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Monuments of Gravel

Meet the classically trained pianist who could win Unbound Gravel

Emily Newsom is on the short list to win Unbound Gravel. Newsom is also a mom, a classically trained pianist, and perhaps the USA's most interesting pro cyclist.

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EMPORIA, Kansas (VN) — On most Wednesday nights you can find Emily Newsom playing her set at Lili’s Bistro in Fort Worth, Texas.

Under the dimmed houselights the regular guests will sip cocktails and clap and sing along, perhaps unaware that their entertainer for the night is also one of the country’s top professional cyclists. Newsom may open her gig with “Karma Police” by Radiohead, or with her version of Bill Withers’ classic “Ain’t No Sunshine,” before diving into one of the countless jazz standards that she knows by heart.

For three hours Newsom will sit behind the restaurant’s shiny new Yamaha piano entertaining her fans, and not once will she think about bicycle racing.

“It’s a chance to reconnect with my artistic and emotional side,” Newsom told VeloNews. “Cycling is emotional but it a completely different way from music. When I’m playing it all comes back. It’s this block of time when I enter back into what my life used to be.”

Newsom winning a race in Texas. Photo: Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank

Cycling fans may recognize Newsom as one of the stalwarts of the U.S. pro domestic cycling scene — a talented all-rounder on the Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank pro cycling team. Gravel riders may recognize Newsom as one of Texas’ strongest gravel pros, and the recent winner of the 150-mile Gravel Locos race.

That win placed Newsom on the shortest list of favorites to win this weekend’s Unbound Gravel.

But Newsom’s cycling accolades obfuscate a backstory that is truly a one-of-one in U.S. cycling. Newsom is a classically trained pianist who has spent much of her life performing Rachmaninoff and Bach in front of crowds across the country. She’s the mother to a six-year-old daughter named Marijke, and a piano instructor to three dedicated students.

Music, motherhood, and cycling give Newsom a split focus that you don’t often find in professional cycling. It’s also taught her how to manage priorities, and how to compartmentalize the often competing passions in her life.

“I have a lot of people helping me — my team doesn’t ask me to be in Europe for a full month, I can come home after a few weeks, and my mother and father-in-law help out,” Newsom said. “My husband is super supportive and does what I do when I’m not home. We take care of her together to make this possible.”

Music is Newsome’s first love, and she grew up in a family of 10 that had a passion for piano. She began playing at age seven, and by the time she was a teenager she had already surpassed her piano instructors. Newsom grew up in eastern Washington and competed in regional piano competitions before pursuing a Piano Performance degree at the University of Idaho.

Newsom had her heart set on becoming a professional pianist and pursued a Master’s in Piano Performance at Texas Christian University. After earning that degree, Newsom applied for an exclusive program that would put her on the pathway to becoming a professional concert pianist.

She didn’t get in.

To cope with the disappointment, Newsom began running. She also started teaching piano to children as a way to support herself.

“There were a lot of tough feelings to swallow around that time,” Newsom said. “Teaching was not my first love and I was so nervous. I went into running because I needed something different from the music world.”

As a runner, Newsom discovered she had natural gifts for endurance sports, and she also met her husband. When chronic injuries sidelined her, she picked up cycling, and experienced the rocket-like trajectory that many top female riders experience in their early years.

Well, it was a rocket-like trajectory with a year off. In 2015 Newsom had her daughter, just as she was beginning to turn heads in Texas’ local cycling scene.

“I kept training and kept my focus through my pregnancy, and there was never any doubt that I would come back,” Newsom said. “I didn’t improve that year but the comeback was pretty quick. I had strength and fitness and you can bounce back pretty quickly. From a mom point of view, my daughter makes me a better cyclist.”

These days Newsom spends much of the year at home as a mother, cyclist, and performer, with weekend or week-long trips around the U.S. for races. Earlier this year she traveled to Belgium for a three-week bloc to race the classics, before returning to the U.S. to prepare for Unbound Gravel.

Her team allows her to travel back home between trips to be with her family, and on the road she stays connected to Marijke through FaceTime calls.

“I tell her about the team aspect of cycling, because she asks me did I win, and I can tell her that my team did really well, which is good for me too,” Newsom said.

The cycling trips do interrupt her playing time, and Newsom said that her Wednesday night gigs at Lili’s have become an important emotional release amid the stressful worlds of parenting and pro cycling.

Newsom and her family. Photo: Mercy Rae

Those three hours, she said, allow her to reconnect to elements of her personality that are not expressed in sport.

“It feels different depending on where I’m at with things at that moment,” Newsom said. “It’s a way to express what I’m working on something inside, even when I find it hard to say the words. Most of the time I just get captivated by the melodies. That’s what really touches me. If it’s an emotion, you can’t really put your words around it, because you need to hear the sound and the melody. And I’m impacted by the people who are listening too. It’s the sound and the creativity and the chance to express myself.”

How Newsom’s feelings will express themselves during Unbound Gravel is yet to be seen. The race’s long and painful physical effort often draws deep and powerful emotions out of its participants, and it’s common to see riders finishing the event in tears, or with other major expressions of emotion. Her plan is to survive the chaotic opening miles near the front, and then maintain a steady pace for the rest of the day. Victory will be a blessing, and to simply finish is also success.

How Newsom’s split life between cycling and music proceeds is also yet to be seen. Racing bikes is a passion, no doubt, but Newsom said it’s not her life’s passion. In that hierarchy, motherhood and music still come first.

“There’s a different feeling of satisfaction from doing something really well on the bike, or when I’ve memorized a piece of music and really nailed it,” Newsome said. “It’s a different emotional satisfaction, too. The bike is a physical outlet for me, but I wouldn’t say I define myself by it. With music, I would. I love the bike but I will go on to other things in life. But with music, it’s who I am.”