When Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies decided to sponsor a cyclocross team for the 2012-13 season, Jade Wilcoxson volunteered to join it. She had not raced ’cross in five years, but she was game to try.
“I was like, ‘do I get to keep the bike?’” Wilcoxson recalled during an interview at Optum’s recent team camp in Oxnard, Calif. The team said yes, she could keep the bike. “Sweet! I’m in! I can do five or six races for a free bike.”
Wilcoxson finished the ’cross season with a second-place finish at U.S. nationals and a 15th-place showing at worlds in Louisville, Ky. Plainly, Wilcoxson learns quickly. When she showed up to Optum’s road team camp last year at this time, it was the start of her first season in the pro ranks.
“I just had so much self-doubt and wondered how I really measure up with all these riders, what’s my place on the team, how do I work well for everybody on the team,” she said.
By the end of her first season, the Oregon native had found her place. Wilcoxson finished third overall in the 2012 National Racing Calendar (NRC) rankings.
“Jade is an incredibly versatile rider,” Optum team director Rachel Heal said. “From what I saw last year, it looks like she can do pretty much anything.”
According to Heal, Wilcoxson has the climbing and time trialing abilities to chase general classification results. But she can also sprint well enough to leadout Optum sprinters such as Lauren Hall and to win bunch sprints for herself.
Wilcoxson’s results from her first season as a professional suggest that Heal has it right. She won the Joe Martin and Tour of Elk Grove stage races, finished third at the Nature Valley Grand Prix, and fourth at the Cascade Classic. Wilcoxson also won the Blue Ribbon Alpine Challenge circuit race in Aspen, Colo., and picked off criterium stage victories at Joe Martin and Elk Grove.
But Wilcoxson did not stop there. Instead, she took up her team’s offer and hit the dirt to race cyclocross. When she showed up to her first race, she did not know how to pit her bike.
“They had to do a little in-service on how to pit a bike,” said Wilcoxson. At the outset, she struggled with the technical demands of piloting the bike through ’cross racing’s obstacles. “I started crashing, and I was like, ‘oh man, maybe this is a mistake!’”
It did not take Wilcoxson long to sort out her bike handling. Once she did, her talent took over. She finished on the podium at the first day of Jingle Cross Rock and fourth at the Trek U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross Deschutes Brewery Cup. By the time nationals came around, Wilcoxson had everything dialed in and scored a second-place finish behind eventual worlds silver medalist Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective).
“The technical skills were always such a problem for me in the first few months, and then I started to figure stuff out, and just get my shit together,” she said. “Thankfully, it came together at nationals!”
Wilcoxson’s ride at nationals earned her an invitation to ride for the U.S. team at worlds.
“It was a complete surprise!” said Wilcoxson of the worlds invite. “Mark Gullickson from USA Cycling came up to me after nationals and [asked] if I wanted to go to worlds. I was really happy, because a lot of times, it’s the same people who get selected for things. It was kind of nice they stepped out of the box for me.”
Wilcoxson called racing worlds an “incredible” experience, especially because so many fans turned out to support the U.S. riders. “They were all chanting ‘USA,’ and calling my name,” she said. “It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.”
The trip has inspired her to prepare more specifically for ’cross this summer, and hit it hard from the start of the season. “I didn’t see that coming at all,” she said.
Though she has quickly risen to cycling’s elite level, Wilcoxson arrived late to the sport.
“I grew up playing soccer,” she said. “And directly before cycling, I was into whitewater kayaking.”
Soccer is a common sport among the elite women’s field. Its speed, leg strength, and team dynamics seem to translate well to cycling. Tayler Wiles (Specialized-lululemon) and Meredith Miller (Tibco-To the Top) are other former soccer players now in the peloton.
Wilcoxson also left behind a successful career as a physical therapist to race full-time. “I loved my job as a physical therapist, and I had a pretty good lifestyle,” she said. “So for me, the cycling thing has to be fun. To make it worthwhile, it has to be a good experience. Otherwise, I’ll go back to physical therapy.”
In the spirit of keeping it fun, Wilcoxson is reluctant to weigh herself down with specific performance goals and expectations. She does not have a list of must-win races. Instead, she hopes to ride at a consistently high level and contribute to her team’s success. “I would consider success this year [to be] the team racing well, and me playing a big part in that,” she said, modestly.
Pressed for a more specific answer, she admitted it would be “really cool” to win a national championship road race or time trial. Wilcoxson is also hoping that Optum can ride the world championship team time trial this year.
“I love team time trials, and the women in the States don’t really get to do them,” she said. As a team, Optum meets the qualifications to race worlds, but they may not have the budget to make the trip to Europe.
For Wilcoxson, the team dynamic is especially important, and she missed that aspect of the sport during ’cross season.
“We have such a strong team, and I think any one of us can win a race on any given day,” she said. “I’m looking forward to just sharing that experience with the girls. We did a four-and-a-half hour ride, and we were still smiling at the end.”
Though Wilcoxson may deprecate her ambitions, Heal believes she will only get better this season.
“I don’t think we’ve seen anywhere near all that she is capable of,” Heal said. “I expect her progression to continue this year.” Heal also values Wilcoxson’s team-oriented attitude. “Her entertaining and positive personality are a big contribution to the happy team spirit!”
For now, Wilcoxson is taking it as it comes. “I don’t in general set goals for specific races I want to do well at,” she said. “As long as I feel like I’m racing well and doing well for the team, then I’m totally happy.”
She’ll also return to ’cross racing, but it won’t just be for the free bike.