Kristin McGrath: Putting aside med school for the peloton

A Talk with Exergy-Twenty12 Pro Kristin McGrath

In 2011, Kristin McGrath was the top-placing U.S. rider at Belgium’s Flèche-Wallonne Féminine. Following the same course as the men’s race, the women climbed the infamous 20-percent gradients of the Mur de Huy twice, and McGrath, a 29-year old who was born in Durango, Colorado and races for the Exergy-Twenty12 squad, finished 27 seconds in arrears of Dutch winner Marianne Vos. Back home in the States later that season, McGrath won stages at both the Aspen Snowmass Women’s Pro Challenge race and the Cascade Classic. She also placed third overall at the Aspen race.

At the beginning of her third year with the Twenty12 squad, sat down with McGrath to catch up on where the University of Tennessee Exercise Physiology graduate has been and what is in store for 2012.

VN: How did you get into cycling?

KM: I played two sports as a collegiate athlete, soccer and swimming. My senior year I had a big knee injury. I dislocated my knee backwards. As I started to come back from that I needed another surgery and after that they said get on a bike. At that point I had decided I was going to go to medical school. I was already graduated and I needed a couple of prerequisite courses. I was back home at the time and I enrolled at Fort Lewis [College, in Durango, Colorado]. The school was like, “Hey, come race for us.”

VN: So did you put med school on hold?

KM: I actually cancelled medical school interviews because I signed a contract with Colavita for ’08.

VN: Why don’t you have any results in 2010?

KM: I got hit by a truck at the end of 2009. So all of 2010 was recovery from that.

VN: How do you put your annual racing program together?

KM: I work with my coach Simon (Cope, Exergy-Twenty12’s director sportif) and then Jackson (Stewart) with the national team to make the program that will best help me with my goals.

VN: Will you go to Europe again this year?

KM: Oh yeah. I’m on the Olympic long team. I’ll go to Europe right after Redlands for a month. (After 2010) last year my result at Flèche was like, OK, alright, I’m back!

VN: Do the fans on the Mur de Huy climb affect you when you are racing Flèche Wallonne?

KM: Oh my gosh, they are insane! I’ve never experienced anything like that. It’s just a wall of noise. It’s motivating for sure. At Flanders, you have the individual hecklers, but at Flèche you can’t even pick anything individual out. When you enter that wall, the energy is just unreal. It’s special.

VN: The Mur de Huy is a 20-percent pitch in some parts; on your final time up for the finish at the top, how did you approach it?

KM: I have actually been very lucky to train with Bob Roll a lot. So he gave me a few tips on what he’s seen as a commentator on what works and does not work — and as a racer. Basically, he knew Marianne Vos would go gonzo from the beginning. I didn’t have the fitness quite yet, or the experience, to do that for a K and a half, so my plan really was to just ride my own race and not pay attention to anyone.

VN: Talk about the Aspen Snowmass Women’s Pro Challenge last year, where you won a stage and placed third overall.

KM: Jessica (van Garderen, the race founder and organizer, and a Exergy-Twenty12 teammate) did an awesome job. It was top notch. I mean, the podiums, everything about it — we just felt like true professionals. And now having the Exergy Tour all to ourselves, those two races are going to be amazing. I think Jessica is doing it in a very savvy way. I mean, having us go up Independence Pass before the men. Show the spectators what it’s all about and they will see first hand: we are not going up that much slower than the guys.

VN: Are you working, too?

KM: Now I’m just riding. I’m lucky enough to focus this year with the addition of the team house (in Boise, Idaho) which takes away paying rent.

VN: How have you seen your team evolve over the three years that you have been with it?

KM: It’s been really cool because from the gun (team founders) Nicola (Cranmer) and Kristin (Armstrong) have had just such a clear goal and have been very vocal about that goal. They made very, very calculated decisions every step of the way and so it’s cool to see it just keep evolving. They are following through on the goals they have set and the things that they have promised. It’s been cool to be a part of it because it’s such a unique program.

VN: What makes it unique?

KM: It’s not a business. I mean, it is but it isn’t. We are treated like athletes and like human beings. Some programs are so results driven, and the athletes’ best interests aren’t always kept in mind, and here they are, and every sponsor is told that. We are not chasing to win the NRC. We are building Olympic champions, world champions, national champions. And to do that, our riders have to be in Europe half the year (riding for the US National team). So that means we are going to have a skeleton team at some NRC races, or we are just going to skip them because half the team will be in Europe. It’s so cool that some of these spring races that we are going to be at, there is going to be five Exergy girls on the national team. I mean, come on, that’s awesome.

VN: What would you tell an up-and-coming American rider about the difference between a domestic race like Redlands and the Tour of Flanders?

KM: Definitely in Europe because you are pulling from all the countries, the peloton that toes the line is bigger. It’s bigger and the talent is deeper. It tends to be game on from the gun. And the roads are really narrow, so bike handling skills and your ability to ride in the pack makes a much bigger difference over there than it does here. Because here, our roads are so wide and you can move up whenever you want and you can get to the front pretty easily. Over there, if you make your way to the back, especially at a race like Flanders, good luck getting back to the front.

VN: Was that intimidating for you at first?

KM: Oh god, yeah! My first race over there was the Giro della Toscana at the end of the year. It’s the week before worlds so everyone is really, really fit, doing their fine tuning. I got thrown into that race with Kristin Armstrong and she had just won the Gold medal (at the Beijing Olympics time trial). All these vets — it was really intimidating. But it’s so cool, because they showed me the ropes, and hopefully now I can do the same for younger riders.

Honestly, the first races that you do in Europe, it’s just stimulation overload. The riders ride a lot closer because the roads are narrower. And there is so much more action going on that your brain is working as hard as your body is. So when you finish it, you are mentally and physically exhausted from the stimulation of being in a different culture with the languages and then the racing. I think you learn a whole lot your first time over there. And you are able to come back and you are just like, OK, I survived that!

VN: If you had a magic wand, what would you change about pro cycling?

KM: I guess I would change the media and try and get the focus on the positive stories more. I get it. It’s human interest. But I meet someone on an airplane and they see my jacket and they ask me what I do. And the first thing that they want to know about is doping. I’m like, there are so many cooler things to know! I’m sad that you only know about that; the one thing that you think you know about cycling is that we are all on drugs. It’s unfortunate because it puts a negative stigma around the sport when there are 20 more happy, positive stories compared to one doping case and the one doping case will make the headlines.

VN: For example?

KM: Gosh, the education level in the women’s peloton. It’s phenomenal. Heather (Sprenger, McGrath’s Exergy teammate) has a PhD. Every team’s got at least one PhD or doctor on it. There’s a high education level, but the thing about women’s cycling is that the money isn’t there. So you do know these athletes are doing it purely out of passion.

VN: Why does women’s cycling draw so many riders with graduate degrees?

KM: It takes a lot of individual time at home motivating yourself to get in the miles day in and day out. That’s a lot harder thing to do than to show up at a scheduled practice. Just thinking of my college soccer practices, I was told I needed my cleats on by this time on the field, I was handed my schedule for the day and then I was walked through a practice that somebody else scheduled. In cycling I do have a coach who sends me my workouts and I am responsible to that coach. But at the end of the day I set my schedule, I have to get the miles in, I have to get the workout in and I have to hold myself accountable for getting the workout in. And so I think that there is a certain type of person that that attracts and, (laughing) those type of people tend to be overachievers in all walks of life.