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It wasn’t a win. It was a podium finish, behind one of the greatest cyclists of all time and one of the most exciting up-and-comers in women’s cyclocross.
It was Katerina Nash, smiling and slapping hands with spectators lining the finish straight of the Cyclocross World Cup near Trek headquarters in Waterloo, Wisconsin, as she finished 27 seconds behind Marianne Vos and 23 seconds behind Ellen Noble, best of the rest from a three-rider chase group that had trailed the two leaders for most of the race.
It was Katerina Nash, a six-time cyclocross World Cup winner, on the podium as she’s been so many times before, hugging her competitors, beaming like an athlete satisfied with her performance. That smile, like Nash’s results, has been remarkably consistent at the highest level of cyclocross and mountain-bike races for nearly two decades.
Nash, who turns 41 in December, is 10 years older than Vos, and nearly 18 years older than Noble. One of the first women signed to the Luna mountain-bike team back in 2002, the Czech rider is the only original member of that Clif-sponsored team still competing. She’s a five-time Olympian across two sports — Nordic skiing and mountain bike — dating back to the 1996 Games in Atlanta, mountain biking’s Olympic debut. She finished 19th out of 29 starters in that first Olympic race, at age 19. Twenty years later, she finished fifth in Rio de Janeiro, after qualifying at the world championships just a month earlier.
Nash hasn’t raced a full mountain-bike World Cup season since 2014, and has never raced a full cyclocross World Cup season. Most of her international racing now takes place in North America, yet she’s still a force to be reckoned with. She won the World Cup stop in Iowa City in 2017, and finished fourth in the World Cup short-track race at Mont-Saint-Anne in August. And then, most recently, was her third-place finish in Wisconsin at the World Cup opener.
She’s just as strong as ever. She’s worn a variation of the same sponsor’s kit her entire pro cycling career. Simply put, Katerina Nash is ageless.
“I think knowing what I know now, all these years after trying and succeeding but also having so many disappointing events — that’s what most of us have, the majority of races are going to be disappointing because we all want to win — I really got to the point that I appreciate every time I get on that podium,” she told me after Sunday’s race. “It was a good battle and the leaders weren’t that far off. I just felt satisfied with my day. I was in the mix, I grabbed the last podium spot, and I was truly happy about it.”
“Being at the end of my career, I am really proud of what’s going on now,” she added. “Because there have been times when maybe I didn’t want to do it any longer, or I wanted different results, I wanted more of this or that. But I really like racing, and I’ve really appreciated the opportunity that I could race all these years. It’s really nice to be able to do it, it’s a privilege, and I think that recognition helped me to be successful the last few years.”
‘THE WILDEST RIDE’
My first impression of Katerina Nash was at a NORBA National Series race in Sandpoint, Idaho, in 2003, when she still went by her maiden name, Katerina Hanusova. One of the junior riders along the course was holding crafted a sign that read “I ? U Katerina, will you marry me?” I didn’t know who she was, but soon learned that among this posse of junior racers, this unrequited love was not unique. As I once wrote for another outlet, Katerina one of those people who is equally talented, intelligent, attractive, and personable. She’d be easy to hate, if she wasn’t so damn friendly, to everyone.
I got to know her a few months later at the Epiphany Ride, an annual event celebrating the route Clif Bar founder Gary Erickson rode when he came up with the idea to start the company. After I was dropped from the lead group, Katerina and I ended up pedaling together for the second half of what was a sunrise-to-sunset day in the saddle.
What started as superficial conversation evolved over the hours into meaningful discussion. She told me how she’d grown up behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia, 30 minutes from Germany and 45 minutes from Austria. She attended a ski academy, initially using wood skis and bamboo poles, and was taught about Russia while being told not to discuss the United States. In 1989, following the Velvet Revolution, the borders opened up; Hanusova had just turned 13. She and her classmates hopped on bikes and pedaled into neighboring countries, exploring lands that had been off limits for decades.
“Looking back at the timing of that shift within Eastern Europe, it couldn’t have been any better for me,” she explained. “It’s opened so many doors, from skiing regionally to skiing in Austria and across Europe, to traveling freely. I would have never been able to go to the US on skiing scholarship before the curtain came down. I’m just thankful to have had that opportunity versus my parents’ generation, they didn’t get any of that until a much older age.”
