Third at Charm City, second by a hair at DCCX, second at NoHo, second on Day 1 of the Supercross Cup.
Two months into the 2018 domestic season, Rebecca Fahringer had come close to winning so many times, but she had not been able to climb that one more step to the top of the podium. Sure, she won a race in North Carolina in 2016, but did that one really count?
“My first UCI win was in Hendersonville in 2016, but there weren’t even any photos, and it clearly was not a career highlight,” Fahringer said.
Then, on Day 2 of the Supercross Cup in the snow, ice and mud, Fahringer finally got that elusive win. The win was a BFD, right?
“At Supercross after so … many … close … calls … I was actually thoroughly underwhelmed,” she said. “It wasn’t a surprise, I knew I could do it, it was more of a relief.”
Fahringer’s feelings after winning at Supercross are a sign of just how far she has come in the sport. UCI wins are not a career highlight, they are an accomplishment very much within her reach every time she takes the start line at domestic cyclocross races.
Although she has a few years on U.S. stars such as Kaitie Keough and Ellen Noble, Fahringer is a relative newcomer to the position of expecting to win races. Her rise to the top level of the sport has been impressive as she has learned the nuances of being a successful racer.
It has not always been easy for the “athletically confused scientist,” but for someone with a background in science, Fahringer’s experimentation with training and learning skills has led her to the top of North American cyclocross.
Fahringer got her start as a cyclocrosser from somewhere perhaps unexpected. Athletics had been part of her life, but when she attended graduate school at Brown University in Geological Sciences, she got a different kind of education. One could say Fahringer is still using that degree.
“I was a triathlete in college, and when I went to grad school there was no triathlon program,” she said. “In the process of trying to start one, I met some riders from the cycling club, who in turn introduced me to cyclocross and it has been a pretty serious relationship ever since.”
Fahringer’s first cyclocross race was in 2013 when she finished 31st at Providence in the Women’s Cat 3/4 race. By the end of the season, she was on the JAM Fund development team and racing UCI races.
Fahringer’s career has been one of steady progression, so it is hard to say she had a “breakout moment,” but when she was chosen to race cyclocross for the Amy D. Foundation in 2015, folks started to learn the name. Fahringer scored four podiums in 2015 and finished sixth at 2016 Asheville Nationals.
The next season, she upped her podium haul to nine—included a third at Superprestige Boom in October 2016—won that race at the North Carolina Grand Prix and again finished sixth at Hartford Nationals.
Cyclocross is a sport that requires a trifecta of pure cycling power, technical skill and mental toughness to be successful at the Elite level. With her background in high-level triathlons, Fahringer entered the ’cross peloton with perhaps the most important of those skills, power, so she spent a lot of her time working on the other two.
“When I first started racing I had all power and no skill, so my progress was by learning every race in addition to getting better grid spots and starting further up,” she said. “Eventually I was starting about where I was finishing and I had to learn to start finessing my skills.”
She entered the 2016/17 as the rider and manager of the Stan’s NoTubes p/b Maxxis program, ready to have her biggest year yet. Fahringer had good results, but when the desert dust settled in Reno, she had finished sixth at Nationals for the third straight year. How that season ended was an important part of the process of growing as an athlete.
“Last season I raced too much and became quite flat and I stopped progressing as a racer and my results showed,” she said. “I focused on rest and recovery on the offseason.”
The Next Breakout Season
Fahringer’s journey this season started with some big news. After running her own program last season, Fahringer got an invite to team up with Kerry Werner on the Kona Maxxis Shimano team.
After Worlds, Fahringer talked a bit about how being with the program helped her this season. “I think having Kerry as a teammate and being in the Kona family really helped me have a lot less stress than I felt like I had last year,” she said. “My head was in a better place, it’s a big family environment.”
We’ll have more on Fahringer’s team in a bit.
