Don’t miss out on the latest CyclingTips updates.
When pro cyclocross racer Caroline Mani (Raleigh-Clement) burst onto the U.S. cyclocross scene in 2011, she quickly raced herself onto the podium and into the hearts of the American fans. Her aggressive racing style yet friendly, happy-go-lucky demeanor and trademark suffer face soon made her a crowd favourite. So much so that when in January of this year Mani conquered the silver medal at the UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Belgium, the American fans cheered as though she was one of their own.
But her choice to live and race in the U.S. doesn’t always sit well with the French media and French cycling federation. In 2013 Mani and fellow U.S.-based Frenchwoman Julie Krasniak were snubbed by the French federation in its selection for the world championships, leaving both women off the team in a largely political decision, penalizing the riders for choosing to spent most of their cyclocross season outside of Europe.
Yet Mani’s passport is Bordeaux-red, her accent unmistakable and she’s proud to wear the French tri-coloured national jersey for a third season.
Ella CyclingTips caught up with Mani during her preparations for this weekend’s UEC European Cyclocross Championships on home soil in Pont-Château, France, where Mani hopes to win not just the blue and gold starred jersey, but also the hearts of the French fans.
Meet America’s favourite “Frenchie”, Caroline “The Animal” Mani.
From hospital bed to podiums
Highly competitive and energetic, Mani knew she was going to be a professional athlete ever since she was six years old. Growing up in Eastern France, she played tennis and raced motocross, but cycling didn’t come into the picture until she was nearly paralysed from a motocross accident.
It was 2002 and Mani was just 15 years old.
“I hurt myself really bad. I broke my back and almost got paralysed,” Mani told Ella CyclingTips. “I was in bed for like three months. Then at some point, someone said I should ride a bike for recovery.”
And so she did. Despite the fact that she did not grow up cycling and her dad “hates riding bikes,” her parents bought her a bike and she started riding. But what was meant to be a recovery tool soon became another vehicle to race. And after showing talent at a school competition, Mani was entered into a bike race.
“It was Roc d’Azur, one of the biggest races in Europe, and I had never actually raced my bike before! It was crazy. Everything just went so fast,” said Mani. “In my first race, I got top 5 and that was it. I ended up quitting motocross and started racing mountain bikes.”
Regional, national and world cup racing soon followed, earning a junior national and collegiate world championship title in cross-country mountain biking along the way. She favoured mountain bikes but also competed on the road and in cyclocross.
She made her first appearance at the UCI Cyclocross World Championships in 2006 and earned her first top 10 a year later. Nationally, she’s been a regular on the podium at the French cyclocross championships since 2009, winning the title in 2010, 2011 and 2016.
“It’s kinda funny, really. Being a professional athlete was always my dream, but I never thought I would be a cyclist,” said Mani.
Coming to America
Despite her successes on the bike, Mani remained focused on her studies and attended a well-ranked business school. She was a good student but there was just one problem.
“I kept failing English. Every single time, I failed English,” said Mani with a laugh. “I knew for business I needed to speak English so I took an internship with SRAM in the U.S. for nine months.”
Fate has a funny way of coming around, as it was during her time in the U.S. that she singled in on cyclocross and kick-started her pro career.
In 2012 she signed with Raleigh-Clement, and made the U.S. her second home.
“I was born in France, I still feel French but it’s more fun for me to race here,” said Mani. “The major difference here is you race hard against the other women and after and before you are friends! Cross is like a big family. We all know each other, go out to dinner together and hang out at the venue.”
“The way I am, I like to joke around, I’m friendly, I’m social, approachable, a bit goofy – the French people don’t like that very much. They think I am too confident or too loud. I also fell in love here so my life is here.”
With Raleigh-Clement, Mani has seen her biggest successes to date. She has won the USA Cycling Pro CX overall twice, earned her third French national title and several top 5 finishes in the UCI World Cup series, and started this 2016-17 season ranked second in the world.
The Number Two Rider in the World
Mani started this season unlike any other before. After her career-best year in 2015-16, which saw her competing against the best and notching four top-five finishes in the UCI World Cup Series and the silver medal at the UCI Cyclocross World Championships, she started the season as the number two ranked rider in the world, on the heels of Belgian powerhouse Sanne Cant.
As such, there are more eyes on her than ever before.
“It’s exhausting actually,” Mani admitted. “Now, the only improvement I can make is being number one in the world. Everybody, including myself, expects me to be at the top. Before, getting fourth in a race was really good, now it’s like ‘oh you missed the podium, you must be having a bad day.’ It’s a different approach for sure.”
Rather than fixating on those rainbow stripes, Mani said she’s looking for consistency.
“More than anything this season I want to be consistent. I was near the podium a few times but I only got one podium in the World Cup [series] last year. This year I want to be on the podium more, establish myself and keep my fitness,” she said.
That doesn’t mean she’s not eyeing certain specific wins, however.
“The goal is to win nationals again. I also want to win the European Championships. I want to take [the jersey] away from Sanne Cant. I haven’t done it since 2010 and I think it would be really cool to win it at home, in France,” Mani said. “And when it comes to Worlds, I want gold. I was so close last year.”
Quick fire round of questions
Ella CyclingTips: How’s the relationship now between you and the French Federation?
Mani: “Yes, the French federation hasn’t been really supportive in the past but the management changed, the coach is a different one and it’s actually pretty enjoyable now. They are a lot more respectful. Of course when you get results, it helps.”
“I have been to every world championships since 2006 so when I didn’t go in 2013, it was bad but I had to digest it and move on. ”
Ella: Can we talk about your pain face for a second?
Mani: “That’s why they call me “The Animal” or “The MANI-ac”! If you know me really well you can tell that if you don’t see that face it is usually not a good sign.”
“In the past, people have told me that I was expending too much energy on my facial expression. So in training I actually tried to work on my facial expressions but I was losing so much power and focus trying to not make any crazy faces. I gave up. Now I think it’s kind of like my signature. It makes a picture more interesting.”
Ella: Do you love cycling or do you love racing?
Mani: “Ha! Actually that’s funny because I always joke that I don’t like training, I don’t like to ride my bike. I joke around but I don’t think I am super in love with riding my bike. I love racing more. It was a struggle this year to not race my bike for a couple months [during the off season]. When I am retiring I am probably not going to touch a bike for a long time. Riding for me is always training or racing. I never learned to just enjoy riding.”
Ella: What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve had to make to pursue a career as a professional athlete?
Mani: “You’re pretty lucky when you can actually do what you love for a living, but it’s not easy, it’s a lot of sacrifice. For me it’s being away from the people I love so much. Missing so many events, weddings, birthdays, funerals – the important things in life that bring you memories and make you get closer to friends and family.”
“I was lucky enough that my family would plan everything around me, and my crazy schedule. For example, the last 10 years I have been racing the 26th December in Belgium. The last few years my family came with me to not let me alone and have the whole family together. They sacrificed so much for me, I can never thank them enough. Now the biggest sacrifice is to leave my wife every single week end during the cyclocross season and also travel to Europe without her.”
Ella: On the flip side of that, what’s the biggest reward of a being professional athlete?
Mani: “We all have dreams as athletes and when you finally reach those dreams that’s the biggest reward. I remember saying I will not stop racing till I get national champion. And then I got national champion in mountain bike, team relay and cyclocross. Then I was like ‘OK, I am not stopping till I get a medal at the world championships’ and now, I’m not stopping till I am world champion.”