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When Skylar Schneider raced the Amgen Tour of California last month, it was akin to a college freshman returning home after her first year away. The race marked the first time that Schneider, 19, had raced on American soil after spending six months in Europe with the formidable Dutch squad, Boels-Dolmans.
For years, Skylar Schneider was best known as the younger part of “the Schneider Sisters” duo alongside her older sister, Samantha. Together, they dominated the American pro scene. This summer, Schneider will compete on American soil as an individual — she will go up against Samantha, in fact—at a series of road races and criteriums. The block of racing culminates with the U.S. Pro road and criterium championships, held Friday and Sunday in Knoxville, Tennessee. Schneider hopes to win a national championship jersey in the elite women’s category.
“I does kind of feel like a homecoming, but it also feels weird racing for myself and against my former team. But I have so much respect for those girls and I’m unbelievably excited to race with [my sister] again.”
A bike racer since the age of four, Schneider made her professional road racing debut at 13. She followed in the footsteps of her bike-fanatic parents and older sister, Samantha, who raced for top teams like Colavita, Tibco-SVB, and the U.S. national team.
Despite their eight-year age difference — Samantha is 27 — the sisters raced side-by-side for teams Tibco-SVB and ISCorp, sharing training rides, lead-out duties and victories. The sister act became a dominating force on the U.S. criterium scene netting 25 wins between them during a breakout 2016 season. Samantha finished first in the U.S. Pro Road Tour series and Skylar third.
Skylar went on to win a silver medal at the 2016 junior world road championships and scored impressive rides at European races Thüringer Rundfahrt and the Holland Ladies Tour against riders 10-15 years her senior. And as she was coming of age in the 2017 season, several team managers kept tabs on the young rider, Boels-Dolmans’ team director Danny Stam among them.
“When I received an email from Danny Stam I had to read it several times to make sure it was real,” Schneider said. “Then I went to Jack [Schaeffer], the national team director, and he was like ‘Yeah, it’s real’ because apparently, they had talked.”
In December 2017, Schneider boarded a plane for Spain to meet her new Boels-Dolmans teammates.
The move to Boels-Dolmans meant a major life change for Schneider. She left her sister and father — who coached and managed her — behind in the United States.
The trio has been a self-proclaimed “package deal” for a decade and breaking that bond required a tough decision.
“In deciding whether to take the contract and come to Europe or not, [leaving my family] was the number one thing on my mind,” Schneider said. “I realized that if I go, then we’re not ‘The Schneider Sisters’ anymore.”
Schneider says she thought she would spend her entire career racing alongside her older sister. It took time for the reality to sink in, she said. In her time away, Schneider has learned how to maintain her relationship with her sister.
“I’m away but we talk every day and it’s gotten easier,” Schneider said. “[Samantha] supports me and I support her in her racing. We are both growing now in different ways, but we are still really good.”
Schneider knows she will never replace the bond she shared with her sister. At Boels-Dolmans, she has found a new group of idols, teachers and even sister-like friendships.
“I remember being pretty nervous on my flight over to that first camp,” Schneider said. “But once I got there and met all the girls, I felt pretty welcomed right away, everyone was super-friendly.”
It’s easy to see why Schneider was nervous. Boels-Dolmans is the strongest team on the Women’s WorldTour, with a roster containing current and past European, world, and Olympic champions.
Schneider said she created an important mentoring relationship with reigning world champion Chantal Blaak. Like Schneider, Blaak made her professional debut at age 19 and excelled in sprint finishes.
“She’s like an older sister,” Schneider said. “She has given me some really good advice.”
Schneider’s education started right away. She practiced echelons and descending skills during that first camp. She absorbed information on the rides and during the team meetings.
“I definitely feel like a sponge,” she said. “I think I am in the best position in the world to learn because I have such good mentors to work for and learn from.”
The team gave her racing experience immediately. Schneider participated in the season opener, Belgium’s Omloop het Nieuwsblad. She racked up 17 racing days over the course of the Spring. Each of those racing days marked a first for Schneider.
She said the team has been encouraging, despite her lack of European experience. When she has made mistakes, teammates and management have respected her and accepted that she is learning.
“I got a lot more race days than I expected but I have been pretty happy with the spring season,” she said.
It helps, of course, that as a team, Boels-Dolmans has once again been dominant, claiming 16 UCI wins already this season.
Schneider said the highlight of her season was racing up the Mur de Huy during La Fleche-Wallonne.
“The crowds were phenomenal,” she said. “And the team was so successful there [Boels riders finished first and third]; to be part of that was totally a highlight.”
Schneider does not yet have the legs to factor into the finale in every WorldTour race — that fact is likely to change after her first year in cycling’s top echelon. With her criterium background Schneider has a fast finish, so when her engine becomes capable of the longer distances and faster speeds in the international races, she could likely become a winner.
This future potential motivates Schneider. The work she puts in now will only help her in later years.
“I know that putting my time in now, working for the leaders, gaining experience and getting stronger means that maybe in a few years I can be team leader and go for the win,” Schneider said. “For now I know I need to be patient and trust the process.”
Schneider’s first major test is the national road championships, where she will race alongside teammate and two-time champion Megan Guarnier. Whichever rider is feeling better on the day will likely determine who works for whom, Schneider said.
“I don’t think it’s an unrealistic goal and I think it’ll be exciting for the two of us to take on some of the bigger teams,” she said.
Schneider will also chase victories on the American criterium scene before returning to Europe later in the summer. A victory would help boost her morale — she has yet to win a race this year. And Schneider is on a one-year deal with Boels-Dolmans and would like to return in 2019.
“Hopefully they see the potential there and I don’t think they expected me to come over and dominate or something,” she said “I think I am on the right track, and it doesn’t hurt me personally to not have results because I have been learning a lot and I feel like I have been developing.”