Never say never: Sylva cyclo-crosser takes top honors in national competition
As national champion Karen Tripp likes to say, cyclo-cross is a sport that you win by seconds. And that’s just how the Sylva resident conquered nationals in Asheville this year. By seconds — 34 of them.
“I think my mind and my focus was there,” Tripp said. “They all have to come together just right, because not every race is like that.”
As the 56-year-old sat spring-loaded at the starting line, she was thinking of just one thing — reaching the steep ramp ahead before the rest of her competitors. The whistle blew, she pushed down on the pedals, and she got to that ramp first.
“That was it — I was all alone,” she said. “It felt really wild.”
With each obstacle and each turn of the course, seconds piled onto her lead, spitting her at the finish more than half a minute ahead of her closest competitor — 8 rough-terrain miles, done in 41 minutes, 37 seconds. Tripp got the top spot on the podium, earning herself the winner’s stars-and-stripes jersey as the champion for the women’s 55-59 age category.
She’d been training toward that moment for years by the time her race at the 2015 USA Cycling Cyclo-Cross Nationals came around on Jan. 7. Meeting the goal felt “great,” she said. “It felt really good.”
Not that everyone knows just what Tripp is talking about when she starts discussing cyclo-cross. It’s a lot more popular in New England, where she and her husband Jeff lived before moving to Sylva three years ago.
Overall, the sport is still gaining traction in the United States. The inaugural cyclo-cross national championship in Europe, where the sport originated, took place in France in 1902, compared to the first such contest in the United States, in 1963.
Cyclo-cross can be a hard thing to define. It’s kind of like road-biking and kind of like mountain-biking. There’s some running involved, and also some lifting. A typical course will include a combination of road, grass, trail and obstacles like ramps and bridges. It’s usually between 1 or 2 miles long, with races comprised of multiple laps through the same course.
Because the season runs from September to February, weather is almost like another competitor.
“Rain, sleet, snow — that’s what cyclo-cross is,” Tripp said. “This year for the North Carolina cyclo-cross series, I think I have never raced in so many muddy races as I have this past year. It’s been crazy, crazy muddy, but it’s fun.”
On the downside, a muddy course means there’s going to be a lot of cleanup involved — of both people and bikes — afterward. But mud also evens the playing field.
“Everybody has to ride the mud. Everybody has to conquer it,” Tripp said. “A lot of people become intimidated, and the ones that don’t become intimidated tend to do better on races like that.”
Keeping a level head — looking fear in the face and maintaining confidence in spite of it — has been integral to Tripp’s success.
“You’ve got to stay relaxed and you have to stay focused,” she said. “Once you start losing focus, everything falls apart.”
Getting ready to race
Training, of course, is the way to keep that confidence afloat. Part of the FinKraft Cycling Team, Tripp works with a coach out of New Jersey to set her workouts. Roger Aspholm, originally from Finland, keeps up with Tripp through software that lets her log metrics like heart rate and wattage as she trains. That allows him to adjust her training schedule and make recommendations for improvement.
For instance, last year she started mountain biking for the first time when Aspholm decided the sport would build her confidence on technical sections of cyclo-cross courses. She even competed in the USA Cycling Marathon Mountain Bike Nationals in Georgia last year. That course was “totally outside my comfort zone,” she said, but “it helped huge with my racing.”
“You can’t just slam on the brakes, so you better just realize and trust that you can do it,” she said.
For the most part, though, training consists of short intervals on a road bike. Tripp’s favorite place to train is out in the Burningtown area of Macon County, because aside from being beautiful, there’s not much traffic there and there are fewer dead-end roads than in Sylva.
Community and competition
Tripp’s a competitive sort, the kind of person who will start a casual game of darts with a friend and soon show herself to be determined to win. She attributes that competitive spirit, at least in part, to growing up in a family with four brothers, three of them older.
“They wanted to go out and play baseball, and I wanted to go out and play baseball,” she recalled, so she learned the importance of keeping up at an early age.
But the sport isn’t just about competition. Tripp finds purpose, as well, in her place amid the growing community of cyclo-crossing women. She loves to see girls young enough to be her daughter — granddaughter, even — racing alongside her. And she loves to show by example that age is just a number, not a mandate to start slowing down.
“A lot of women get to a certain age and say, ‘I can’t do that.’ Never say you can’t,” she said.
In fact, Tripp was already well into her 40s before she took up cyclo-cross for the first time. She was more into running and road biking back then, and when she started hearing about the sport it sounded like a good mix between the two. After she gave it a go, the same fate befell her as followed many an experimentation with cyclo-cross.
“A lot of people, once they try it, they get bitten by the bug,” she said. “There’s just something about it.”
It’s heart-pumping, it’s challenging, it’s adrenaline-inducing. It’s varied, as no two courses are ever the same. But the whole experience and the community that surrounds it are draws as well. Especially at the more casual races, people will show up to race in costume — panda bears, Vikings, muddy brides — and spectators will station themselves at key points to heckle. With good-natured intent, of course.
“People will heckle you and say some cruel things, maybe, like, ‘Come on, old lady, you can get up there,’ but it’s fun,” Tripp said. “It’s all in fun.”
Sometimes they’ll do donut or waffle races, where competitors are handed the item in question as they’re running up a steep hill.
“It’s a great family,” she said.
And while winning is, let’s face it, pretty awesome, the feeling of crossing the finish line in any capacity is reward in itself.
“Anybody that gets to the line, no matter where they finish, you’ve gotta be proud of yourself for completing it,” Tripp said. “Even though you come in last, what does it matter? They did it, they accomplished it.”
Tripp doesn’t plan to slow down any time soon; in fact, she’s looking to compete at the Marathon Mountain Bike Nationals this summer. For inspiration, she looks to the pair of ladies who completed the 2016 cyclo-cross nationals in the 75 and over category — and for purpose, she looks to the other end of the age spectrum, the pre-teens of 9 and 10 entering the junior categories.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “That’s why I say I hope I can inspire some of those younger girls. Age doesn’t matter — it’s never too late to start something.”