If you’ve spent much time following cyclocross in the past year, you’ve probably seen photos of a soft-spoken blonde, standing on the podium in a Cal Giant/Specialized kit. Her air of calm, her way of being collected, focused and graceful on the bike might lead you to believe that she’s been racing bikes since birth – preparing her entire life to be poised in those winning moments. Maybe not. But then, again, maybe so; Elle Anderson – cyclocross phenom- knows a thing or two about being hungry for victory, and nourished in that hunger, since she was just a little thing.
Elle first found cycling in 9th grade, when her dad got her set up on an old 1980’s road bike they had in the garage. It was a light blue Italian, with down tube shifting and together they learned the lay of the land as cyclist + machine in on rural Vermont roads near her hometown of Stowe. It didn’t take long for her to fall in love with spinning on it in the months when she wasn’t training and racing as a downhill skier but it wasn’t until college that Elle started really pushing the bike to the limits. Once she did, she was hooked.
That bike is still with her, in her apartment in San Francisco, not far from the accolades of her breakthrough season, her 1st year racing for Cal Giant/Specialized, and just her 3rd year as a cyclocross racer; she racked up six UCI victories this past season, finished second at the USA Cyclocross National Championship and won the USA Cycling Professional Cyclocross Calendar. One of her big projects for spring is to turn that same blue Italian into a city cruiser so she can ride to her “day-job” on the tech support team at Strava. Somewhere on that same to-do list is cooking more, and to tune her culinary prowess – to fuel her training, racing endeavors.
It’s hard to eat well when so much of your day is spent away from the kitchen and on the bike, but Elle knows what’s good for her and strives to “eat like her mother raised her” – with home-cooked values. An ex-pro-ski racer for the U.S. National team, Lyndall Heyer – Elle’s mother – keeps a garden, cooks from scratch, and Elle has equally vivid memories of growing up among her mothers ski racing trophies, helping in the garden, and eating meals literally from the backyard that were just as healthy and nourishing for athletes as they were- and are – for everyday people.
I asked Elle if we could sit down and talk about being hungry – literally, and figuratively – one afternoon earlier this winter, when she had a bit of down time to think about what it means to long for something – emotional, physical, or otherwise – what it means to starve, and how what we eat sometimes can sate, fuel, and support our innermost desires. Effervescent, and food-loving as she is, she said yes, of course.
So we talked. About her favorite recipes for quick healthy meals (lots of them are in here!) About dinner parties (she wishes she had time to host more,) perfectly poached eggs (she cooks a mean one,) and the value of having favorite pre-race meal (oatmeal!) for body, mind and soul. She grew up eating things grown in her backyard, chickens and eggs raised on her family’s property, and knowing where everything that arrived on the table had come from. Though she’s far that garden in Vermont now, she still tries to think about where what she eats comes from. “Its something I’ve lost in the city,” she says “but I still try really really hard imagine the story of where what I eat has come from because that story fuels me too. It takes a lot of effort to keep food on the table, just the way it does to be a successful bike racer, and that effort can’t be ignored. “
We talked about dairy cows, green-grass pastures, and full-fat yogurt with the cream on top, which leant us to a conversation about how challenging it is to eat simply, and cleanly when traveling, and how important it is to her to practice balance, moderation, and focus – in every decision she makes; on the bike, off the bike, and in her own kitchen, and on her plate.
Restrictive diets don’t work well for Elle, and instead she believes that “everything in moderation,” is the way to go. “Certain types of the year I moderate more, other times less. Some times during the year, I’ll have more than a few glasses in wine.” she admits, “but there’s a lot of effort and energy involved in denying myself from cravings 100%.” “There isn’t going to be that real guarantee that something I eat will make or break a race. It’s nearly impossible to measure the physical impact of what you choose to, or not to eat in training,” she says, “making wise food choices is more of a mental tool because you can certainly tell the psychological impact of being ‘loose.’ ” Being focused with all decisions and doing whatever it takes to feel like she’s dialed into her goals (including what to eat and when to eat it) impacts her body and mind on the bike, and certainly bring her to the finish line strong.