Fahringer got to know her new Kona family during an adventure bikepacking trip in British Columbia about a month before the cyclocross season. After maybe pushing a bit too hard the previous season, for her, it was the perfect way to start the new season.
Fahringer started the season well, finishing in the top five at GO Cross and sixth both days of Rochester. After the two U.S. World Cups, she started to really hit her stride starting with Charm City.
“This season each race was better than the last as I regained some fitness and sharpened my mind,” she said. “It also allowed me to slow down and correct some of the sloppy skills I had rushed in the beginning.”
She finished that thought by sharing a hard-earned lesson she gained. As a newb in the sport racing against some women who had been racing cyclocross since they were Juniors, there was a lot of pressure to race, race, race to gain much-needed experience.
In Fahringer’s case, she learned to go fast this season by slowing down. “If I could go back in time I would have been more patient and thoughtful in skill development as I progressed, instead of assuming I would just become great if I kept throwing myself out there,” she said.
After the close call at DCCX, Fahringer bounced back from a tough trip to Canada and Pan-Ams with a third and then a second at NoHo. She was again knocking on the door of getting the win that had really started to frustrate her.
After one more second on the first day of the Supercross Cup, she finally broke through and put one in the UCI win column. Fahringer climbed that ladder and came out of the experience with a new perspective on what winning means to her.
“I had put so much pressure on myself to win at the C2 races that I did this past year that it never happened—save for the one!—because of my mindset,” she said. “I recently learned a mindset to overcome the frantic state I would find myself in, and I am likely never going to emphasize winning again. Obviously, I want to and will try to, but, it will happen when the rides are smooth and the legs are strong, not because ‘I can totally win this one.’ ”
The Tri Background Pays Off
Although Fahringer only had one top-step podium picture for her album from the season, what she did have was a full three-plus months of consistently being at the front of North American UCI cyclocross races. That consistency of being competitive is something she is proud of.
“There are riders who go from the podium to out of the top 10 within a weekend, and I feel I am always there, no matter if it is a good day or a bad day,” she said.
After wrapping up her regular season at the NBX GP two weekends before Nationals—another third and another second—it was time for Louisville Nationals. Speaking of consistency, she had finished sixth in the race three straight years. Finishing in the top five would no doubt be a sign of objective growth as an athlete, right?
When the Louisville Nationals course at Joe Creason Park turned to a giant mud pit the Friday of Nationals week, conditions seemingly took a turn in Fahringer’s favor. At the Supercross Cup, she showed her skill in thick mud, and as so many parts of the course turned to running sections, Fahringer’s background in triathlons became more relevant.
Fahringer responded with an impressive performance. With two to go, she was in a group with Ellen Noble and Sunny Gilbert racing for second. Two laps later, she finished in fourth. A small setback, but still her best-ever finish at Nationals. The sixth-place streak had been broken.
“I think the key to me getting fourth was also the reason I missed out on 3rd—staying calm,” she said. “Those are my favorite conditions, power sucking mud and running, so I just put my head down and went to work, trying to not be frantic and thus crash and slide off course. But, when it came time to fight for a spot, I didn’t have the mental edge I needed.”
Fahringer said that her love of running helped in Louisville, to a point. “Oh for sure,” she said when asked if her training helped. “Apparently not as much as running helped Sunny, though! You know what is so demoralizing? Going up stairs—think the Charm City flyover—next to Sunny Gilbert.”
Once Nationals wrapped up, there was no time for rest, as Fahringer kicked off the second part of her season in Europe. Her first race in Belgium was in 2016 at Zonhoven, and since that first trip, she has been back five times now.
With U.S. Cyclocross Nationals moved back to December, this year’s trip was a doozy, with Fahringer packing her bags right after Nationals and heading to Europe from World Cup Namur through the end of her Euro campaign yesterday.
Unlike some North American athletes, Fahringer welcomes the challenge. “I love racing in Europe. I love the courses, I love the ease of travel, I love not paying to register or park or set up a tent. I love the masses of fans,” she said. “If I could bring my own bathroom, I would maybe never leave.”
