KK Santos has established herself as one of the top Women’s U23 riders in the U.S. In addition to racing for the Amy D. Foundation last year, Santos is also a member of Marian University’s varsity cycling program.
Her Amy D. Foundation teammate Corey Coogan Cisek chatted with Santos to learn more about her journey as a young cyclist, how she has benefitted from the support of the Marian and Amy D. Foundation programs and the impact the late Amy Dombroski has had on her career.
by Corey Coogan Cisek
Katherine Santos’ cyclocross story starts with the city that she grew up in, Louisville, Kentucky. Think about it: how many riders can say that the Cyclocross World Championships came to their hometown when they were growing up?
Katherine, or KK as she is known, was 16 years old when Worlds came to Louisville in 2013. She still vividly remembers “cheering the riders repping Team USA.” The Elite women racing in melting snow made a lasting impression on Santos. “The coolest part was seeing how incredibly good they all were at riding the tech sections,” she said, looking back on the race.
One of the women making the most of the technical sections in Louisville was the late Amy Dombroski. Dombroski was particularly at home in the deteriorating conditions, having come to Louisville straight from Belgium, where she was spending her second full season. In Louisville, at what would prove to be her final World Championships, Dombroski narrowly missed the top 10, finishing 11th.
As a teenager watching the race, Santos could not have imagined the impact Dombroski’s legacy would have on her career.
Junior Development in Louisville
Santos started riding and racing at age 13, beginning with cyclocross and then adding mountain biking and road. She credits the Louisville community for getting her started bike racing and nurturing her development through the Junior ranks. “I grew up racing for a local devo team called RedZone,” she said. “It gave me the foundation to progress and learn about racing.”
Living in Louisville and riding for RedZone, Santos had the opportunity to spend her teen years racing the Ohio Valley Cyclocross (OVCX) series. Every weekend, within easy driving distance, she was able to race both age group and category races with strong, relatively large fields.
Also, twice a season, UCI-level racing came to the OVCX with the races in Cincinnati and Louisville. This makes Santos a product and beneficiary of one of the strongest cyclocross scenes in the U.S.
“My community greatly impacted me as a rider,” Santos said about racing in the OVCX series. “So many people throughout the years have stepped up to help me. Luckily, I had a lot of people in Louisville who wanted to see me succeed, so I was supported heavily.”
Breakout in Boulder
Sometimes, one big win at a young age can have a huge impact for a young rider. For Santos, that breakout result came at the 2014 Cyclocross Nationals in Boulder. In a Junior 17-18 field stacked with talent, including Emma White, Laurel Rathbun, Emma Swartz and the new-to-cycling Chloe Dygert, Santos turned heads by taking the win.
Her victory on the country’s biggest stage cemented Santos’ place as one of the nation’s best developing female riders and made her a sought-after collegiate recruit.
The 2014 Nationals race was a muddy one, giving Santos a chance to show the bike handling skills she has worked hard to develop. Skills that have never been an aside for Santos. In her words, “Ever since I first started racing, I wanted to perfect my technical skills, especially because I figured it was something that I’d always have even if fitness left.”
Santos’ practice and dedication to developing her skills have given her a skill set that helps her stand out in U.S. cyclocross. She can wheelie, track stand, bunny hop, and ride a unicycle. Having started with skills work at a young age, her sense of fun overcomes any fear. “I’ve always loved learning to do fun, new things on my bike,” Santos said. “I turn it into a game and challenge myself. I think that even if I end up towards the back of the race, if I ride the logs or the ‘techy’ section, at least I’ll get style points.”
On to Marian University
Santos is part of a new generation of American women’s cyclocross riders who started the sport as Juniors and made their way toward the Elite level. This is a change, as among the current top-ten ranked American women, only Kaitie Keough, Ellen Noble and Emma White raced cyclocross as Juniors. Santos and her peers enter the Elite ranks with years of cyclocross experience, whereas their predecessors developed athletically in other sports before discovering cyclocross in their 20s or 30s.
A commonality that Keough, Noble, and White share is that they did not let blossoming pro careers get in the way of going to college. Given the lesser salaries of female professional riders, it is perhaps neither realistic nor wise to jump straight from Junior cycling to the professional ranks. Following in the footsteps of Keough, as well as Coryn Rivera, Santos chose to attend Marian University in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Santos is a business major at Marian, focusing on marketing and entrepreneurship with hopes of starting her own business when she graduates. “Whether in the cycling industry or not, I’d like to start a company that does good,” Santos said about her professional goals.
