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Last year, Moriah ‘Mo’ Wilson was my dark horse contender for Unbound Gravel. She ended up ninth in the 200-mile gravel race. Now, I get to say ‘I knew her when.’
Wilson has stormed onto the American off-road scene this year, scooping up nearly ten big wins before the summer season. She’s the reigning champ of the Grasshopper Adventure Series in NorCal and has a collection of other California wins from the Shasta Gravel Hugger and the Rock Cobbler. In April, Wilson won the first race of the Life Time Grand Prix at Sea Otter and recently, she won Belgian Waffle Ride California some 25 minutes ahead of the second-place woman.
The showdown that is expected between Wilson and Lauren de Crescenzo at Unbound Gravel in three weeks will bring fireworks to Emporia.
In other words, Wilson is a dark horse no more.
Recently, we caught up by phone before Wilson jetted off to yet another high-mileage race, the 157-mile Gravel Locos in Texas on May 14. I wanted to know more about what makes the 25-year-old tick, on and off the bike, to see what has changed since last season, and most importantly, to find out which question she finds most annoying at the finish line.
VeloNews: You’ve been a high-level athlete for a long time. Can you tell us about your family history and ski racing?
Mo Wilson: My dad was a professional ski racer, he was on the U.S. ski team and almost made it to the Olympics. My dad’s family is a ski family. My aunt was a nordic skier, she went to a couple Olympics. My mom wasn’t competitive but has an engine, she’s a really good biker, swimmer, does all that stuff. I grew up in Vermont and we had really good mountain bike trails around my house. My parents have been mountain biking since the ’80s. I grew up skiing and mountain biking in the summer. As I got older, skiing was a natural thing to start racing because it was something that my dad was super into. That happened pretty naturally. As I got older, I continued to bike recreationally with my family. Eventually it became a training tool for me for skiing. Apart from going out and riding with my family and friends, I started to build some structure around my riding. The year before I went to college, I took a post grad year to focus on skiing. I tore my ACL for the second time and I relied on biking a lot through those injuries to help get my strength back.
VN: So how did bike racing start? Was this always the plan? Have you just been holding your cards close to your chest?
MW: In high school one of my coaches, Kraig Sourbeer, he was a ski racer and mountain bike racer way back when. He coached Lea Davison as a ski racer in high school, too. He always used to say to me, ‘when you’re done skiing, you should try mountain biking at a high level, I think you’d be really good.’ He’d joke about it, maybe you’ll go to Olympics for skiing and mountain biking. So it was in the back of my head for a while.
Even after my first knee injury, I thought ‘maybe I should quit skiing altogether and start biking,’ but I was too stubborn. So yeah, the seed was somewhat planted in my head. Having my aunt be a nordic skier and having that to look up to — she transferred from alpine skiing to nordic — and I’ve seen a lot of other alpine skiers transfer their skills to other sports. So from a young age, it was apparent that I had an endurance engine more than an anaerobic engine.
VN: Talk about training. Are you an athlete who lives by her training? In other words, how coached are you?
MW: I’ve been working with a coach for about two years, maybe two and a half. When I decided that I really enjoyed racing, I decided to start working with a coach. I am sort of a structured person, and I like having structure in my life. I noticed in skiing that once I started following a program and working with a trainer in the off-season, my strength went through the roof and I became more faster on my skis. So I’d seen that play out earlier in my life.
I really like my approach to training in that, yes, I have structure but it’s a good balance. I still go out and do a lot of rides with friends. I keep weekends open, I go on long adventure rides with friends. During the week, especially with my work schedule, often I can’t plan ahead so much to ride with other people. So I’ve been doing my own thing during the week and doing a couple days of intervals which has been really good for me, making the most of my time. That’s been really important as I’ve managed a full-time job and racing. I do really like having that structure. It gives me something to work towards and see progress with.
VN: You seem to absolutely love riding your bike. You rarely look shattered at the end of races. What is your secret sauce?
MW: I’ve been asking myself that too.
VN: Are you surprised by how well it’s going?
MW: Yes and no. I do feel like yeah, I work really hard and even though I haven’t been in the sport for long, my experience as a ski racer and background in the sport recreationally have converged. So that’s been cool because it’s actually like, ok this has been many, many years and hours of being coached and doing something recreationally.
In that way, when I think about it the big picture, I’m like ‘this kinda does make sense.’
I guess I don’t have a lot of expectations or goals around results. My goal is to only show up as prepared as I can be and give my very best effort on any given day. And I know I can be proud of myself if I’m able to do that.
Last year, I struggled a lot with some equipment stuff and maybe not having as much support as other athletes on the course. I feel like I have more of a village behind me this season. Having the Skratch team and better equipment. All those smaller details have been tremendously helpful; it’s been the biggest thing for me this season versus last. When I think about BWR last year versus this year it’s night and day in terms of how I felt. The heat was brutal last year in July. I had a lot of dehydration issues last year at BWR, it was for sure the hardest race I did all season. This year it was brutal as well, but I had a much more thought-out hydration strategy on the course. Not only was it well thought-out but iI executed better on the plan that I had in the past. Being really detail oriented with my equipment and race strategy, I think that’s been the biggest thing that’s separated me from my previous performances and maybe my competitors.
VN: You said that you’re happy if you give your best effort, even if that doesn’t result in a result. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that wasn’t the case at The Mid South.
MW: I was definitely a little bummed because I felt like I left a lot out on the course. After Lauren [De Crescenzo] made her attack, I held back and eventually caught Savilia [Blunk]. It’s not that we slowed down the pace, but I felt like I wasn’t putting my max effort out there. I was with a group of men that I thought… I ended up doing more pulling and I wanted to go faster than we were going. So that strategic move that I made or didn’t make at that time, it made me feel like I didn’t have my best performance. So I think it was more that. If I had gone ahead with Lauren and gotten dropped by her because I couldn’t hang, I would have been a little more content on the day knowing that I had given myself that shot. I think it was more about the overall effort than the result itself.
VN: You work full time as a demand planner for Specialized. Do you really have time to work right now?
MW: Actually, I gave my notice a few weeks ago. My last day is the day before Unbound.
VN: Congratulations! But really, did you think you’d be able to do both?
MW: Honestly, yeah. It was like, I’m gonna try and do one more season, reevaluate, see how Life Time goes. Maybe in the fall I’ll think about going full time. But it’s become apparent the last two months that it was like, this is gonna be really, really hard. Looking at the next four to five months and all the racing I’m planning to do, I’m going to absolutely blow up. So it needed to happen. I’m so excited.
VN: OK, what’s the most annoying journalist question at the end of a race?
MW: Sometimes when people ask, ‘oh, when did you know you were gonna win?’ I don’t like that question. It assumes that I feel that way, and I rarely… sure maybe there are times I feel pretty confident that I’m going to win but it’s usually a fight ’til the end. You never, ever know what’s gonna happen. So I never try to feel that confident. I never like to feel like I have it ‘in the bag,’ so to speak.
Or like, ‘when did you make your move?’ Sometimes it’s like, I didn’t realize I was making a move! I think Ben [Delaney] asked me that after BWR. I was like, ‘I don’t know, I was just climbing Black Canyon and looked back and Flavia [Oliveira] wasn’t there.’ I don’t know!