Caroline Nolan (Voler / Easton / HRS / Rock Lobster) is a name that is starting to ring out on the national UCI cyclocross scene. She started 2018 finishing just off the podium at GO Cross and reached podiums at the West Sac GP and Noho. This season, Nolan is back on the scene, and on Saturday she represented Team USA at the Jingle Cross World Cup, where she finished 28th, and then raced the UCI C1 on Sunday to 17th.
Nolan shares her reflections on the race and her story as a soccer player turned cyclocross racer in the first of several rider diaries she expects to write this season.
by Caroline Nolan
“30 seconds,” the announcer’s voice booms over the loudspeaker.
I take a deep breath.
Dub-dub, Dub-dub, Dub-dub.
Am I hearing the heartbeat playing over the loudspeakers or my own heart pounding in my chest? I’m standing in the start grid of Jingle Cross, my first ever World Cup. My eyes fix on the red light ahead. Every muscle in my body tenses waiting for the light to change.
Dub-dub, Dub-dub, Dub-dub.
In an instant, everything changes. The still starting grid turns to total mayhem as riders stomp on pedals and accelerate down the straight. The fans roar, the gears clash as we jockey for position into the first turn. Tension builds as each rider attempts, successfully or not, to overtake the rider ahead. Given our aggression in this hectic moment, an onlooker would be hard-pressed to believe our camaraderie off the track.
The sense of community drew me to cyclocross in the first place. Racing is racing, but beyond the tape, our shared bonds and friendships are strong. Cyclocross is the most brutal sport I have ever experienced, but that’s what might make it so inviting.
I never thought I’d be a cyclist, let alone an elite cyclocross racer. I grew up playing soccer, and like any other girl growing up in the 1990s, watched the Women’s U.S. National Team win the 1998 World Cup. Inspired by them, I dreamt of playing professional soccer. But by the end of high school, I lost that passion and longed for another sport to fill that void.
It took me the next four years to find cycling, which revived my sense of athletic purpose. I bought a road bike, intent to ride and never race. But those non-competitive intentions didn’t last long. I dabbled in a few Collegiate road races before moving to Oregon for graduate school. This is where I found cyclocross.
I walked into a bike shop in Eugene, Oregon and was invited to go watch a local race. I had never heard of cyclocross before this, but after seeing the action, I knew I had to get involved.
The next week, I borrowed a bike to race. Despite crashing into the first set of barriers I encountered, I was hooked. It was a competition like I had never experienced. People racing to the point of exhaustion, collapsing at the finish line, only to get back up excited, laughing and high-fiving, eager for more. It perfectly mixed intensity and enjoyment. Everyone was there to have a good time.
And here’s the thing about cyclocross—it doesn’t matter if it’s a local race or a World Cup. The energy and camaraderie is the same.
This season, 2019/20, is my second racing a full UCI calendar and my first year racing World Cups. I’m a privateer racing for a small, grassroots program based out of Santa Cruz, CA called Voler / Easton / HRS / Rock Lobster. I have teammates back in California, tearing it up all over the local race scene, but most of the time, I am traveling independently to UCI races across the country. But flying solo, doesn’t mean doing it alone.
Normally, I rely on my own (somewhat competent) mechanic skills, along with the kindness of strangers and friends to make sure my bikes are working properly. However, for this trip, I convinced one of my closest friends to take a few vacation days, hop on a plane from San Francisco to Chicago and drive with me to Iowa City to wrench for the weekend.
Tim eagerly agreed, and kept my bikes working flawlessly all weekend. We even had a seamless bike exchange (without practice) after I crashed and had a slow leaking front flat during the World Cup.
We were also very kindly welcomed to share Maghalie Rochette and David Gagnon’s tent space and that was only the beginning of their generosity. Yes, the 2019 Jingle Cross World Cup winner and current World Cup leader was happy to let me follow her around for course inspections, warm-ups and ask her countless questions about racing a World Cup.
I crossed the finish line of the World Cup with a huge smile on my face, high-fiving dozens of spectators along the way. I achieved my goal of finishing on the lead lap and being inside the top 30. However, the results on the day didn’t really matter compared to the emotions I experienced from being part of the event. From the cheers on Mt. Krumpit from my host family to the words of wisdom from people like Katerina Nash, everything about my first World Cup race was positive.
Like Katerina and Maghalie both told me many times, it’s just another bike race. The only difference is that this one has a fancy title and the signature heartbeat sound to spike your adrenaline before the start.
In the end, it was just another day of riding fast in circles, on crazy terrain, only this time with the strongest athletes in the world.
This weekend, we will line up and do the same thing again. The community will be the same. The energy will be the same. The kindness of friends, competitors, and strangers will be the same. The only difference is the location.
Next Stop, Waterloo, Wisconsin and the Trek World Cup. I’m ready for more!