Upstart Wins Nationals: How Did Jade get so good so fast?
On May 25, 2013, Jade Wilcoxson was crowned National Champion at the USA Cycling Pro Road Race in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She has been racing only five years altogether, and only two years as a pro. That’s a pretty quick trip to the top. As Jade says, “In recent memory most women’s National Champs have been riding many more years than that.” How could such a relative newcomer climb to the top so quickly?
Asked about her rapid progress, Jade was quick to credit the people who have helped her, particularly her team, Optum presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies, and her coach, Kendra Wenzel (Disclosure: Ms. Wenzel is the author’s business partner). Even her brother gets credit for joining her on her first century ride five short years ago and her ex-boyfriend gets appreciation for signing her up for coaching.
Jade’s coach says that Jade has several natural advantages. “She doesn’t have nutrition issues. She doesn’t need to be gluten free. She doesn’t have stomach issues. She’s the kind of rider who when she does eat at the top of her game and optimize her weight, it makes her performance even more lethal, but she can get away with less than perfect nutrition.
“When a rider first comes to you and they have coordination and handling and relative lack of fear, they have a big advantage over other riders. I haven’t had to have the conversations about cornering skills or where to be in the pack with Jade. That stuff comes very naturally to her.”
The first thing Jade mentioned when asked about her rapid improvement is her team. “The big difference is that I got to start on a great team for development, working with the best staff and some of the best riders in the business at Optum made it possible to grow by leaps and bounds. They give me the best equipment… Orbea bikes, HED wheels… And then from a director standpoint, Rachel Heal is one of the best directors out there, a former pro, former Great Britain Olympian, she raced for ten years and knows women’s cycling inside and out and is great at tactics.”
Jade started riding after graduating from physical therapy school and starting work. She and her brother decided to do a century as an excuse to spend some time together. She did her first race shortly after that. “Thirty guys and myself. I was the only girl out there. I was really intimidated and scared to do something wrong and cut someone off. But I just kind of sucked it up and raced. I was able to hold on with those guys. They told me I had done pretty well and I liked that.”
A lot of riders start racing and do okay or even upgrade a category or two but never ride to their potential or get to complete at a national level much less win there. Jade’s next step was crucial. “My boyfriend at the time bought me three months of coaching and I went on the website at Wenzel Coaching and picked Kendra and I loved that. It completely changed my racing and training and gave me some focus.”
Before getting a coach, Jade says, she wanted to win races, but her coach made her understand the connection between consistent training and winning. “Having a coach was a turning a point, having someone I had to tell if I missed a ride.”
Working With Her Coach
Jade says one of the important things her coach does for her is provide accountability. It’s sometimes hard to get out the door for training, but she has absorbed her coaching so well she can now channel Kendra. Jade uses a “what would Kendra say?” routine to get herself going when her enthusiasm is low. “I go through excuses in my head, think about how lame they’re going to sound to Kendra and I go out. Sometimes it’s so hard to get out the door, then once I get out, it’s awesome.”
Going out to train no matter what unless you are sick doesn’t mean burying yourself if you are tired. It just means getting out long enough to check if the body is ready for more serious work. Kendra tells Jade, “if you can’t hit the power numbers, you’re done, go home.”
Jade’s training program has always shown a range of times for each ride. Kendra gives all her riders ranges so they’ll be aware of how their bodies are responding to training and not have a feeling of failure if they can’t complete a ride. Sometime the ranges are wide and sometimes narrow. In the winter when the weather is bad the range might cover two hours. In the summer or a peak period that gap might be 15 minutes.
Jade’s program has changed over the years, but the amount of training she does has changed more because of her ability to handle the training. “I’m lazy,” she says. The first year of coaching, she generally managed to do a few minutes less than the low end of the range. As she started to understand the connection between training and competition, she got more serious. The second year, the goal was to hit the minimum times. Her endurance continued to improve. Then the third year she aimed for the middle of the range. “If she said two to four hours, I would do three. This year I try to get to the upper end of the range.” She still considers herself lazy.
Kendra doesn’t think of Jade as lazy. Rather, Jade “just does what she needs to do. That makes her much easier to work with than the riders who insist on doing more than what is on their plans,” says Kendra.
