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As we head into Hartford, there’s one cyclocross racer who will not be lining up to defend her title. Utah’s Melinda (Mindy) McCutcheon, last year’s “Baby Masters” winner in Asheville, heads to the 2017 Cyclocross National Championships with a pile of UCI and ProCX points and a bigger goal of fighting for a podium spot with the top Elite Women. McCutcheon’s career has already reached new heights this season, setting a course record at the Crusher in the Tushar, and winning the U.S. Open of Cyclocross’ Day 2 over Amanda Miller.

Cyclocross Magazine contributor Hannah Caproon caught up with McCutcheon to learn more about the racer on the rise as part of our pre-2017 Nationals racer interviews.

Melinda McCutcheon attacked the sand at 2016 CXLA Cyclocross Day 1 and would finish fifth. © C. Fegan Kim. Cyclocross Magazine

Melinda McCutcheon attacked the sand at 2016 CXLA Cyclocross Day 1 and would finish fifth. © C. Fegan Kim. Cyclocross Magazine

Cyclocross Magazine: So what’s the story behind “McCrushin’”?
Mindy McCutcheon: I remember the exact photo and comment where it all started. It was a local ’cross race in 2012 where I was making this ridiculous face at the start line, and someone just happened to capture it. Then there was this thread of comments about the photo. One of my friends chimed in and said, “Oh, that’s the McCrushin’ face.” And it just kind of stuck!

CXM: Was that one of your first races, then? How did you get into ’cross?
M: I got thrown into a ’cross race in 2011 and it was Halloween-cross. I had always shown up to cheer for my friends, but I showed up for this one and they said, “We rented you a bike. You’re gonna race today.” I thought, oh my god, I have no idea what I’m doing. I can’t race. I had about a five-minute tutorial on how to dismount, and no time to figure out how to remount.

I started this race and about 100 meters into the race were the first set of barriers. I go into them, with all my friends right there watching. My left foot doesn’t unclip, I totally fall over, my handlebars get rammed into somebody’s spokes, and she drags my bike through the set of barriers. I’m chasing my bike. My friends are dying. I’m completely mortified. But then I got my bike, hopped back on, and ended up beating Superwoman and winning the race. All the while having no idea how to remount. I had to stop, put my foot over, clip in, and off I go.

CXM: I feel like everyone has that kind of experience racing ’cross, at least once. Maybe without the winning part!
M: All you can do is laugh at yourself, because you feel like such an idiot.

CXM: Before cyclocross, what was your background as an athlete?
M: I had done some mountain bike racing when I lived in Michigan. That’s where I grew up and went to college. I did some local mountain bike racing there and was pretty successful at that level. We really didn’t have any road racing, so I did maybe one road race back home. I didn’t really know much about it at that point. In 2008 I moved out here [to Utah] and I was like, “Oh this place is so intimidating; there are so many great athletes. I’m never going to be a great bike racer out here.” So then I didn’t really touch bike racing for a couple years.

I grew up alpine ski racing, from fifth grade through undergrad. I was also a collegiate runner and ran marathons until about 2010. I usually try to get a [ski] pass somewhere locally here, and get a handful of days on snow, I also try to Nordic ski a bit to keep the cardio up in the winter and work on some of the other muscles that get neglected on the bike. Running, not so much. I like to run when I travel so I can explore.

CXM: Was this your first year doing a full road season and a full ’cross season at this level?
M: I had raced on the road locally for about three and a half years for Canyon Bicycles – Shimano. Then this year I thought I really need to go for this and see what I can do with it. I did a couple big races guest riding for DNA Cycling in the past couple years, so I had a little bit of an idea what it was like, but not the full experience. I hadn’t done any UCI ‘cross races or any really big road stage races up until this year. So this year I said screw it, I’m throwing myself all in. I decided to go all in and see what I can do. I think I ended up surprising myself and everyone else.

CXM: It’s been an awesome year for you!
M: Yeah it’s been really hard and challenging, but I’ve learned so much and I’ve had so much fun. I’m really looking forward to seeing how much more I can improve.

“So this year I said screw it, I’m throwing myself all in. I decided to go all in and see what I can do. I think I ended up surprising myself and everyone else.”