Marian Cycling, which is one of the most successful Collegiate varsity cycling programs in the country, has provided an ideal environment for Santos and her peers to spend their under-23 years developing. Heading into her Senior year at Marian this fall, Santos is in the same class as Emma Swartz and a grade behind Laurel Rathbun. This is significant because it means that three of the nation’s top U23 cyclocrossers have had the opportunity to train together day in and day out at Marian.
Santos recognizes the uniqueness of her situation. “The team itself becomes your family, and the journey with them has been incredible,” she said. “We travel all over the country doing a sport we love with kids our own age. In the world of cycling, that is a bit of a commodity, especially for young females. Most girls I know grow-up training with older males or their parents.”
Though some of Santos’ results indicate that she can be in the mix with teammates Swartz and Rathbun, her two Marian teammates have both competed in U23 Worlds, whereas Santos has not yet made the selection. Rather than being jealous, or feeling pressure as a result of her teammates’ success, Santos keeps things in perspective, knowing that the three benefit from training with each other. “All in all, it’s been awesome being able to train with two teammates that made it to Worlds. Both Laurel and Emma have taught me a lot about what it takes to get to the next level, something I am hoping to reach this year.”
Marian Cycling also gave Santos her first taste of what it’s like to be on a professional-style team. “Marian is run like a professional tour team. We have rules to follow, training to complete and academic standards to adhere to,” she said. Santos went on to say one benefit of meeting the cycling and academic expectations of being a student at Marian has been the chance to hone her time management skills.
Next Steps with the Amy D. Foundation
While an age-group win at Cyclocross Nationals and enrolling in Marian were stepping stones in Santos’ career, her biggest “win” to date was being named to the Amy D. Foundation cyclocross team for the 2017-2018 season.
She recalls the moment she found out she made the team:
I was sitting in my sister’s house talking with my brother-in-law about what races I wanted to do when my phone rang with a call from a Colorado number. I asked everyone in the room to be quiet and then picked up the phone. Sure enough, it was Dan Dombroski, Amy’s brother and the foundation president, on the line.
He said, ‘Hi KK, it’s Dan. It is always hard calling riders and telling them they didn’t make the program this year, but I sure do love when I get to give good news and tell them they are on the team.’
In my head I was thinking, dang it, I didn’t make it this year.
Then he said, ‘Welcome to the Amy D. Foundation cyclocross program. We are excited to have you riding for us this year.’
I screamed, jumped up, and told my family. It was probably one of the most exciting moments of my cycling career.
Although Santos never met Amy Dombroski personally, she is inspired by Amy’s career and beloved persona. After a year riding on Amy D. Foundation, Santos feels as if she has gotten to know Amy. “So many people came up to me and told me stories about how Amy impacted their lives,” she said. “To me, that was the coolest part of racing for the team. I most certainly look up to her. She inspires me to race my heart out.”
While many readers remember Amy Dombroski for being one of the first American women to commit to living and racing in Belgium, Santos sees things a little differently. “She was kind of an anomaly. She created a name for U23 females in the U.S.”
As a U23 rider herself, it’s not surprising this side of Dombroski’s story resonates with Santos. Although Dombroski did not come up through the Junior ranks, she started racing shortly after high school, which was relatively early for an American woman of her era. However, Dombroski’s career occurred during different times. When Dombroski was a U23, there was no U23 World Championships.
The UCI added the U23 category to the World Championships specifically to help riders bridge the gap between Junior cycling and the professional ranks. U23s is a time of development and transition. Many are like Santos, still working to secure a true professional contract while making the most of what a collegiate program can offer.
To best develop as riders, not to mention to make Worlds, U23s need to race UCI races, yet collegiate teams’ funding and travel schedules must be primarily focused on collegiate competitions. It’s common for U.S. U23 cyclocrossers to ride for a devo, grassroots or pro team as well as their collegiate team. Luckily for Santos, Amy D. Foundation’s mission syncs perfectly with her need for support to reach the next level.