Kendra also appreciates that Jade knows how to take a rest day. Rest days are scheduled after hard sprint or interval training days. Riders don’t benefit from hard training unless they rest and recover soon afterwards. Kendra explains, “Some people have a hard time taking a rest day so they don’t make as much progress. Jade calls herself lazy, but she knows how to take a real rest day. She puts up her feet, maybe has a beer… no errands, not stressing out. The quality of her rest is as good as her hard riding and that’s part of what makes her special.”
Jade’s Relationship with Numbers
Jade doesn’t take her numbers too seriously, though she knows they are important enough to upload for her coach to review. “I look at hours on Training Peaks, but I don’t change what I’m doing based on total hours. That’s Kendra’s job. I don’t personally track TSS and IF and so on. After a ride, I’m so tired I don’t look at it in as much detail as I should.” Kendra gives Jade feedback and tells her what to do next.
Jade trains a lot, but not as much as some racers, including some of her teammates. She reports that a big week for her is 20 hours, and the most she’s ever trained in a week is 24 hours. Her average is closer to 15 hours per week. She says she has a teammate who does 40 hours for base. “She’s a great racer but I can’t imagine doing that much volume. That would kill me mentally and physically,” says our new National Champion.
Keeping it Fun
Jade and her coach agree that training and racing have to be fun or Jade doesn’t perform. Fun is important for everyone, but perhaps more for Jade than for some others.
“The key with me is I get too intense about something, like looking at the numbers or my diet and eating, then it’s not fun and I don’t perform well. There’s a strong correlation between it being fun and me performing well. I’ve discovered that this year.”
Jade got a Breakthrough Rider of the Year award shortly before racing the 2013 edition of Redlands. “I had just come from Europe and I had the monkey on my back because I was the Breakthrough Rider”. She felt that she had to win to justify the honor, but raced badly.
The epiphany came a short time later. “I did Sea Otter sort of for fun with no stress, just to train, and it was my birthday, so I drank some wine and then I went to bed and then the crit was at 8:30 and I got there at barely 8AM and I had the best race I had in a long time. I felt really strong. I texted Kendra that my prerace routine should be three glasses of wine and getting up late. I’m not having the three glasses of wine, but I learned that more fun and low stress is the winning combination.”
If You Can’t Rest, You’d Better Not Get Weary
Jade’s ability to really relax every time she has a rest day, and her insistence on keeping training fun have enabled her to put together an amazing series of back-to-back racing experiences. Where most riders finish an intense racing period tired and need a break before the next races, Jade’s successes have continuously opened up opportunities for her to race additional events at ever higher levels, and she has seized them and thrived.
In 2012 Jade raced a full road season: “I pretty much raced the whole NRC circuit and a whole bunch of crits on top of it and then my team asked if I wanted to do cross.” She worked with Kendra to plan a half-season of cross and then a break, but she enjoyed cross so much that she ended up doing the whole USGP and taking second at Nationals.
Doing well at Cross Nationals got her invited onto the Worlds Team for cross, again extending the racing. She called Kendra and said, “I got on the Worlds Team. What should I do?” Kendra explained that this was not perfect for her spring US road racing plans, but that it was an opportunity not to be missed and that they would make it work.
After Cross Worlds in Kentucky, Jade got the opportunity to race the spring classics in Europe. Kendra “sighed but agreed this was another opportunity not to be passed up,” so they made a plan to drag out fitness through the spring classics and try to fit in some rest somewhere, somehow. “When I got back it was a week until I started the circuit with Optum. So now I’ve been racing continuously for 20 months. My first opportunity for a rest week was going to be after Nature Valley (mid-June), but now I’ve been invited to the Gyro (beginning of July).”
Jade can only survive this sort of racing schedule because she has phenomenal recovery ability and knows how to really rest for a day or two here and there. She is also very, very strong so racing may not drain her quite as deeply as the next rider.
How Hard Is Racing?
Jade says that how hard she races depends on her role, “In a typical US road race, it depends on what the plan is, if the team is working for me, I’m going hard anywhere from 20-40% of the time. If I’m working for someone else, I’m going hard 75% of the race. In the spring classics in Europe it was like full out for four hours.”