CXM: What’s the team dynamic like on Visit Dallas DNA Pro Cycling, the team you signed with this year? How’s it different than Canyon Bicycles – Shimano?
M: With Canyon, it was a little bit smaller program, and I raced mostly locally. I knew a lot of the Visit Dallas DNA girls going into the contract with them, so it was comforting that I already had a few friends on the team. As far as the team dynamic goes, pretty much being the sole rider for Canyon I could kind of do whatever I wanted. There weren’t too many expectations, except people assuming I’d do well.

I didn’t really have any teammates until Anne Perry joined me this past season. Aside from some composite teams we put together, it was really low pressure. We could kind of just show up, have fun, and do whatever we wanted. When I signed with Visit Dallas DNA Pro Cycling, that was probably the biggest change. All of a sudden I have this whole team, and they have these expectations of me and I have expectations of them. Not to say that expectations are a bad thing. It was more, oh crap, I hope I don’t screw up, because there’s somebody else that I’m going to piss off—not just myself if I do something stupid. One of the hardest parts of transitioning to an established program was learning patience, team strategy, and trusting my teammates, because I had never dealt with that before. Luckily the girls have been great and I look forward to continuing to grow stronger with their help.

CXM: To what do you attribute this year’s success?
M: I think part of it is that I still don’t know what I’m fully capable of. Every time I go out there and race it’s a new surprise. I’m constantly finding this new dark place that I can put myself in every time I put my head down and climb up some giant mountain or whatever challenge I come across.

No more Band-Aids as Mindy McCutcheon dedicated herself to this season while keeping a full-time job. photo: Racing to fifth. 2016 CXLA Day 2. © Cathy Fegan-Kim / Cyclocross Magazine

No more Band-Aids as Mindy McCutcheon dedicated herself to this season while keeping a full-time job. photo: Racing to fifth. 2016 CXLA Day 2. © Cathy Fegan-Kim / Cyclocross Magazine

I also think this year the biggest thing was just ripping off the metaphorical band-aid, of which there were several. I had to make a few tough choices before I could fully commit to a serious race calendar. One of which was overcoming the fear of worrying that I’m not as good nationally as everybody thinks I will be, or that I’m not as good as I think I will be, or should be, or could be. It really takes that moment of swallowing your pride and ego and putting yourself out there, which can be really scary. That’s probably the biggest thing that I had to overcome, is just doing it and taking that chance.

“I’m constantly finding this new dark place that I can put myself in every time I put my head down and climb up some giant mountain or whatever challenge I come across.”

CXM: 2017 Nationals are coming up. You had a fantastic showing last year, taking a national title home. How are you feeling coming into this year’s Elite race? Excited? Tired from a long season?
M: I was getting pretty tired but I’ve had a couple weeks at home now, which has been really nice. I hadn’t spent a weekend at home for almost six weeks so it’s been nice to chill out, rest up, make real food, and not be on a plane every 4 days. I am really looking forward to Nationals. I’m still feeling good and strong. I’ve had a chance to do some hard workouts, which is difficult to squeeze into your training schedule when you’re traveling and racing every weekend. It’s felt good to keep my legs fresh.

Melinda McCutcheon leads the race through the Bike Barn. © R. Riott / Cyclocross Magazine

Melinda McCutcheon leads the race through the Bike Barn. © R. Riott / Cyclocross Magazine

It’s rare to have all of the really strong girls in the U.S. at one race. Typically there are a couple UCI races every weekend, so everyone is kind of scattered amongst the races. Nationals is the one time every year that everybody shows up. It’ll be really intimidating, because you’re lining up next to all these amazing women, but I’m really looking forward to seeing how I can stack up against them. I’ll also be racing singlespeed again, as well, so that will be fun.

CXM: That’s where I was headed next. Had you raced singlespeed before Nationals last year?
M: I had done the Master’s race earlier in the week, and thought well, I’m here, and the friend that I’m here with is going to be racing singlespeed, so hey, why the heck not. I hadn’t really ever raced singlespeed before, and I did it for fun. I didn’t have any expectations, or any idea what kind of gearing I should be using. In hindsight, I wish I had a little bit harder gear, because then I probably could’ve done a bit better. Then again, I had no idea what I was doing. Having done it once, I’m not really looking forward to testing myself again. With racing so much this year, I’ve found that I tend to feel better on Sunday races after I’ve already raced hard on Saturdays. I’m hoping having the singlespeed race on Saturday, that will kind of help open my legs up for the race on Sunday. It should be fun.

