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After an off-season that saw Caroline Mani...

Caroline Mani: ‘The Animal’ adapts after off-season uncertainty

After a summer scrambling to get sponsors, mired in a lawsuit, and sidelined by depression, Caroline Mani is back to winning 'cross races.

Her nickname is “The Animal.”

Caroline Mani is known for her tenacious style in cyclocross races both stateside and in Europe. As it turns out, that attitude follows her off the bicycle as well. Throughout 2017, Mani’s tenacity helped her overcome a multitude of obstacles that stemmed from a legal dispute with her former team. Befitting her nickname, the 30-year-old Frenchwoman found a way to adapt and survive, and now she’s heading into the heart of cyclocross season with promising results.

“I tried so hard for months to get my own team together,” she says. “I contacted a lot of companies. It seems like the cycling industry is suffering.”

Mani’s difficult summer began with a legal dispute with her former team, Raleigh-Clement, which was run by Donnelly Sports. A lawsuit is ongoing and neither party commented on the disagreement.

The dispute left Mani scrambling to form a racing program for the 2017 season. She found the sponsorship market fallow and entered the summer months without a team. With cyclocross season mere months away, Mani was stressed. Stress turned into depression, and Mani found herself lacking the motivation to train and race.

“I think athletes, we are really strong, but at the end, we are really weak too,” Mani said

Mani did have one sponsor that stepped up early in the summer, Atom Composites, a wheel company. She connected with Tadd Armbruster, Atom’s president, at Sea Otter, and secured product sponsorship as well as funding for plane tickets.

However, she knew she’d need more support to run a truly professional program.

Mani hails from Besançon, France and moved to the U.S. in 2011. Without a fully sponsored team, Mani’s green card was in question, she said. She started to look outside cycling for potential jobs, even attempting to work as an Uber driver. She scuttled that plan after learning her driver’s license did not qualify for the ride-share business.

Through it all, her friends and especially her wife Ticia provided the support she needed.

“Everybody was like, ‘Hey don’t give up, don’t walk away,'” Mani says. “[Ticia] was like, ‘Hey you have to keep going, keep trying.’ I just didn’t give up and I was lucky to find the right people.”

Fearing she might not race in 2017, Mani tried one last desperate move in late July. She created a crowdfunding page on the website gofundme.com to try to raise cash for her racing season. While the effort failed to earn enough to support her racing program, it did alert the cycling community to her struggle. Less than a day later, Mani was connected with Edwin Bull, co-founder of bicycle manufacturer Van Dessel

Bull was on vacation when he heard about Mani’s plight, yet he reached out anyway. “It was an absolute no-brainer,” he says, flabbergasted that a rider of her caliber was without a team.

Having spent many years on the domestic UCI circuit with sponsored riders such as Cassandra Maximenko, Bull always admired Mani’s racing style. “I’ve seen her race for a long time,” he says. “She’s always a person who rides on courage — not to sound tacky — she races with her heart and you can see that.”

The bike company came on as a sponsor, and she was set to ride under the Van Dessel-Atom Composites banner for the impending ‘cross season.

“I think I’m strong enough that I didn’t quit,” Mani says. “I could have said, ‘Hey I’m done racing. It’s stupid.’”

Mani’s summer training might have been hampered by the stress of her team situation, but it didn’t show when the races began in September. She finished sixth and fifth at the Jingle Cross and Trek CXC World Cups, respectively.

In addition to results at big events, Mani has supported fellow Van Dessel riders Maximenko and Sunny Gilbert throughout the season. Mani shared her insight gleaned from world-class experience.

“She’s been great for Cassie and Sunny,” Bull says. “She’s helped them step up their game, which has been great to see. I didn’t expect that.”

After the early World Cups, Mani landed on the podium in three other UCI races. She capped it off with her first win of the season at the Cyntergy Hurtland race Sunday.

For someone who was second at the 2016 cyclocross world championships, scrapping for wins at UCI C2 events might be a bit of a step-down. She’s still looking forward to racing in Europe this winter and taking on ‘cross worlds on February 3, 2018, in Valkenberg, Netherlands.

“I’m a little behind, I think, with training,” Mani says. “I’m a little too heavy, I have to be honest. So I have to be a little more strict. With all the stress, it was hard to focus on being strict on myself. I’m a stress eater.”

Will Mani return to the form that led her to a podium result two years ago? She smiles and demurs. She will certainly show up to fight though, wearing her French tricolor:

“People call me ‘The Animal’ because I never give up, I give everything I have.”