Thanks in part to the comfort she feels—with the exception of the water closets—the Kona racer has been able to get the most out of her Euro experiences once between the barriers. “Being here, uninterrupted, for months has really let the skills develop. I don’t need to relearn to race here every other race.”
This season, Fahringer kept busy racing every chance she could get. She consistent fought for the top 15 at DVV Trophy and Superprestige races and even pulled off a top 5 finish at a race on New Year’s Day in Luxembourg. Her best-ever finish at Worlds was 21st at Bieles in 2017, so after cracking the top 20 at Hoogerheide, she was well-situated to get another career-best result.
Although the conditions were frozen and fast in Bogense and not the heavy, muddy conditions that might suit her skill set, Fahringer delivered her best Worlds ride in three tries. She finished 16th overall, which as it turns out, was just another day at the office given the high standards Fahringer has set for herself.
“I feel about Worlds how I felt about my win at Supercross—everyone is more stoked than I am,” she said. Sixteenth, after fighting for 14th and eyeing 13th, is simply where I should be. It wasn’t a breakout ride or a great ride, it was representative.”
She continued, “I was sick in the week leading up to the race, so like going into this season, I had low expectations. That allowed me to stay calm. I stayed smooth all race until I pitted and I think my pit bike had too high of tire pressure because after that I couldn’t turn or ride sections I was able to a half lap before. I ended up crashing once and I lost focus and places. So I am happy with my best-ever Worlds, but also I know there were mistakes and I want more chances at redemption.”
This season’s nearly two-month stint of living and racing in Europe was aided by spending a lot of time with Kerry and Emily Werner. One needs to look no further than Werner’s series of vlogs to see the dynamic between the group that includes Fahringer’s successor as an Amy D. rider Emily.
“I think Kerry has benefited from being my teammate more than the other way around,” Fahringer joked. “I mean, sure, his father-in-law brings an RV to the races for us. Sure, he is equipment manager and glues the tires and greases the hubs and reminds me to charge my bikes. But, I generally race first and tell him the great lines, and that is why he ends up doing so well in his races. He owes those wins to me!”
The teammate relationship between Fahringer and Werner is actually one that had been tested out before. “Kerry and I were actually pseudo-teammates once before,” Fahringer said. “My first year on the Amy D Foundation I was housed under the then Raleigh-Clement team, which Kerry was on.”
During the subsequent two years that Fahringer was with the Amy D. Foundation, the two former pseudo-teammates developed a friendly rivalry. “We ended up placing so closely each race that we would joke about who beat who that weekend, and the joke kind of never ended,” she said. “It just amplified this season now that we are proper teammates.”
Amplify it did. Throughout the season, the two Kona Maxxis Shimano riders consistently tracked their results against one another at races they both entered. Fahringer had her work cut out for her early in the season since Werner had a breakout of his own, winning eight domestic UCI races during the 2018 season.
However, Fahringer held the advantage once the two headed off to Europe after Nationals, so the battle was heading for an exciting finish as the winter Euro campaign neared an end.
In the end, Werner took the unofficial title with 18 higher finishes to Fahringer’s 13.
For those who want to follow along at home, the contest will certainly be back next year. “Let’s just say that next year we will have an actual point and bonus system instead of just a running tally,” Fahringer said.
Fahringer raced her 39th and final cyclocross race of the 2018/19 season on Sunday in Hulst. She boarded a flight on Tuesday morning to head home for a much-deserved offseason. With another successful cyclocross season in the books, it is time to catch up with her plants and partner, do a few other things and then voila, it will be cyclocross season all over again.
“I have a list a mile long of things to work on this offseason, and racing until nearly March leaves me a very small window of time to do these things until we kick up in early September,” she said. “What I am most excited about is the fact that I am excited for next year. I want to finish up the season and get rested up so I can start training again.”
Featured image: Angelica Dixon