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Cycling Star Emma White is Going Places … Fast

By Molly Hurford | August 2, 2018 | Rally Health

Emma White may only be 20 years old, but she already has more National Championship titles and podium finishes than most racers will ever earn in the course of a pro cycling career. And after a great 2018 road season riding for Rally®,Cycling, she also has an invite to train with Team USA’s track cycling team for the 2020 Olympics — the cyclist’s version of a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. But while that’s extremely important to her, she had another priority on a Thursday in early July: shopping at the mall with her sister.

Despite her impressive stack of trophies and medals, and the fact that she’s already spent half of her life being uber competitive in cycling, White is still a junior in college, excited about her new apartment and the summer clothes on sale.

“There’s nothing about racing that I don’t love,” she says. “I can’t believe I’ve been racing for more than 10 years, but I can’t imagine a life without it.”

The mall trip is admittedly a bit of a departure for White, who has barely had time to pause in these last few months. She just flew home to upstate New York from Colorado Springs, CO, where she was training with the potential Olympic team. The 2020 Summer Olympics may seem like a long way away, but for athletes they’re practically right around the corner.

“The Olympics is a huge dream of mine — always has been,” she says. “I didn’t expect to get this opportunity to train with the USA team so soon, so I’m really excited.”

Emma-White-ready-to-race.jpg#asset:85338

White was ready to race at the Tour of California startline earlier this year.

USA Cycling tapped White because of her impressive power numbers and strength on the bike. It’s  a huge honor for any racer, but especially for one who is still young enough that most of her results are listed with an asterisk, to indicate that she’s still in the Under-23 category. Olympic cyclists’ ages vary, but White will be among the youngest, especially compared with her current coach, Kristin Armstrong, who raced in the Olympics at the age of 40.

“It happened so fast!” says White. “I thought the USA Cycling Talent ID camp I went to in March was just going to be good for my road racing and cyclocross, but at the end, they told me that I could potentially be on the Olympic Team Pursuit team, and I couldn’t believe it.”

It’s Always Sunny

In sports, we usually like our heroes to have tragic backstories, or maybe a rags-to-riches triumph. White doesn’t have any skeletons in her closet, or even dark periods that she can call to mind when she considered quitting racing. In the eight years I’ve known her — including stints living in a shared USA Cycling dormitory over Christmas — I can say that I’ve never seen her without a sunny smile post-race, even when the day didn’t go exactly her way.  

“Not only is she insanely strong, she makes everything fun and never fails to make you laugh,” says teammate Katherine Maine.

Her teammate Katherine Maine is the same age as White and the current Canadian road champion. Her take? White is simply the best teammate. “Not only is she insanely strong, she makes everything fun and never fails to make you laugh,” says Maine.

“I’ve had some lows, when I’m second-guessing how I’m performing, but it’s never anything that’s had a lasting effect,” White says. “I know how fortunate I’ve been. My teams have been amazing, my coach, my team directors, my family: I have so many people around who I can talk to about anything.”

Big dreams require optimism, and White definitely doesn’t struggle there. In fact, her always positive approach to life and racing may be what lands her on an Olympic podium in the near future.  

Olympic Dreams

However exciting an Olympic invite might be, the offer from USA Cycling did present White with a quandary: She would have to drop her beloved cyclocross career in the fall to focus on the track, and cyclocross isn’t just a sport that White excels at, it’s practically in her blood. Both of her brothers would have been her teammates for the upcoming season, so to leave the team to roll in circles on an indoor track instead of riding through the mud in Belgium was a bittersweet decision.  

"I’ve ridden for 10 years, I know I have power, my sprint has developed, and I know what I have will translate to track." -- Emma White

“I didn’t think I’d have to make this choice for a couple years,” she says. But the invite came after a camp in March revealed her latent track talent, but on the condition that she was willing to show up for World Cup racing in the fall, and then turn her attention to team pursuit on the track in 2019.  

She said yes, and after Nationals, where she scored third in the road race as well as the time trial, she headed to Colorado Springs, where the team trains, in order to work with the head track coach. Track racing is unlike cyclocross or road racing — it’s highly tactical while still being primarily power-based. But White isn’t worried about learning a whole new pedaling discipline.

“That Talent ID Camp was my first time on the track,” she says, “But I think I picked it up pretty quick. It’s my style of riding — short, punchy efforts.”

Rally Cycling’s women’s team director Zach Bell says that he’s been most impressed with how quickly White can put into action lessons she has learned in racing.

“It is pretty rare that I see her make the same mistake twice if we have talked about it,” he says. “It seems like a simple thing but it can be hard to make changes — especially if they are due to bad habits. I’m just impressed with how malleable she is as a person and an athlete. She is very comfortable in most situations."

White knows that the Olympics aren’t a sure thing, but that only made her pause for a second, to ask herself if she could somehow train on the track but still race cyclocross on an abbreviated schedule this fall.

"I really have to put my eggs all in one basket, though," she says. "I'm not calling it a gamble. I've ridden for 10 years, I know I have power, my sprint has developed, and I know what I have will translate to the track. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but I'll improve no matter what."