“I try to nourish my body with lots of different types of things. Before a big race, I try to eat simple, clean foods. I want to race simply, powerfully and clean, so that’s what I eat – a light protein source, healthy carbs and lots of veggies.” When she wins, Elle admits that she might pick something rich and satisfying from the menu, “a burger! Or a big steak!” she says. “Some foods feel like a celebration for a special occasion.” And, if she loses? “I’d probably choose the same thing I’d eat before the race began. Something clean, focused, and straightforward. If I miss the goal, the desire to win – to ride my best – is still there, like a hunger that I have yet to satisfy.”
Before our conversation ended, Elle and I also talked about hunger – not just for something to eat, but for an accomplishment. I just loved her answers, and got goosebumps just thinking about what this next season might hold for her, knowing just how much she embraces that “hunger” deep inside, and knowing how she strategizes feeding it. Here’s what she had to say:
What do you think of when you hear the word “hungry?”
“I automatically think of the blurring of lines between being hungry in a competitive sense and being hungry in my stomach for FOOD…these are to very different, but overlapping hungers.
When I think of hungry, I think of being on a really long ride, feeling like there’s nothing left in my stomach, in my body. On days like that, I’m always fantasizing about eating something specific when I get off the bike, and eating it as soon as I possibly can. Its almost as if that feeling of hunger has the power to distract me from feeling so empty, allowing me to push a little harder. No matter what I eat on a day like that, it’s hard to be satisfied until I eat anything but that thing.
It’s like an obsession. And the obsession with being satisfied is the same if its something to eat, or something to achieve. If I’m hungry for something, I’m not satisfied until I get it.
How about when you hear the word “craving?”
“Similar to ‘hungry,’ a craving – an obsessive thought that won’t get out of your mind. I could be dreaming about a chocolate bar, or a huge dinner but whatever it is, I’m thinking about it all the time. It’s like haunting me and the haunting won’t go away until I’ve satisfied the craving. It’s similar to racing. Tasting that dream, it’s the same sense of craving. Having thoughts about success, chasing a dream. And, similar to racing, if there is something right in front of me – a big piece of cake, or a podium finish – it’s an incredible challenge not to sate it.”
What does victory taste like?
“Victory is a feeling that starts really deep inside my chest and radiates out. It starts on the inside and grows as time goes on. It feels like I have arrived at a place where my hard work has paid off, and that place is very personal – private. It’s somewhat of a checkpoint on the road where you stop to enjoy the view. There are times when it’s tough to train, to push – so many obstacles to reach that moment of sweetness. Its a pretty incredible feeling to know that this glowing place where you’ve arrived isn’t an accident, and instead is a place that you actually brought yourself to — through hard work, dedication, focus.”
Does the sense of victory renew? Or does victory compound on victory?
“The definition of victory changes for me as time goes on. Victory is whatever you define it to be…. showing up to World Champs and placing 15th was a victory for me. Sometimes just getting up at 6am for the alarm is a victory. If you TRULY accomplish a goal -what you consider to be a victory, it will always taste as sweet as the first time, even if it looks a little bit different…. there is always a new horizon!”
What riding philosophy are you carrying into 2014?
“To always to be excited for the next ride. The next race. I strive to keep that love for the bike really fresh. Those early morning training sessions can be really tough sometimes….but it always pays back. I’m at a crossroads right now where I could start to look at cycling as a “job,” but I really am trying to cling to the fun of riding…I always wand to see the bike as something I choose, not something I’m resigned to. I started on the bike because it was fun, and it still IS fun.”
Stay “hungry,” and satisfied, Elle — here’s to an amazing season on the bike in 2014!
photo notes: credit for the gorgeous images in the header, as well as the third photo of Elle pushing in her Vanderkitten kit go to the amazing Jason Perry. See more of his work at http://www.jasonperryphotography.com