As a teenager, won her first mountain-bike race, riding with the elites, and finished second the next day. She got into the Czech Republic’s 1996 Olympic selection pool with a silver medal at the 1995 junior worlds. “In the spring of 1996 we had two riders fighting for the second Olympic spot,” she said. “One of the qualifying World Cups was very muddy. I had just come off the ski season, and I ran my way to the Olympics.”
Nordic skiing was her focus, but after competing at the 1988 Winter Olympics, in Nagano, and the 2002 Winter Olympics, in Salt Lake City, she left behind a career that had earned her a scholarship at the University of Nevada in Reno, where she’d earned a degree in marketing while taking three NCAA championships and four All-American titles.
A 12th-place finish at the 2001 mountain-bike world championship in Vail, Colorado, along with results earned racing in Europe throughout that summer, had landed her a spot on the Luna team. She was a full-time professional mountain biker.
“And it’s been the wildest ride, ever since,” she said earlier this week.
On that 2003 Epiphany Ride, she also asked me about myself — my background in cycling, how I’d gotten into journalism, how I liked living in Boulder, Colorado, where she’d gone to school for a semester before transferring to Nevada, compared to living in Santa Cruz, California, where I’d gone to school near trails she’d ridden.
It wasn’t a planned interview, but I’d gotten to know Katerina as well as I knew most any professional cyclist at the time. And though my work has largely focused on pro road racing, I’ve followed her career closely, and have always been happy to see her succeed.
And that’s the thing about Katerina Nash. She’s been in the sport for 20 years, and I challenge you to find one person who will say a negative word about her. She’s a deserving champion, yet gracious in defeat. In fact, she’s so well regarded by her fellow competitors that in December 2017 she was elected president of the UCI Athletes’ Commission for a four-year term.
“I’m happy to be in that position,” she said. “I’m taking this first year to figure out what it all means. I hope to be a good representative for the athletes.”
Video: Katerina Nash, rider and president of the UCI Athletes’ Commission
‘ENJOY IT WHILE IT LASTS’
Nash hasn’t been a prolific winner at the international level, but she’s been incredibly consistent, her results steadily improving throughout her thirties. She’s one of the few riders in the history of cycling to have won World Cup events in both cyclocross and cross-country. She’s won a mountain-bike World Cup, in Mont-Saint-Anne in 2013; she’s won six cyclocross World Cup races, her first in Roubaix in 2010, her most recent in Iowa City in 2017, and her most meaningful in Tabor, near her hometown of Prachatice, in 2011. She’s also been crowned the solo overall winner at the seven-day, technical BC Bike Race every time she’s raced — in 2015, 2017, and 2018.
In total, she’s reached a World Cup podium across mountain and cyclocross 22 times since 2010, along with two bronze medals at cyclocross worlds, in 2011 and 2017. The opportunity for a third medal, in Louisville in 2013, slipped away with a stuck chain just 500 meters from the finish line. And while she’s never been a world champion in either discipline, I can’t think of anyone more deserving.
That’s not how it works, of course, and for now, Nash is grateful for each and every podium finish. She’ll be racing again this weekend, in Iowa City, and again in November, first in Tabor, in front of friends and family, and then in Koksijde where she’ll be attending UCI meetings as president of the Athletes’ Commission. She’ll likely sprinkle in a few North American races in October as well, perhaps in Boulder, and definitely in Cincinnati.
And while she’ll be racing to win — “I want to win every World Cup I start,” she said — she’ll likely be satisfied with the result as long as she’s content with both her preparation and effort.
“For me, it’s not always just the result, it’s that personal feeling when you cross the finish line, if you’re happy with it or you’re not,” she said. “It’s strange, you can’t go into the race and say, ‘If I do top five, I’ll be happy.’ For me, when I cross the finish line, I just know. I’ve been disappointed many times — it might have been a decent ride, but I wanted more, I should have done better.
“That’s the one thing that’s been great, I didn’t have that super early, young success in cycling. I definitely took my time. I’ve started to get these results as a very mature athlete, after many, many years of working for it. I have this great appreciation for it, and all the not-so-successful days have really made me a better athlete. I thrive on it. All those disappointing mountain-bike world championship races are the reason I came back, and why I was a stronger rider the next year.
“The bottom line is that I’ve found a good balance. I just want to appreciate the days that I put it together and get on the podium. It’s so easy to go out there and race and then move on to the next race, but I want to remind myself to enjoy the moment and appreciate what I just accomplished. It feels good to reflect on that — to enjoy it while it lasts.”
Video: Clif Pro Team’s Katerina Nash, winner of the 2018 BC Bike Race