When the November weather turned nasty and the course at the Major Taylor Cup turned muddy and wet, Sunny Gilbert felt right at home. Although her name would suggest otherwise, Gilbert is a rider who rises to the occasion when Mother Nature is anything but bright.
The low areas at the Major Taylor Velodrome turned into a marsh and riders were forced to run for long stretches. For many riders in Indianapolis that weekend, becoming runners was not something they looked forward to.
For Gilbert, it was all good. After all, her Twitter handle is @run4funner.
Gilbert ran, she had fun and she took the first UCI weekend sweep of her career. Not bad for two days of weekend work.
For Gilbert, that weekend work is overtime. The St. Louis native works full-time as a PhD-holding scientist during the week and then during cyclocross season, she hits the road for her weekend day job. Gilbert joins fellow tall Van Dessel Factory Racing teammate Cassie Maximenko in the team’s double-career club.
“Sunny works, as does Cassie [Maximenko],” said Van Dessel owner Edwin Bull. “It definitely takes serious determination to put in a season at the level they do and still be able to keep it together Monday to Friday and have a balanced home life. It’s really inspirational to be able to work with awesome people like Sunny and Cassie and Caroline [Mani].”
The sport of cycling has long lionized the “working-class hero” who comes from humble roots or works to make a living before racing on the weekend. It turns out, U.S. cyclocross has a Working Woman of Cyclocross of its own.
Sunny Gilbert’s day job is as a biochemist, and she has worked her way to the Elite level of cyclocross, now as a member of the Van Dessel Factory Racing Team, thanks in part to her lifelong background in endurance sports. A PhD scientist is a far cry from the blue-collar working man of years past, but Gilbert’s rise through the ranks of the women’s field while balancing a full-time professional job has still been an impressive feat that has taken yeoman’s work.
“You give me this vision of trading nylons and heels for spandex and cleats, changing in a phone booth or something,” said Gilbert about being labeled as a Working Woman of Cyclocross. “The reality is much less sexy, though I have changed into cycling clothes from work clothes and back in my Subaru more times than I can count!”
“I could never give up my science career, but cyclocross adds so much to my life. I feel more than blessed to be able to do both.”
Gilbert is doubly blessed because her cyclocross success has come later in her athletic career. Women such as Katerina Nash, Katie Compton and Helen Wyman are still at the top of the sport in their late 30s, but more and more, cyclocross is becoming the sport of the young cycling stars.
Gilbert did not start racing UCI cyclocross until her early 30s and joined the Van Dessel Factory Team at age 37. Now in year two of Van Dieseling with Van Dessel, her results have only continued to improve.
Although most women are unlikely to follow Gilbert’s path through a PhD program in Biochemistry, she does think more women with diverse backgrounds in sport and life are likely to follow.
“More and more women are finding the sport late, as its popularity grows. My path will seem less unusual in the near future.”
A Lifetime of Sport
Race cyclocross long enough, and you will come across athletes who start out as Cat 5s and then effortlessly move through the ranks to the Elite field in a matter of a year or two. It is understandable to be jealous of their success, but if you dig deeper, you will often find years where these athletes honed their aerobic engines.
For Sunny Gilbert, honing her “Van Diesel” engine started at a young age. In fact, one could say she has a lifetime in endurance sports. Literally a lifetime.
“I did my first 5K as a three-month-old in a stroller,” she said. “My dad and both grandparents were road-racers and marathoners. When I was old enough to walk, I would tag along to their races and enter the Fun Run one-milers, until I was old enough to enter the real races.”
Not surprisingly, running became a huge part of Gilbert’s life. She started racing track in elementary school and continued with the sport into high school and then college. At the University of Missouri, Gilbert was a Track and Field star. She was two-time All-American in the 800m and won the national championship in the distance medley relay.
After graduating from college, Gilbert moved to Boulder for graduate school. There she traded the 800m for triathlons. And several hundred other sports. “Actually, I picked up a lot of sports in Boulder like mountain biking, distance trail running, and snowshoe-racing,” Gilbert said.
