At a Crossroads

Friends, racers, and coworkers, Elle Anderson (left) and Caitlin Bernstein (right) at Stinner headquarters standing in front of their Strava race van. Photo: Matthew Christopher Miller

Caitlin Bernstein and Elle Anderson are young people establishing themselves professionally on and off the bike. The identity formation that comes with that, the learned lessons from early morning grinds, long days at the office bounded by training, and living in bleak Belgium, are only possible via a very precarious balance. Maintaining that passion is the hard part, reflection and acknowledgements about the shortcomings of the sport can only be written over by excitement. And perhaps this excitement comes from the people around us, the bike a vessel so to speak, for connecting people of similar propensities and traits, a need for adventure and competition.

But what happens to this perspective when it’s your job to race and being a racer is part of your very identity? What happens to this identity when you burn out, when you need to train but can’t even look at the bike, can’t even imagine turning the pedals a single rotation? The instrument that allowed you to express yourself is now some sort of trap. What does it look like when the passion lost is revitalized? What does it look like?

Meet Caitlin Bernstein (Caitlin's Strava athlete page) and Elle Anderson (Elle's Strava athlete page) close friends from Vermont living and working in San Francisco. Elle races for the SRAM-Strava cyclocross team and Caitlin was spending the UCI cross race in LA guest riding for the team. Elle, in some sense, is a seasoned racer, having spent 2014 and 2015 racing in Belgium and time racing with the U.S. national team. In the coming weeks with support from USA Cycling, she’ll be racing two UCI Cyclocross World Cups in frigid Belgium with some support (12/20 - Namur, Belgium; 12/26 - Heusden-Zolder, Belgium, coming back after New Years for USA Cycling National Championships).

Caitlin, meanwhile, is in her first year of racing cross, already racing pro UCI races. The two close friends found their way from the East Coast to the halls of Strava, where they combine working in the office with the rigors of training.

Caitlin and Elle stopped by Stinner HQ on the way to the UCI cross race in Los Angeles, and sat down for a post-ride chat to talk about cross, why they ride, and the role of friendship in cycling.

Caitlin (left) and Elle (right), in SRAM-Strava kits opening the legs before racing the UCI CX race in Los Angeles. Photo: Matthew Christopher Miller

Danny: How did you guys end up at Strava together, both as East Coast transplants?

Caitlin: We landed at Strava separately. Elle played a big role in getting me to Strava. I had no idea what to do, I was living in Tahoe. I was looking at jobs at high schools, I was working at a school at the time [ED.-Where Caitlin was working as a ski coach]. I was living in Tahoe and I had no idea, really, what to do.

I talked to Elle after her trip to Belgium. Elle said ‘Strava has this role, you should totally just do it.’ I kind of said, yeah, all right, if I’m going to move to San Francisco, I might as well check out this start up.

A few months later, I was at Strava.

Danny: And bike culture is pretty big there.

Caitlin: Strava has definitely gotten me re-motivated to get back into racing and riding more. Strava definitely played a big part of that.

Elle Anderson has rediscovered her love of riding, and after taking time off from training will be again racing at the top level in Europe in December. Photo: Matthew Christopher Miller

Danny: You guys made the transition from skiing to cross, what were the steps?

Caitlin: I started racing Mountain bikes when I was young, probably, when I was 10 or so, raced for a while, but ski racing took over for a lot of years. I’ve been really away from it for a while now.

Elle: I was always a cyclist, ever since I was little, either messing around on a Mountain Bike or getting out on a road bike a little bit in high school, it was definitely part of alpine ski training for me. A lot of alpine ski racers like the mountain bike for technical aspects and for skill building. You have to get in a bit of endurance work in the summer. So when I stopped ski racing, it was just that next thing I tried out. I was always a cyclist.

I really discovered both road cycling and cyclocross in college, that’s a really special way to discover the sport. Collegiate cycling in the U.S. has such a great vibe, team spirit and community. Older kids on the team helped me out and helped me discover cyclocross. I borrowed a bike or two for the first few cx races, carpooled to some of the races. I started with the road season, spring of my Freshman year, and by the time sophomore fall rolled around, I was like, what is this cyclocross thing you’re talking about?
 

On the Cyclocross Culture

Danny: There’s this vibrant Amateur scene in cross, more of a casual fan base, that’s there for the party or something? What do you guys think of that, maybe more there for the party?

Elle: Actually, I think it’s been responsible for the growth of cross. The scene in the U.S. is welcoming, and inclusive and fun. You combine those three things, it really sets the sport up for success. On top of that it’s a great, spectator friendly ummm, dynamic. The way the format is set up with lots of laps, it’s such a fun event to spectate. I think CX has all the ingredients to be successful.

Danny: Elle, how does that compare to the scene in Europe?

Elle: Totally opposite. Fun in different ways. For however much cross in the U.S. is a fun, inclusive, community, racing in Europe is simply the opposite. It’s very exclusive. The races I do are only for pros, there are no amateur categories. You show up to watch a professional event. The spectators approach it in that way. There’s a distance between…there’s a division there. I’m regarded as the thing they’ve come to see and watch and cheer for. I’m not one of them. Racing in the U.S. has that precious quality where we’re all in it together. I like them both. Every time I do a US CX weekend it’s just like hanging out with all my friends. Nothing’s better than that. Every time I go to Europe and perform on that world class stage in front of tens of thousands of people it just gets me really excited.

 

Danny: Do you want to go to road again [Elle has also raced professionally on the road]?

Elle: I usually do road and mountain biking for training in the offseason. I do like crits. Good old fashioned crits. I definitely feel it in my heart, though, and it’s just not in road biking.

