Family, music, and faith: How one pianist became a pro cyclist at 34

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I first got to know Emily Newsom through a clip on Sarah Gigante’s Instagram Stories. Emily was playing the piano after finishing a gruelling edition of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Besides being a pro cyclist with Team Tibco-SVB, Emily teaches piano and is a mum to five-year-old Marijke. We agreed to meet at the Ronde van Drenthe but that meeting had to be rescheduled to a phone call after COVID-19 cancelled the Spring Classics.

“I just loved the Classics,” she starts with a broad smile on my iPhone screen. “It was my first time and I just can’t wait to go back. The cruel circumstances relaxed me in a funny way. I know I can handle the cold. I know my legs will work. It was also reassuring to find that everyone around me was nervous too.”

Newsom finished all three Spring Classics: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 52nd, Spar Omloop van het Hageland in 90th and Le Samyn des Dames in 63rd. These results don’t seem like a big deal but for a debutant to complete her first three Belgian Spring Classics in four days is an achievement. Especially when that debutant is 36 years of age.

Before taking on the Belgian classics Newsom had good results in stage races like the Thüringen Rundfahrt in 2019 where she finished in 16th place in the general classification in a world-class field. Her time trial is a powerful weapon as seen in top-six placings at the US national championships and the Chrono de Gatineau last season.

Newsom’s path to cycling was not at all an ordinary one. She only signed with her first pro team in 2018, when she was already 34.

“After I graduated and had my degree in piano performance, I applied for a second degree to become a concert pianist,” she tells me. “I didn’t get in and felt aimless. That’s when I took up running but running is a very injury-prone sport. I was training hard and had the Olympic marathon as my ultimate goal but stress fractures ended that. I felt betrayed by my own body.”

She picked up the bike to recover and fell in love with it. She first got noticed in 2017 at the American national championships where she came in 12th in the time trial and was on the attack most of the day in the road race.

“Linda Jackson, the owner of Team Tibco-SVB, saw that and loved my attacking style,” she explains. “I never knew pro cycling was even possible but here I was, part of the team. It wasn’t easy in the beginning. I was always an active child but apart from some soccer as a teenager I never did organized sports. Being a pianist is also a solo thing.

“I felt so inexperienced at first, a real newbie. It was a whole new world and I had no idea how to eat and how to recover. I had no idea how to be a teammate. Now the team feels like home. We truly have an awesome group of women here.”

Being a mum to Marijke — a Dutch name celebrating the Dutch heritage of both her mother and her paternal grandparents — married to James and coming from a family of 10 children herself, family life is important to Newsom.

“Being away from Marijke is the hardest thing of it all,” she says. “I was away for three weeks and even four weeks once. Luckily my husband is hugely supportive and Marijke handles it all very well. We FaceTime all the time.”

Newsom hails from Washington State where she studied piano. The fact she wasn’t admitted to a second degree to become a concert pianist left her shattered. But she firmly believes God has a plan for her and she tries to find that path wherever she goes.

“I was heartbroken after not being admitted to that school but I am not in control — God is,” she says. “I sometimes do get anxious and wonder if I am doing it right but so far, I feel I am following the path He intended for me. I still teach piano but not as much as I used to do. I have four students left, three of them siblings, and they are just so motivated.”

With COVID-19 sweeping through the world and resulting in many race cancellations, Newsom finds comfort in her faith and sees the good things in a bad situation.

“I get to see Marijke so much more now,” she says. “I teach her at home because the schools in Texas are now closed. We get to go outdoors although I try to avoid contact with other people as much as I can because I only recently returned from Europe. Today we perfected Marijke’s skills of riding without training wheels. We also love baking together.”

While religion isn’t something that necessarily permeates the everyday peloton, it defines who Newsom is and how she acts. In good times and bad.

“I still try to wrap my head around all that is happening now but I find comfort in the scripture and the Psalms,” she explains. “One of my favorites is Psalm 46: ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.’

“The situation is not easy though because we don’t know when we will race again. But I do try to keep that inner motivation going. I aim to improve my FTP and chase my personal records. I know that I will be good again when time needs me to be.

“I do need goals and although I don’t have a real plan apart from savoring the moment, enjoying the things I do, the travel and the people I meet, I do have the Olympics of 2024 on my mind.”

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