Christina Birch’s journey from MIT bioengineer to Olympic hopeful
The Madison, an exhilarating tag-team relay event in track cycling, hasn’t been on the Olympic stage since the 2008 Games; it was dropped because there was no corresponding women’s event.
This coming summer, the women’s Madison makes its debut in the Olympic schedule. It’s perfect timing for American track rider and Madison hopeful Christina Birch, who has big ambitions for her own Olympic debut.
“The goal is not just to “get” to Tokyo,” Birch told VeloNews. “The goal is to win a gold medal.”
It’s a lofty goal for Birch, 33, who was a full-time college professor during the last Olympic cycle. Now a member of the U.S. national track program, Birch has another big goal for Tokyo, beyond the Madison. She wants to be chosen for the U.S. women’s pursuit team—the same squad that earned silver at the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.
Only two of the four riders from that team will return in 2020: Chloé Dygert and Jennifer Valente. And USA Cycling will spend the next few months deciding which two talented riders fill the spots formerly held by Sarah Hammer, who retired, and Kelly Catlin, who died in March.
So far, Birch is on the right track. Earlier this month, Birch rode alongside Dygert, Valente, and Emma White at the World Cup opener in Minsk. The American team won, defeating Germany by more than one second. The next World Cup begins November 29 in Hong Kong.
Should Birch qualify for the team, she would bring a completely different backstory to a squad teeming with talent. Dygert, Valente, and White started their careers as rosy-cheeked teenagers, and all competed internationally before they could legally vote.
Birch, by contrast, is the late bloomer, whose cycling career has progressed alongside her career in academia. She owns a PhD in Biological Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has taught bioengineering at a college level.
Balancing both pursuits hasn’t been easy, yet it’s provided Birch a different perspective on cycling than many other Olympic racers.
“Getting a PhD is a massive commitment, especially a research-based one,” Birch said. “You have to already have some internal drive to do something new in uncharted territory, and have the guts to start the process before you have the skills and knowledge you’ll need to be successful. Transitioning to cycling required that same leap of faith, and has been an even more intense bootstrapping enterprise.”
From cyclocross to the velodrome
Birch started cycling in 2009 and thrived as a collegiate racer on MIT’s team, winning national titles in cyclocross and track. She quickly fostered a love for cycling; what was initially an excuse to escape the heady confines of the lab—Birch was working to develop a biological diagnostic tool—quickly escalated into a competitive collegiate cycling career.
“I was never interested in training just to be fit,” Birch said. “I’ve always enjoyed competing. My first race was technically a collegiate intro category road race. I knew nothing about cycling races or tactics. I remember one of the “A” category racers from MIT riding alongside our two-person breakaway, coaching us to “work together.” I got in front of this other girl and drilled it, wondering why she was still there. That’s when I discovered drafting.”
Birch became hooked on cyclocross and raced for both MIT and the JAM Fund until she graduated in 2015.
As soon as she defended her PhD at MIT in 2015, Birch packed up whatever would fit into her two-door Honda Civic and drove to Los Angeles to train and race at the VELO Sports Center in Carson, “almost on a whim,” she said.
With a new title adorning her name, Birch found work teaching at the University of California’s Riverside campus, but decorating her new office was not a priority. Her experience racing at MIT had flipped a switch, and Birch knew she wanted to shift her focus to another monumental task.
Although Birch had only visited the track to train a handful of times when she was in New England, her plan to continue cycling at an elite level required some flexibility. She was willing to entertain disciplines other than cross, and she also posed her proposition to mentors who might help chart her course.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to pursue in cycling specifically, I just wanted to go up,” Birch said. “Harder races, higher steps on the podium, and to represent my country. Some key cycling gurus guided me toward track cycling, and someone mentioned the “O” word somewhere along the line. I didn’t know anyone at the elite level and I had no development path to follow. So I kind of made it up.”
Which is how she ended up practically living out of the two-door Civic the first year after getting her PhD from MIT.
UC Riverside is 70 miles from the track in Carson. To maintain her training and work schedules, she sometimes slept in her office during the week and did training rides from campus. Then, she’d drive the 70 miles back to the track the next morning.
“That was one of the hardest years of my life: teaching a full class schedule and trying to train full time,” Birch said. “Imagine staying up late preparing a biochemistry lecture for 80 kids hoping desperately that you’re not going to waste their time, and then going out the next morning to do an insane three-hour mixed-interval workout.”
The schedule was physically and mentally exhausting. Only later in her cycling career did Birch realize this schedule was common for aspiring female pros. Many American pro riders hold advanced degrees, and balance their elite racing with full-time careers.
“Almost every pro woman I know in the U.S. is doing some version of the same,” Birch said. “It wasn’t sustainable.”
Female racers like Birch must balance their jobs and racing, because being paid to be a full-time cyclist is rarely an option. Nevertheless, it’s never easy to leave behind something you’ve worked diligently for, even if the alternative is pursuing something you’re equally passionate about.
Eventually, Birch knew that in order to continue on her trajectory toward the Olympics, she needed to leave academia. In 2018 she took a sabbatical from teaching to race full-time.
“Leaving academia was hard, it felt like giving up on a previous dream of getting “to the top”– to be a professor running my own research lab,” Birch said. “It’s a hard reality to let things go because there simply is not enough time to explore every path, not even in a dozen lifetimes. But I think what I’m doing now in cycling is even harder than what I was doing in academia, a life truly at the sharpest end of competitive sport.”
Birch currently supports herself through part-time technical writing work, coaching clinic income, athletic grants, a few generous sponsors, and cashing baby bonds she didn’t use to pay for school.
Next year, a few new personal sponsors will help ease the pressure.
“In general there is no support for female cyclists in the U.S., much less in the niche sport of track cycling,” Birch said. “And living and training in LA near the velodrome is expensive.”
But, as a veteran of academia and a professional cyclist who came to the track late in life, Birch knows something about sacrifice. According to her dad, who she’s very close to, Birch’s capacity to excel defined her childhood. As a child, she attended a camp for playing the viola, and when she returned, three days later, she was one of the better players.
Birch’s father reminded her of her drive to be the best.
“You liked to be good at absolutely everything, from rafting to running to writing to pottery,” Birch said her father told her. “You still do.”
Birch’s achievements on and off the bike have proven him to be true, but next year being good won’t be good enough. In 2020, Christina Birch wants to be one of the best track racers in the world.