A Breakout Season

Most recently, she was faced with two challenges: Racing road and time trial national championships, while prepping for finals at Union College in Schenectady, NY, where she studies computer science. Such are the perils of being a student athlete, but White thrives under pressure — and loves her computer science major. It’s where her interest has always been, and of course she can already see the ways it can apply to different places in the cycling industry, like coaching software.

It’s hard to juggle a spring semester with the road racing season, even for a woman who has been racing since she was 11 years old.   

But love it or not, it’s hard to juggle a spring semester with the road racing season, even for a woman who has been racing since she was 11 years old.   

“It’s so busy this season. I feel like I’ve been flat out,” she says. “But having a coach like Kristin to help me balance school and my racing this season has been so important. She knows what’s going on with school and my personal life and knows when I need to shift training to make everything work. I had two papers and three finals the last week of classes!”

School ended right before Nationals in June, where White scored an unprecedented third place in the elite women’s road race and in the time trial. For an Under-23 racer in a highly competitive women’s field, those results are staggering. (She also won the Under-23 category in road, time trial, and criterium.)

How did that happen? After the Tour of California in May, White took a four-week break from racing — but that just meant that she and Armstrong needed to decide what her next goal was. The consensus? Win the overall in the elite women’s time trial at Nationals in June. It seemed like a stretch goal, but time trials are one of White’s strengths. Unlike road racing, which depends on team tactics and what the pack is doing, time trials are an individual hammer-fest, an all-out effort, and can be meticulously planned for. Which is exactly what White began to do.

She started working on her position on her time trial bike, doing local time trials while writing papers at school. Heat training for the Nationals in Knoxville, TN, was also key, and White admits that she particularly enjoyed that aspect of prep work.

“When I really needed some down time from school or riding, I could hang out in the sauna and it was still training!” she says. “It was relaxing and it even helped prep me for finals.”

Taking saunas and training in long sleeves on 90-degree days paid off, White says. She finished third in a stacked women’s field.

“It was hard to believe I was capable of it, but my coach was right,” she says. “Still, I hope someday I can knock it up a couple notches!”

Did not winning sting? Not for a minute — White idolizes first- and second-place winners Amber Neben and Tayler Wiles, and has nothing but positive things to say about the race.

“I still kind of can’t believe it,” she says. “Finishing behind those women was seriously an honor.”

For Bell, that attitude signals a new era for White.

“Her competitive drive has matured from hoping to win to being more accountable to her talents and fiercely attacking the moments she can win and only being disappointed if those realistic but lofty attempts don't come to fruition,” he says.

White has only done three major races this season, and she’s managed to score top results in all of them. She defended her criterium dominance at the Tour of the Gila, and scored big in the Tour of California as well, with a second place finish on Stage 2 and a third place finish on Stage 3.

“California is the highlight of the season. I was really happy to podium in two of the stages there,” she says. "That’s something I’ll remember forever.”  

Rather than attributing her success to genetics and her own (incredibly impressive) work ethic, she credits her coach.  

“I always feel well prepared, and I can’t do that alone,” she says. White has been working with Armstrong for five years, so their coaching relationship has been able to evolve at a natural pace.

“Now, we’re really close: our relationship is great, our communication is so much better than it was when we started,” White says. “That connection is everything. I learned how to not just do everything she said in training, to let her know if I was feeling really tired or if I had a test the next day. And it turned out, she was really understanding!”

Saved by the (School) Bell

What keeps White balanced is the same thing that keeps her constantly at max speed: combining her schoolwork with a travel-heavy race schedule. In her mind, the two complement each other.

“I think I need it. I go all out studying for finals, and my break is to go all out on my riding,” she says. “I really need that mental reset with riding, and going hard while doing intervals shifts my mind off. I need it for balance.”

She even took a heavier than usual course load this season, though she’s quick to credit her race-loving professors for their unwavering support of her school and professional career.

“I even went on a ride with a professor after finals!” she says. “I feel so lucky to be in this program."

Does she get tired? Absolutely. But she knows she brings it on herself.

“Sometimes I feel sorry for myself, being so busy. But I can’t imagine if I wasn’t,” she says. “If I just sat around and procrastinated in other ways, I don’t think I’d get much done. But packing my schedule makes it work.”

When she needs a break, she turns to family — and there’s nearly always someone around. With two brothers and two sisters, White grew up in a full house, and riding bikes started as a family activity with her parents and siblings. In fact, her older and younger brothers have both been on cycling teams with her in the past. Her sisters don’t race, but they still make plenty of time for one another, from mall trips to the (very) occasional non-race-related family vacation.  

Emma-White-as-Young-Racer.jpg#asset:85334A teenage Emma White with brother Harrison and sister Anna.

“I don’t want to take any time with them for granted,” she says. “That’s my self-care, getting together with my sisters and brothers and parents. Just going shopping with them is super important to me.”

Originally, the plan was to race until she got to college. But when she graduated from high school, she re-evaluated that decision and stuck with racing during college. Then, the Olympics  offer came up.

“Now, I want the opportunity to race for the next 10 years,” she says. “Definitely until the Olympics in 2028. But then I want to have a normal life, and a family, and a real job.”

Molly Hurford is the author of “Fuel Your Ride,” “Saddle, Sore,” and the upcoming “Shred Girls” series. She also writes for Bicycling magazine, and co-hosts “The Consummate Athlete” podcast.

Molly Hurford
Rally Health