It’s definitely a great sport and I always have fun when I do it. It’s always nice to leave the mud and the dirt and the cold and the rain behind for a couple months. But, every time I get back on dirt, I’m overwhelmed by how awesome it is.

There’s a whole dirt scene that’s emerging. It can be gavel races, offroad adventure rides. It’s the gravel rides and gravel fondos or can be just dirt. It’s a huge trend, we can see it right in front of our eyes. I’m psyched about it, I’m passionate about off road. It’s a great shift in the cycling space. It’s something new, something fresh, something more accessible than maybe other options.

Danny: Why do you think this is developing?

Elle: I’m just biased, it’s always been there. The gravel roads have always been there, the dirt adventure riding has always been there, the people just haven’t gone out and sought out those places. Maybe... I don’t really know why it’s now as opposed to any other time. I just sort of see it like everybody else is catching onto a secret or something like that. Caitlin: It’s cool now to go on adventures, people want to be a part of that, I don’t know…Some sort of adventure appeal.

Chasing, Leading, Working: Caitlin's Introduction to Cross and Balancing Work

Danny: Caitlin, as a new cross racer, what was the first race like?

Caitlin: The first race was awesome. I had a blast. The first time out on a cross bike was a few days before. Elle and I went out in Golden Gate Park. I guess I was expecting it to be a harder transition from the mountain bike. I’m just dialing in the way the bike handles, just figuring out how much you can push it without having that suspension.

Elle: Basically, I went really hard trying to drop Caitlin, and I couldn’t on her first cross ride.

Caitlin: I was just having a blast chasing Elle around, and I knew, right from there, I would really enjoy racing.

We raced a few days later, it was really cool for me that my first local race would be in my backyard, in Oakland so I had ridden there. I raced B’s and I just went for it from the start, and never looked back. I Never saw the girls I started with. From there it’s just getting to as many local races as I could and I moved up from there. I’m excited to try a bigger race down here.
The whole scene around cross is a little more social and fun, the mountain bike scene is fun and relaxed but a lot of the races I go to there’s not a lot of people to hang out with…I don’t know, there’s not that same social atmosphere. I’ve already met many people just racing cross. A lot of girls too. 

Danny: How do you guys balance racing with working?

Elle: With Strava’s support, I have figured out a very nice flexible schedule to accommodate my racing. Strava really understood my predicament, especially after the first year where I struggled with balancing a full time job and the full pro cx circuit. I ended that season and sat down with some Strava people, they just responded in an encouraging way. So it was decided that from September through February I would work just 25 hours, and I can do a lot of my work remotely. I’m so grateful we could find a way to make both work, because I really enjoy my work at Strava, and being connected to something outside of cyclocross. It actually helps balance my racing. Caitlin works full time.

Caitlin: I have an hour commute each way. So I get up at 5:30 and train and try to be on the road to work by 7:30 and be home by 6:30 or 7 at night. Now that I’m racing every weekend, or almost, I’m not training as much, don’t have to do as many early mornings.

Caitlin Bernstein is new to cross racing, but her life has been spent as a racer. With help from time spent on the mountain bike and years of ski racing at the elite levels, Caitlin has willed herself into the elite level of cross in less than a year. Photo: Matthew Christopher Miller

Danny: Does the bike keep you sane?

Caitlin: I’ve always needed something. It’s always been skiing, or I was doing a lot of running, it really helps me. Especially moving from Tahoe to a city, I was like, well, I really need to hold onto this, I need to get out. I’m lucky I’ve been able to hold onto it and still get my job done well.

You can do it, you just have to be organized, and I mean, I want to do it, so I’ll make it happen.

Elle: And the cyclocross season is fairly compact. I’ve always felt that CX is the one discipline that fits in fairly well with a regular job. The training demands are just shorter, you can get really fit just doing some intervals in an hour, or hour and a half ride.

Raw Emotional Connection: Identity and Value

Danny: How do you stay motivated, what keeps you moving forward?

Elle: I took a lot of time off this summer, basically I took the entire summer of from racing and a lot of the summer off from riding in general. I was pretty burned out from spending the whole winter in Belgium racing at the top level. I couldn’t figure out…For the first time in my life I didn’t like the bike. Just burnt out mentally, didn’t want to touch it forced myself to ride but I felt really crappy. So I locked up my bike for a long period of time and just waited.
 

What that process taught me, is that you’ve got to give yourself that space, you gotta listen to what your body and mind are telling you. And after a while I just let it go. I dug deep to find who I was without being a cyclist, who I was without the bike, and I really felt comfortable with that. I got to rediscover the feeling of bringing the bike back into my life. I learned how much value cycling brings to my life, how much I enjoy it. That raw emotional connection to a sport and a past-time, and to really appreciate it. Just the action of pedaling the bike forward, that’s something I love beyond a lot of other things, that’s really important.

Caitlin: For me it’s a little different because I’m just getting back into racing not being focused on skiing, it started moving down to the bay, not being focused on skiing. I was actually doing a lot of running, doing some competitive running when I was in Tahoe and just getting a little bored with that, and getting back on the bike, with getting back to Strava, connecting with Elle again having more people to ride with, living in a place where riding was all around me so it really just started with me getting back on my bike again, just loving it. 

Concluding Thoughts

For those that came up through the collegiate cycling ranks, you know that being around new riders, riders you get to help shape and mold, is one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do. You have the opportunity to provide perspective on the freedom that the bike offers, that action is a form of expression. Eventually, for many riders, racing turns into the actionable expression. One thing that’s not so obvious, perhaps, is how much these new riders feed into your own excitement on the bike.