the year because I have to work as much as possible. Then in August, I’m like, ‘Hey guys, can I cut my schedule a little lighter?’ But 40 hours is a lot of hours. I give huge props to everyone who does that because I had no clue how hard it is.
I was doing some climbing with Katie Compton and Kaitie Keough, and they were back to sleep or to grab a cup of coffee and lay on the couch. I was like, ‘Gosh, enjoy it because I’m rushing to work for the next 8 hours.’ It could be a lot worse though; I’m pretty grateful I’m still here.
CXM: Last year at GO Cross you had some nice results at the beginning of the season, and watching you, it appeared all the things were kind of taking their toll. You’ve looked great this year, do you feel better this season?
CM: I’m glad to hear that. At least you see it from the outside. Last year I pulled it together maybe the first two or three races, then it just went downhill. Like at Jingle Cross, I pulled like an 8th-place there, but I should have finished better. Then the next day I had like a panic attack and had to pull out of the race. Mentally, it just took a toll on me. It was just too much.
I was ready to say ‘Eff it, I’m done. I cannot do it.’ I was in a deep, deep hole, and I tried as hard as I could, but it wasn’t working. It was painful, and I think it was painful to watch. I hear people say, ‘It’s good to see you. It’s good to see you back as yourself.’ It kind of hurts, it’s good to hear, but it kind of hurts that people on the outside could see I was having such a tough time. I’m still dealing with some personal stuff and whatever is going on, but I think my head is on my shoulders, and I’m not letting things affect me as much as they were last year.
Then with the program we’ve put together, I’m having a blast. Sunny and I are so different, but I think we’re a good combo. We’re pretty independent. We know what to do and try not to step over each other. We were joking yesterday that we should do a little TV show because it’s been so much much during these race weekends. A little TV show of Sunny and Caroline.
CXM: You were teammates with Van Dessel, and you guys decided to stick together when trying to put together your new program. Do you think that helped having the two of you to work on this?
CM: Van Dessel stepped out of sponsorship last year, so we were like, ‘Oh gosh.’ It wasn’t necessarily a team; we were riders on Van Dessels and they provided some help, but Cassie [Maximenko], Sunny and I were all managing our own stuff. We weren’t really a team.
This year, Sunny and I are like a team. I do a lot of stuff, she does a lot of stuff, then we can manage everything together. Sunny and I were ready to keep racing, and then she was moving to Colorado, so it was easier to manage everything. We were kind of like, ‘Hey, let’s try to do this.’ I’ve been dealing with sponsorship stuff for a long time, and Sunny is a little newer; it’s been challenging, but I think we complement each other well. I have that experience, and she had that amazing result at Nationals, so she was able to promote herself too, and we made it happen.
I think if Pactimo is on board for next year, we’ll have more time to build something a little bigger. We’re going to try to work on next year already and pull everything together. Then Van Dessel got back on board, so we’re on Van Dessel bikes. I talked to Edwin Bull, and he asked his boss if we could get frames. I could not find frames for this year. I had less trouble finding an e-bike sponsorship than being national champion and finding a cyclocross bike.
The gravel thing makes it a challenging situation. People want you to do gravel. It was a rough year, and I was like, ‘Gosh, how am I going to make this happen?’ Then I talked to Edwin, and he got us Van Dessel frames. I like to work with smaller companies like that because they care a little more. Sometimes they want bigger racers in the middle of a big show. I mean, I’m not Peter Sagan. I’m not getting enough in results and I’m not hot enough, I have to be blunt.
CXM: So why do you want to keep doing this?
CM: Honestly, work sucks. I can’t see myself just working full-time right now. And I like to compete. I’ve been competing since I was six years old, and it’s what I’m doing right now. I’m still pretty decent at it, and then I’m National Champion. It could be the last time, who knows.
I want to be able to say, ‘Hey, I am done. This is it. This is my time to retire.’ I don’t want to be pushed out the door where I’m done racing where I wasn’t able to race anymore. I want it to be where I’ve done my time, and now I’m stepping away. It’s a big family too. I need that right now. It’s kind of an escape from life for a minute.
CXM: Sweet. Thanks for your time and your honesty.
CM: For sure.
CXM: I’m sure people will love to hear your story.
CM: It is a story.
CXM: I know you don’t necessarily want to hear it, but you look really strong out there and it’s great to see.
CM: No, I love hearing that. I worked a lot harder this year, and I’m trying to get back to where I belong. It’s not fun to be in places you don’t want to be. I’m 33rd in the UCI rankings, when 2 years ago I was 2nd in the world. It’s like, ‘I want to go back up.’ I don’t think it can be worse than last year. I had some okay results, but it was physically and mentally a torture.
CXM: So you’re healthy?
CM: Yeah, I think I am. And I think everyone can tell.
CXM: Awesome. Keep having fun.
CM: Thank you.