Ellen Sherrill (Davis Bike Club Race Team) Battling wind and mud at Lange Twins Winery, Sacramento Cyclocross Series. © Tim Westmore

Ellen Sherrill (Davis Bike Club Race Team) battling wind and mud at Lange Twins Winery, Sacramento Cyclocross Series. © Tim Westmore

by Tim Westmore

Central Coast, California — Throughout Northern California there are many, many cyclists whose personalities add to those idiosyncrasies of the cyclocross community— competitive, relaxed, laid back, perhaps even on the fringe of normal society. Last year, a meandering athlete “found” cyclocross and added her personal “bent” to the sport. Now, Ellen Sherrill sets sights on immersing herself in the scene and improving her game.

The first time I met Ellen Sherrill was at a 2010 Sagebrush Cyclocross Series event in Indian Hills, Nevada, a race day for riders to wear their Halloween costumes. The series was on the Northern California Nevada Cycling Association’s calendar, but is definitely on the outskirts for some Northern California ’cross racers. At that time, my initial impression of Sherrill was a quizzical, “you what?” To my aged, oft-traveled eyes, Sherrill was a skinhead in hot pants.

One had to be around in the 1960s and 70s to have come across hot pants for the first time … and yes, I was aware back then. But the garment was a fad and shaved heads were for right-wing Nationalists. Since I am old and saw the first coming of hot pants, it took my addled mind some time to understand that this must have been a Halloween costume — leggy skinheads on a bike can be scary, right? Not quite! Sherrill was sporting a skinhead style to commiserate with and support Renee McCandless, her friend undergoing chemotherapy. (McCandless is now well on the way to recovery and riding her bike.) The rest of the outfit was supposed to be a Pantini-inspired pirate, but that is another story.

Over the next few cyclocross events, Sherrill’s distinctive barren head would occasionally pop up, and one would see her quiet determination during a race. Then, at the 2010 ‘Cross Nationals in Bend, Sherrill revealed more of her mettle. The cold had painfully shut down nerves in the extremes of her fingers and Sherrill was found sitting down beyond the finish line grimacing in obvious pain. The hurt was enough to make a grown man cry, and some did that day.

Sherrill was fast becoming a person that belongs in cyclocross. However, hers was a convoluted path to the sport. Sherrill played soccer and swam water polo in high school but decided against recruitment to college sports, railing against results-dominated expectations. Instead, Sherrill became a “college student.”

Following graduation, years of fieldwork in her job left very little time for athletic competition. Once a calmer, weekend-friendly schedule became the norm, the attraction of competition again became a draw but this time Sherrill chose to train for and compete in triathlons. Although cycling has been an ever-present activity for Sherrill, the bike leg was potentially a weak point in her triathlon. To improve her performance, Sherrill joined the Alta Alpina Bicycle Club, trained with men, and discovered an ability to race a bike.

The next arc in Sherrill’s road to cyclocross was a very serious illness that took her out of competing in triathlons and made threats to her well-being. The good fortune of recovery coincided with the end of road racing season, but left Sherrill searching for ways to train and compete. Enter a friend and a ’cross bike and Sherrill’s introduction to cyclocross.

The 2010/11 season was Sherrill’s first year in the sport. The determined and ambitious ‘cross racer achieved a few promising results including 27th of 39 in her category at Nationals. She secured an overall second place in Women’s A of the Sacramento Cyclocross Series, despite waiting until the fourth race to compete in the top women’s category. More importantly, Sherrill realized a penchant for cyclocross that spurred setting ambitious objectives for her second season.

For the 2011/12 cyclocross season, Sherrill will look to UCI as well as more local events to butt up against strong competition. Her renewed vigor differs from the reluctant competitor coming out of high school. The push to succeed is an internally driven endeavor for personal bests, personal achievements. She desires some notoriety, less to show-off but more to participate actively in the spectator-friendly event. She wants to become part of that crazy and competitive culture of cyclocross in Northern California, as does anyone captured and enamored by the sport. Is this a leap of faith? For Sherrill, this may become figuratively and perhaps literally as she has set a goal to join the ranks of racers that bunny-hop the barriers.