CXM: Do you have your eyes on SSCXWC 2017 in Italy?
M: I really only started to understand what a big deal and how fun [SSCXWC] is when Jessica Cutler won this year. Last year at Nationals, I remember trying to chase her down in the singlespeed race. I was getting so close, and I didn’t really know who she was, but I pedaling as fast as I could to try to catch her. Then we were at the same races together all summer. So I got to know her a little bit better, and I’ve seen her at some ’cross races this year with her development team. So when she won SSCXWC, I was like, “Oh man that’s so badass. I totally want to do that!” And all the costumes, and the obstacles? I didn’t really realize that it was such a big deal, but not in a totally serious way. I am totally down for doing that. It looks super fun. Although if I ever did win it, I’m not as confident about the whole tattoo part. Jess definitely pulls that off better than I could!

CXM: It seems like, in terms of stage races, you tend to do really well on the later stages.
M: I totally think that’s true. A lot of people get fatigued, or burned out by the time the final stages hit. For me, I’m fortunate that I kind of have my recovery system down, and as long as I am eating well and resting well, I can charge through it and feel pretty solid through the final days.

CXM: Are there specific stage profiles or races that you like better than others?
M: I really like stage racing because there’s something for everyone and I feel like I’m pretty solid at most types of events. Once you kind of get a handle on crits they can be really fun, even though they’re intense. So I’ve learned to really like those. I don’t love time trialing, so I’m still trying to really figure that out. I can do okay. But to do consistently well at stage racing you have to be a great time trialist. That’s one thing that I’m really focusing on over the winter: riding my TT bike a lot and getting more comfortable and stronger in that position. But what kind of surprised me is how well I’ve done in climbing stages. I’ve really been enjoying the big climby stages. Most of the time people tend to hate those, so I think if I can just at least pretend to like climbing up mountains, then I’ll be a bit stronger.

CXM: Or at least pretend to hate it a little bit less than everyone else.
M: Exactly, yeah.

CXM: So how does that translate to ’cross? Are there types of courses or conditions that you like best?
M: Well, that probably plays into my giant weakness in my ’cross racing- the technical stuff. I’m not super strong in that right now, and I’d attribute that to spending so much time on the road and training specifically for the road. Since I don’t spend a ton of time on dirt, I’m not able to practice my technical skills as much as I’d like. That’s definitely my biggest weakness in ’cross racing. I’m hoping I can focus a little more on that during the summer months and at least find one day of skills training each week. However, I do love ’cross because it incorporates so many aspects of both road and mountain biking, and I think a lot of people tend to be one or the other. It has the strong flats to power through, punchy climbs, or tight windy corners and gnarly descents. It’s really the best of both worlds. I’ve always really liked both, so that definitely plays into why I love ’cross so much.

CXM: What does a perfect day of riding look like for you?
M: Well, ideally, it would start with a fresh pot of coffee and a nice big breakfast that I didn’t have to make myself. I’d love for it to be about 65-70 degrees, not freezing temperatures like we have right now, and not scorching hot temperatures that we have all summer. Then it would be great if I could get three or four uninterrupted hours of varied terrain with some climby canyons and fun fast descents [Sounds a lot like this record-setting ride. -Ed.].

I love riding in the mountains. Racing in France this past September was pretty amazing. It was gorgeous, but you can only look around and take in the scenery so much when you’re in a peloton of 120 people on the edge of a cliff. I’d love to do more riding in Europe just for fun. As far as in the States, I love riding in Oregon. I always look forward to going to Cascade. Back when they did the Hood Classic, that was a gorgeous place to race. There are so many places I still would love to explore.