Jade does look at her power meter to boost her confidence. She did the TT at Nationals shortly before the road race so she knew roughly what power she could hold for an hour. The first time up the big hill at the road race, she looked at the power meter and saw that she was keeping up fine at about that same power. She realized that the hill was around 20 minutes so she was confident she could maintain the effort. The second time up, she was keeping up just fine a few watts below the TT power, so again she was confident she’d survive the climb just fine. I didn’t specifically ask, but it doesn’t sound like she often needs to go much harder than her one-hour power for more than a few minutes to keep up with her competition.
Jade’s win at nationals is a testament to Team Director Rachel Heal, and the amazing flexibility Rachel has helped her team to develop. Jade explained that Rachel usually helps the team develop a plan before the race. Each of the riders contributes ideas and experiences to the initial plan, but the women are not on radios so they also have to be ready to modify the plan on their own as the race develops and still execute as a team. In particular, Jade, Lauren Hall and Janel Holcomb are Optum’s co-captains on the road once the race starts.
Jade tells the story of how the team’s plans evolved at Nationals. She says most races blur in her memory, but a lot of details of this one stand out. “I was initially one of the protected riders. We thought the race would come down to the hill which we had to do twice before the finishing circuits which were kind of like a crit. So Janel and I were designated as the climbers and protected going into the climb… We hit the hill the first time… Janel and I made it to the top the first time and to our surprise, Lauren Hall, our sprinter was also there. Going into the hill the second time Lauren was there to protect us. She had covered an attack and got in the break at about 10K from the climb so I bridged up to it since there was good representation from all the teams. We hit the climb that second time, I kept looking back to see that Lauren was still there since she worked so hard (sprinters aren’t supposed to be able to climb). The last circuits were like a crit, which would be perfect for Lauren. So I asked if she had sprinting legs left and she said, ‘yeah’. So we switched ideas from her working for me to me working for her for the sprint. Going into the last several laps of the circuit, I was working for her. Mara Abbot (Exergy) got off the front by herself. That’s a dangerous move so I went after it, pulling the chase group around, which was not good for us so I decided to bridge up to Mara, expecting to be pulled in and Lauren would sprint for the win. I did one lap solo then Kristen McGrath from Exergy bridged up and we worked together until about 4 k to go. Then I attacked and had about 15 seconds on the chase group by the end.
“I was suffering so much coming into the finish, trying all I had to stay away from the group. I thought about ‘this is Nationals, I have to turn myself inside out.’ I thought about my teammates and how hard they had worked. I looked back about 20 times. It wasn’t until we were on the finishing street that I realized it was going to be me. I couldn’t believe it.”
How Does It Feel to be National Champion?
Jade reports that being National Champion “feels pretty awesome. I’m getting a lot of extra attention from media, friends and family. I went on group ride in the Stars and Stripes (champion’s jersey). That’s always fun. On group rides people congratulate me. I’m training in Bend (Oregon) now.” She is already preparing for what comes next.
Kendra says, “It was exciting when it happened, but now there’s all the next stuff we need to prepare for. Since Jade won Natz, there’s a high chance she’ll go to worlds, making more complication. The program has to deal with more stresses. She’s adaptable, she follows the plan most of the time so I think she’ll be successful.”
Jade was happy to offer the following guidance for newer racers: “I would say, first priority is not putting too much pressure on yourself. Keep it fun.
“Secondly if you really want to continue racing and progressing to the next level, you have to identify what you want out of racing. If you are happy being a cat-4 weekend warrior, just do that.
“If you have the chance to make it to pro, find a good coach. That was the turning point for me. Find someone you mesh with and just trust them. There is a big problem with riders not trusting their coach. You have to be with a coach you can feel comfortable sharing everything with, including things you shouldn’t have done.”
Scott Saifer, M.S wrote this article. He and Kendra Wenzel are Head Coaches and co-owners of Wenzel Coaching. They feel privileged to work with all levels of athlete from the weekend warriors to the National Champions and professional racers. To inquire about working with Scott, Kendra or one of the roughly 40 other Wenzel Coaches, please call 503-233-4346 or visit us on the web at www.WenzelCoaching.com.