Hell on wheels: our women of cyclocross

Ann Grande Knapp '91, M.P.T. '94
Wanda Howlett '91, M.Ed. '94
Mandy Lozano '99

by Rob Story

With degrees from UPS, graduates have risen to the highest heights of politics, medicine, and the arts. Then there’s Ann Grande Knapp, Wanda Howlett, and Mandy Lozano—who’ve become really, really good at playing in the mud.

The three women are professional cyclocross racers. Darn good ones. Ann won the overall U.S. ‘cross title in 2002 and the Gran Prix of cyclocross (the sport’s most prestigious series in North America) in 2004, and has been named several times to the U.S. team for World Cup competition. Wanda took second in her age group at the U.S. Nationals in 2003. And Mandy won the Fitness Concepts Capital ‘Cross Classic in 2004, the Harbin Park Cyclocross Classic in 2005, and was the North Carolina/South Carolina state cyclocross champion in ‘05.

Cyclocross—in case you don’t know, and most Americans do not—is an offshoot of Lance Armstrong-style road-bike racing that combines elements of trail running, steeplechase, and mountain-bike-like off-roading. At first glance, ‘cross bikes appear similar to racing bicycles: lightweight, with narrow tires and drop handlebars. But look closely and you’ll see necessary adaptations like knobby tires (for traction), beefed up brakes (for stopping on slick courses), and big spaces between wheels and frame (for mud clearance). Races are contested over a mile-long course that’s partly paved, partly mud-soaked, and which features a number of two-foot-high barriers that require riders to dismount and carry their bike. A cyclocross race is short, but intense. The sport has been described as “an hour of pure puking pain.”

It’s also reliably filthy. Because it originated as off-season training for French and Belgian road racers, cyclocross events only happen in fall and winter. The Northwest and New England are the two American hotbeds of ‘cross, so gray skies, wet weather, and mud predominate. Grass stains and dirt splatters are the rule. Ann, for instance, finished the 2005 U.S. Championships with a splash of filth all over her back, rivulets of dirty water running down her calves, and so much mud coating her face between eyes and chin she looked like a coal miner.

The difficulty of cyclocross is part of its appeal. Being able to dismount, pick up the bike, put it back down, and remount smoothly and quickly without losing speed requires a huge amount of practice and skill. And few women are better than Ann, who’s known as “The Queen of ‘Cross.” According to USACycling.org, the Web site for cyclocross’s governing body, “When it comes to cyclocross, one of the surest bets in recent years is that when Ann Knapp is healthy, she is the odds-on favorite in any race.”

Which brings us to the recent USA Cyclocross Nationals. Held late last December in Providence, R.I., the nationals proved monumental for former Loggers Ann and Mandy. A record number of entrants—1,940—vied for the title (and marked cyclocross as the fastest growing discipline of competitive cycling in the U.S.).

In the Elite Women’s race, the one for the pros, Mandy sprinted off the start. She says she’s a racer because of her “heart and grit and determination” but confesses her real advantage is “my abnormally long—for a girl—femurs.” Those femurs powered her to the front of the large pack.

Ann, meanwhile, started from deep in the back, the seventh row, because she’d been off her bike a lot in 2006 (she’s a full-time physical therapist) and racers with the lowest ranking start the farthest behind. The diminutive Ann has short femurs, yet is nonetheless known as one of the fastest runners on the tour. When forced to dismount and gallop with her bike on her shoulder, she makes short but machine-gun-fast strides. It’s how she “gaps” (‘cross parlance for opening big leads on) her rivals.

Ann, a 10-year veteran of ‘cross racing, expertly threaded through the field. By the first lap she’d already clawed into the top 15. Mandy, meanwhile, who was also in the top 15, dug deep to keep pace with Ann. Riding “like the devil himself was chasing me” she attacked on a steep section and placed ninth overall. (Two days earlier at the Masters’ Nationals she’d taken second in her age-group, 30-34.)

As for Ann, she set into her pace and began picking off the leaders one by one. When all was said and done, she stood on the podium as the fifth place finisher. In short, two of America’s top 10 female cyclocross racers are Loggers.