What about that other sport, you know, the one we all like? “But not cyclocross!” she added. Fortunately for U.S. cyclocross, her life of science would take her to Oregon, home of a local cyclocross scene with an allure difficult to resist.
Another Cyclocross Crusade Convert
Although she grew up as a runner, Gilbert was quick to point out bikes were an integral part of her life before she learned about cyclocross.
“Cycling has always been a part of my life in one way or another. I started riding bikes when I was five, think sparkly red banana seat, coaster brakes, handlebar streamers and spoke beads. I quickly had my first crash thanks to, Look Mom, no hands!” She added, “For the record, I learned how to ride with no hands, for real, when I was nine.”
With her love of running and biking, it is little surprise that Gilbert also excelled at triathlons during her 20s. Racing at the sport’s elite level also helped her continue to build her athletic engine, even though she still did not know the work was destined to lead her to the mud and ruts of the cyclocross course.
Oregon’s Cyclocross Crusade is legendary for its fun, welcoming atmosphere and development of top-level riders. In our profile of photographer Jeff Curtes, he said that Portland was where he learned to love cyclocross. The same is true of defending U23 National Champion Lance Haidet, who learned about the sport when he lived there. The list undoubtedly goes on.
Gilbert moved to Corvallis, Oregon after finishing graduate school to take a position as a research scientist. Once there, she quickly learned the importance of a proper off-road bike.
“If you know anything about Oregon, it rains a lot there,” she said. “I joined a cycling club and was promptly told I needed to get a cyclocross bike after I took my road bike on some fire roads in the wet weather and nearly destroyed the drivetrain.”
“And When in Rome! I started racing cyclocross, quickly moving up through the Women’s A fields at the Cyclocross Crusade races. I lived in Oregon for a little over two years, but that was all I needed to become hooked on the sport.”
Oregon’s ’cross scene had struck again. The sport of cyclocross had another convert.
Gilbert eventually moved back to her hometown of St. Louis, where conditions were ripe for her destiny as a Working Woman of Cyclocross. The Midwest has traditionally been home to a number of UCI races, which at that time included Jingle Cross in Iowa, the Sun Prairie GP in Wisconsin and the Derby City Cup in Kentucky, among others.
“I surveyed the regional cyclocross scene and found an abundance of UCI races within easy driving distance,” said Gilbert. “The USGP in Sun Prairie, WI in 2010 was my first UCI race, in all its muddy, off-camber glory, and the rest, they say, is history.”
The Working Woman of Cyclocross
“Call me Dr. Zjilbert [sic],” Gilbert said about her day job as a biochemist at Biofactor Genomics in the St. Louis area. (For the record, Zjilbert is pronounced similar to “Colbert” from the Colbert Report.)
Her company works on making genomic data more accessible to researchers and doctors. One could argue dialing in lines and choosing a tire pressure is a piece of cake after a week doing her work.
Although Gilbert is supported by the Van Dessel Factory Racing team, the work of getting to the races usually comes down to her and her partner Doug. She puts in a full week at her day job and then the two load up the car to drive to race.
For Gilbert, the process started simply, by racing a ton. “When I first got started, I raced only what I could drive to, which was a lot,” she said. “Cincy, Derby, Trek — starting with the USGP — Jingle Cross and Gateway Cup in my hometown. And when I wasn’t headed out of town, I was racing locally in the Bubba Memorial Cross Series put on by Big Shark Bicycle.”
The process was pretty straightforward, albeit work-intensive. “I would load up the Subaru on Friday morning and leave straight from work in the evening,” Gilbert said about her weekends. “I have this amazing network of friends, new and old, racers and non-racers, who are willing to coordinate travel or open their homes to me for a race weekend, even when I track in mud.”
Things are a bit different these days, with some of the driving replaced with flying to races to nab UCI points that allow her front-row domestic call-ups and the opportunity to race in Europe. She is headed to the latter this week and will be racing at the Zolder World Cup on Tuesday.
“These days, Doug and I travel together to most races together. He races singlespeed,” she said. “Most of my vacation time goes to racing, and the world’s best boss allows me to leave early on the occasional Friday to catch a plane or avoid rush-hour traffic.”