Mindy McCutcheon, left and Robin Farina, right rode side by side for most of the day neither yeilding until the slopes of Col D Crush where McCutheon soloed away for the win. Here the two racers are on Doc Springs Road (also known as the Sarlacc Pit). 2016 Tushar Crusher. Photo courtesy Christopher See

A day of exploring new terrain and new pain. photo: Mindy McCutcheon, left and Robin Farina, right rode side by side for most of the day neither yielding until the slopes of Col D Crush where McCutcheon soloed away for the win. Here the two racers are on Doc Springs Road (also known as the Sarlacc Pit). 2016 Tushar Crusher. Photo courtesy Christopher See

CXM: What do you do to unwind after a race or a long stretch of travel?
M: I usually try to get a few days of yoga in a week. I also work full-time [a project coordinator for Drive Marketing / DNA Cycling -Ed.], too, so when I’m traveling I still try to do as much work remotely as I can. Usually I work a full day, then rush off to train, which is like a second job and don’t sit down for dinner until about 9pm, so it doesn’t leave a ton of down-time. When I am at home I like to just be alone with peace and quiet, have a glass of wine, go to yoga, and just stare at the wall. I’m too exhausted to do anything else! It doesn’t happen nearly enough, but doing restorative yoga has been key in keeping a little balance and sanity in my life.

CXM: Do you like tinkering with your bike? Would you consider yourself a gear junkie?
M: No way. I am so bad at bikes. All I know how to do is ride them, which is why I have a mechanic. I take him everywhere. He’s great at fixing my bike and dealing with my post-race meltdowns.

CXM: Have you ever had any mechanical crises?
M: I went to my first Cyclocross World Cup in Germany back in November. I decided not to bring my mechanic and wing it instead. I was staying with my cousin who doesn’t even know what cyclocross is, but she was a great cheerleader! I was in Berlin, and don’t speak any German. Although there’s a bike shop on every corner, they pretty much only service commuter bikes. So in I walk with my Scott Addict and they’re pretty much like, “We can’t help you.” Crap. Thankfully there’s FaceTime! I got to FaceTime my mechanic, so he could help troubleshoot a bunch of issues since my bike got a bit banged around on the flight. I learned how to change my rotor, realign my calipers, check a leaky valve stem, and realign my rear derailleur. It’s probably good that I learned a few things, but I prefer having someone else do the tinkering!

“I got to FaceTime my mechanic, so he could help troubleshoot a bunch of issues since my bike got a bit banged around on the flight. I learned how to change my rotor, realign my calipers, check a leaky valve stem, and realign my rear derailleur.”

CXM: Any gear changes for Nationals?
M: That will kind of depend on when I get there. I’ll ride the course a bit, check it out, and see if I need to change anything. I don’t think it’s going to be very hilly so I might go to a harder cassette, but we might play it by ear and change things up once we get there and check it out. [See the latest Hartford Nationals course preview video here.]

CXM: How do you like the Scott Addict you’ve been cruising on this season?
M: I love it. I was on a Specialized Crux, and when I first changed over, I thought, wow, something feels different in the front end. And at first I wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or not, but by the time I raced it I was in love, and I’ve loved racing it all year.

I’m just so thankful that my sponsors put this all together for me. This year’s ’cross season would not have been successful if DNA Cycling and Cotton Sox Photography hadn’t teamed up and shoved me out the door. They pretty much said, “Hey, you’re going to go do some UCI races, off you go.” So they have been awesome and super, super supportive. My friends are so great and supportive. They’re constantly texting me while I’m off at races, keeping tabs, cheering for me from near and far, streaming any races they can, keeping track of my ranking points, or lining up rides to the airport. We have such a great bike community here in Salt Lake, and I definitely would not be doing what I’m doing if I didn’t have these people behind me. It’s tough being on the road so much, so you really need a solid support crew.

CXM: Coffee of choice?
M: It’s kind of lame, but I really just dig black coffee. I don’t like the frou-frou-ey stuff. Just straight up black coffee or espresso.

CXM: Wine of choice?
M: As long as it’s red, and not too sweet, I’ll drink just about anything. I have really low expectations in that department. Other than coffee and wine, just water.

CXM: I already know the answer, but cats or dogs? What do you think your cats are doing right now?
M: If anyone checked out my Instagram, they’d know I am 49 percent bike racing, 49 percent cat pics, and 2 percent life. So cats, all the way. If I were to guess, I’d say Jeffery probably has his head in the food bowl and Livvy is probably sitting on a heater vent somewhere. My cats are the best.

CXM: Thanks for your time. Good luck in Hartford.
M: Thank you!

We’ve got a series of interviews lined up as we head into the 2017 Cyclocross National Championships in Hartford. See our interview with Kerry Werner here and check back for more each day.