It Takes a Team
In her last blog post in fall 2013, Amy Dombroski wrote, “Inequality is something female cyclists continue to be faced with.” As we have seen with Helen Wyman, Amanda Miller and Caroline Mani in the last year, it is still a struggle for many of the sport’s top female cyclists to find the support to race.
With Dombroski’s life and words as inspiration, the Amy D. Foundation has stepped up as an organization that provides an opportunity for young aspiring cyclists to pursue their professional dreams. The organization’s mission “encourages and supports young women through cycling, inspiring the celebration of healthy challenge and empowering the confident pursuit of lofty dreams.”
Santos has been a fitting beneficiary of the Foundation’s mission. Santos’ ultimate goal is to race cyclocross as a domestic pro. She explains, “I’d like to race pro domestically for a while and continue to progress as a rider.”
Getting to the professional level in cyclocross takes not only dedication, talent and drive, it also requires a strong support network to get to races and handle the ups and downs of the support. For Santos and other women who have raced for the Amy D. Foundation, the professionally run team provides the financial, equipment, and staff support—as well as mentorship—for a rider like Santos to make her dream reality.
Santos is relatively new to racing at the UCI level and having a professional trade team support was an entirely new experience. Santos said she was awestruck at times. “I can remember seeing photographers come up to the tents and take pictures. I thought that was the coolest thing ever!” she said. “It is one thing to adjust to professional support, but quite another to suddenly be viewed as a professional.”
As she adapted to the demands of UCI racing, including increased travel and heightened performance expectations, Santos relied on the foundation’s support. During the 2017 domestic season, the support team at cyclocross events usually consisted of Team Director Des Simon, Mechanic Drew Esherick and Stan’s No Tubes rider and Amy D. Foundation mentor Rebecca Fahringer.
Santos reflected on the team’s support. “Drew always made sure the bikes were dialed. Becca made sure I was mentally ready to tackle the day. Des was always there to encourage and to remind me to be smart and professional, as well as playing the ‘mom,’ making sure I was always taken care of. They made sure I was taken care of no matter what part of the country I was in. Just knowing I had people there with me at races made a world of difference.”
Learning, Growing with the Amy D. Program
Making the jump from Junior to U23 rider is a challenge all young riders face. Another thing Santos has received from the Amy D. Foundation is the priceless commodity of confidence. She explains, “Everyone knows the pressure that comes along with racing, whether it’s from family, coaches, your teams or yourself, but having them there made me more confident and helped me believe in myself.”
Thanks to generous sponsor support, Amy D. Foundation provided Santos the equipment and mechanical support necessary to succeed as a domestic pro. Yet, she made it clear that Amy D. Foundation supported her in more subtle ways as well.
She explains how she took the opportunity to learn from her mentors,” I learned that you have to prepare mentally and physically when you are racing at the next level. You can’t half do anything when you want to race with the best. My Stan’s No Tubes mentors taught me the saying, ‘If you are not hurting, you are comfortable. If you are comfortable, you are asleep, if you are asleep, then you are out of the race.’ This was my little reminder to push through the pain during the races this year.”
Santos’ “lessons learned” from last year with Amy D. Foundation demonstrate a change in mindset for the young rider, as she transitioned from being one of the nation’s best Juniors to an aspiring pro.
“I learned that you don’t have to be the best to race with the best,” Santos said. “You can go up against the best pros in the country, race your heart out and still end up top 15. It’s okay to race for top 20 and still be happy with your result, especially when you are doing UCI races. You just need to look for progression, every race better than the rest, every year better than the previous.”
Looking Ahead to 2018
The coming 2018/19 season is a big one for Santos, both as a student and a cyclist. She is entering her Senior year at Marian University and her last year as a U23 cyclocross racer. After finishing eighth at the 2018 U.S. Cyclocross Nationals in Reno, Santos’ goal is the make the 2019 U23 World Championships team.
She also said her results this coming season may decide whether she pursues her dream of becoming a domestic pro or uses her college degree to start “a company that does good” after graduating next spring.
One thing is for sure; with Nationals being the key race for U23 Worlds team selection, it’s only fitting that the event takes place in Santos’ home city of Louisville, where her love of cyclocross was born six years ago. When she takes the line at the December Nationals, Santos will feel right at home.
Applications for the Amy D. Foundation for the coming season are currently being accepted through July 20.