The Working Woman’s Keys to Success
I am not going to lie, part of my motivation for writing this story was learning how Gilbert fits all this in. Working, training, traveling, winning, it cannot be easy.
“Planning, phone apps and training with a coach,” she said about making it all work.
She continued, “And a fabulous husband who happens to love cyclocross as much as I do. He is my best friend, training partner, and bicycle mechanic all rolled into one. That makes him the ‘Most interesting man in the world’ to me. He keeps our equipment in top shape and finds time to work, train and race himself.”
Having a great coach also helps. “Besides that, my coach Isaiah Newkirk, with FasCat Coaching, works with me to keep the training fresh, focused and on point during the season. And forgives me the occasional deviation, like when I need to run with my dog or meet a friend for an early morning coffee, instead of a ride, before work. The balance looks a lot like a jigsaw puzzle, with pieces interlocking rather than fitting into discrete boxes.”
Professional cyclists structure their days and weeks to make sure they get the most from their training. For a working woman like Gilbert, figuring out that structure can be the difference between a podium and a long drive for a middle-of-the-pack finish. Efficiency and plenty of sleep are key.
“We do have a flow,” Gilbert said about her partnership with her Chief Bicycle Officer Doug. “Mondays are recovery days, easy run with my dog, light spin in the evening, laundry, meal planning, and throwing myself back into work. The pace starts to pick up again on Tuesday when I put in a longer day all around: training, working, and life stuff. Wednesday, I try to check-in with friends, work on projects and finalize any unfinished business for the upcoming race weekend.”
She continued, “By Thursday, our home life is focused on packing, and usually involves grabbing a quick dinner out of Mexican food. And then it is time to race! But, as the race season progresses and our process becomes more dialed, we even manage the occasional date night.”
The key to everything for Gilbert and her Chief Bicycle Officer? Efficiency. “We are so much more efficient with our time during the cyclocross season because we have to be.”
How efficient? Gilbert does whatever it takes to maintain her important friendships, no matter the sacrifices. Even having her Friday coffee on Thursday. “With one friend, who also happens to have just had a baby, we meet up monthly for #NotSoFriday coffee — because we used to meet on Fridays, but in season, Doug and I are usually loading the car on Friday morning, and my friend can’t secure a babysitter that day — we meet on Thursdays!”
Van Dieseling to Weekend Success
The first time I heard the name “Sunny Gilbert” was at Jingle Cross in 2014. On a cold, snowy Day 3 in November, a tall, Midwest local hero racing for the Michelob Ultra / Big Shark Racing Team landed on the podium beside Courtenay McFadden and Katerina Nash and ahead of names such as Meredith Miller and Caroline Mani. Her finish was that darn impressive. I remembered the name.
Within two years, Gilbert went from local hero to professional star. As is becoming a theme with women such as Ruby West, Maghalie Rochette and others, her road to success started with the guidance of another woman rider.
“Van Dessel and I connect on so many levels,” Gilbert said. “It started with Rebecca Blatt, one of their former female elite riders, She taught me so much when I was first starting out racing cyclocross, like how to pre-ride a course, ideas for essential equipment, and managing travel.”
Gilbert eventually started to swap messages with Van Dessel owner Edwin Bull and after about a year of hammering out the details, she was in. At the start of 2016 at age 37, Gilbert was a professional cyclocross racer.
For Gilbert, the partnership with Van Dessel has been perfect, “I love their bikes, their passion for the sport and that they are just really, really great people, evidenced by their offer of support for Caroline Mani this season. When I found out about that, I felt humbled and honored to be able to ride for them for the second year in a row.”
For Van Dessel’s owner, the feeling is mutual. “A mutual acquaintance, JP Brocket, and I were talking about Sunny on the start line of our cyclocross Nationals race,” he said about how the partnership started. “I forget the exact venue or year, but we were on the start line talking about how well and consistent she was riding and what a great positive energy she has. He told me she could really benefit from support for the following season and with that, I reached out right away and we’ve been working together since.”
When Bull says Gilbert has a great positive energy, he is not joking. It feels hackneyed to say Gilbert has a sunny disposition, but it is truly hard to argue she does not live up to the name.
Earlier this season in Louisville, Gilbert passed up her front row call-up and started in the second row. After missing the famed (or notorious, depending on your opinion) Cyclocross Magazine Sporza-style start line video after choosing a second-row starting spot, she cut one of her own for us to make up for it.
“The key, I think, is to keep it fun and have the athletes motivated by fresh challenges,” said Bull about Gilbert. “All the riders invest heavily in themselves to make it all possible, and Sunny is no exception. I mostly feel fortunate that we can be a part of the awesome and that we are able to work with great inspirational people like Sunny.”
Bull’s belief and confidence in Gilbert has paid off since the start of 2016. Gilbert finished fourth in the mud on Day 1 of Jingle Cross in 2016, won Cyntergy Hurtland and then went on to finish ninth at U.S. Nationals in Hartford. This season, Gilbert won on Saturday night at Jingle Cross, swept the Major Taylor Cup weekend and finished the domestic calendar with three straight podiums at Ruts N’ Guts and the Resolution Cross Cup.
Making the Most of an Opportunity
Sunny Gilbert has had a lot of success despite turning pro in her mid-30s and balancing life as the Working Woman of Cyclocross. That success, though, begs the question, does she wish she started earlier?
“I definitely wish I had discovered off-road cycling at a younger age,” she answered. “In my early days, and who are we kidding, even these days, the more running a course has, the better I do. Starting late meant that I didn’t have the apparently natural cycling skill that some of the younger riders so obviously possess, due in part to the fact that they have been doing it so long.”
Gilbert went on to mention other women she has seen discover cyclocross in their 30s and then go on to have successful careers at different levels. Perhaps that is part of why she does not think her path to cyclocross stardom is all that unusual.
“Funny enough, at first, I didn’t realize this was particularly unusual!” she said. “So many of the fast ladies were and are my same age. I think it has been a steeper learning curve, turning pro in my 30s, but I’ve also been lucky. When I was getting started, I took the opportunity to race the fast Masters races to dial in the courses and then race the Elite races with the big girls later in the day or week.”
During her first several years racing at Nationals, Gilbert doubled up in her age group and the Women’s Elite race on Sunday. After winning the Women’s 35-39 National Championship in Boulder in 2014, she decided to go Elite full time. Winning a Masters National Championship would be a career-crowning achievement for most cyclocross racers in the U.S. For Gilbert, it was just the beginning.
“I never would have thought starting out that I would take it this far,” she admitted. “I wanted to win a UCI race, I’ve won five. I wanted to finish top ten at U.S. Nationals, I’ve done this two times in three years. I wanted to race in Belgium. Done and headed back in 2017.” She continued, “I do daydream about landing on another podium in a C1 or making the USA team selection for Worlds. My goals tend to be experiential. Racing in new venues, experiencing more challenging courses and improving skills.”
If Gilbert is maybe a bit surprised by her success, Van Dessel’s Bull is not.
“Sunny is having a great season, but it’s not at all surprising,” he said. “If you look at her progression over the last five years it’s a very consistent rise to where we see her today. Sunny’s goal for this year was to be firmly in the top 50 UCI rankings so she could have automatic entry into the World Cups and go to Europe. And that’s exactly what she’s doing. We’re right on track.”
A Well-Deserved Vacation
There is no question Gilbert has put in the work, both in the lab and on the bike. This week, she is getting a well-deserved vacation. Except at a time when her co-workers are likely headed to anywhere warmer, Gilbert is headed to Belgium. In December.
Gilbert will be on the start line at the Zolder World Cup, where she will be getting her last prep in before Nationals in Reno. She raced at Zolder in 2016, so the experience will not necessarily be new. She did, however, finish 39th in that race, so moving up in the final results is certainly an obtainable goal. Then comes Nationals, where she will be looking to top her ninth-place finish from 2017.
No matter the outcome, Gilbert has come a long way in her cyclocross career and appears to have more accomplishments to come. And if she does have great races at Zolder and Reno, it will just be another successful day at the office for one of the Working Women of Cyclocross.