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An interview with Ann Knapp, December 18, 2004
Here kitty, kitty...
What drives a kitten-loving lady to tear all legs off in 'cross races? Good question. Cyclingnews' Steve Medcroft met with Ann Knapp and discovered why.
Ann Knapp is having a brilliant 2004 cyclocross season. The former U.S. national champion (2002) won the U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross and locked up an automatic slot on the national team for worlds. Coming out of the domestic season in dominating form after finishing third at the US 'Cross Nationals, Knapp is maybe America's biggest chance to make an impact in St. Wendal at the 'cross worlds in February.
But Knapp won't put that kind of pressure on herself, preferring instead to take a more balanced approach to the sport.
You see, although racing is important in her life, it's not everything. Knapp doesn't race to make her living, for example. A physical therapist based in Des Moines, Washington, Knapp trains only after work, riding and running when the weather allows and the spirit moves her. She enjoys a casual, no-pressure relationship with Kona, her sponsor for years, is married to her teammate (Dale Knapp) and is seen laughing and hugging competitors after races are over. She's careful to plan her work vacation schedule so she can make the long weekend trips to compete in East Coast 'cross races without affecting her day job. She even has health insurance.
So in all, Knapp lives a balanced life, and cycling doesn't own her soul. Until she enters a race. The moment Knapp bursts off a cyclocross start line, she becomes a relentless antagonist, always pressing the front of the race. Her legs turn to steel ribbons. Her eyes explode with effort, her face locks in a grimace. She says she likes her racing with "full and competitive fields - to make the race harder."
Cyclingnews: You're known in cyclocross as a strong runner. Is running your background?
Anne Knapp: I was a runner, where I grew up in Des Moines, Washington. In high school and college.
CN: What were your running disciplines?
AK: I did the mile and cross-country. When I went to college (University of Puget Sound in Tacoma), I did the 1500 and 3000 meters on the track. Pretty middle distance.
CN: Tacoma's pretty close to home. You don't stray far do you?
AK: I know. I've lived three minutes from home in either direction for all of my life.
CN: Your family must be close?
AK: Definitely. I have three brothers and they're like my fan club. They're the best guys in the whole world. Two of them live pretty close and the other lives in the Bay area. In fact, they're coming to Germany for world's and already have their tickets. Now I have to get on the ball get my ticket bought (laughs).
CN: You focus on cyclocross. Is that the only cycling you've done?
AK: I did mountain bike racing first. I even traveled around and did the NORBA thing for two years. I loved it - it was so much fun. I started as a beginner. I think I switched to expert one time when I drove for like five hours to do a race and we were going to ride five miles. I said: 'I'm not driving for five hours to race five miles,' and switched to expert. I turned pro for the last couple of years I raced. We had a pretty good series in the Seattle area to race as well. We had a Wednesday night race series. We also had, although they just quit this last year, what they called the WIM series - it was Washington, Idaho and Montana. It was put on by a group called Round and Round. I've also done a couple of 24-hour races. In fact, I did one just this last year, the NORBA national championship in Spokane. And our team won (laughs). How's that for funny. It was a women's team and I don't think too many people came and did the race.
CN: You get a jersey for that?
AK: I did. And it was totally fun. My teammates were a local bunch of gals who were doing the race and said they needed another person. We had fun. By the end, we only had two of us left because one gal had to go to the hospital; she crashed and had to go get stitches. We did the race totally for fun, just something to do for camaraderie. It wasn't like we set out to go and claim the title, but it was a nice bonus.
CN: Who introduced you to cyclocross?
AK: A guy named Dan Norton. He is amazing. He is like the five or six time-national masters cyclocross champion. I was in a mountain bike race and Dan and another guy, Tim Rutledge, who are kind of like pioneers of Seattle area cyclocross, said to me, 'you should try cyclocross.' I feel lucky that we have a great 'cross scene up here and I loved it right away. Some of the top women in cyclocross are centered in the Northwest. It makes for good competition.
CN: How does West Coast racing compare to the East?
AK: If you look at the big, organized races, the field sizes are pretty comparable. Our local races for women here in Seattle probably draw 10 to 15 women. It's solid but not huge. Not like Portland where they might get 30, 40 or 50 women in a local race. They've got it going on there. The terrain is different in the West from the East as well. If you look at a place like Gloucester (Massachusetts), that's something of a treat. It's a place where you can ride in a wide-open grassy park. We don't have that very often here, because people get upset about ruining the grass.
CN: So what do you race on?
AK: It's probably more of a mountain bike type course. Enclosed trails. Some pavement and hills. And mud.
CN: Do you still compete as a runner?
AK: I haven't done a running race for a really long time. It's pretty hard to fit it in. I guess I could do it for fun but if you want be a runner, you run. If you want to be a cyclist, you ride your bike. And biking takes way more time than running. I do run, don't get me wrong. I run during the week because I just enjoy it. I just don't race.
CN: You work full-time as a physical therapist. Have you always worked at the same time you were a competitor, or have there been times where you wee able to focus purely on athletics?
AK: For one cyclocross season, about four or five months long, I wasn't working. That was great. During that time, I'd run in the morning and bike in the afternoon. But you can't be away from my profession too long. I worried that I would lose my skills. I work in an orthopedic clinic and need to help patients of all ages and all types of injuries. You need to keep your skills sharp to stay good at it.
CN: You went to school for seven years for physical therapy, right?
AK: That's the thing. I didn't really start bike racing until after I had gone to school. After going to school for that long, you can't just hang it up and pretend you're going to make a living being a bike racer. I was already working before I got into bike racing and it's been good - I make a living and have health insurance. It's hard to have all those things you need for bike racing without money. And you get that from a job.
CN: What's the cycling community like where you live? Are their group rides, a great shop? Who do you hang out with?
AK: I ride with my husband Dale and a friend of mine. We ride just about every day together. But what's really cool about Seattle is that we have an organized cyclocross practice once a week. About 70 people show up. It's held in a big park, under lights, and usually runs from 6:30 to 8:30 every Wednesday. Dale and a bunch of guys act as coaches and everybody does barriers or hills - different drills. Then we all have a timed, practice racing session - for people to go hard. It's a huge benefit to me as a racer and makes all the difference in the world to my training. Because of my experience with this weekly practice, I recommend that anybody with a group of four or more should find some place to meet once a week and do something just like it.
CN: How did you meet Dale?
AK: We ended up racing on the Redline team together. And he's been doing cyclocross forever. We also switched to the Kona team together. After spending so much time around each other, we decided that we were a good blend. And we are. We both race. We both work full time - Dale's a flight simulator technician for Boeing. Although, poor guy, he has to deal with rotating shifts.
CN: According to your Kona bio, you say you're not really coachable. So what approach do you take to training?
AK: I go mostly by how I feel. Sometimes it's based on the weather - when it's raining, you don't last very long in 40 degree weather. I race once a week and have the practice once a week so I get two hard sessions to see where my fitness is and the rest of the week I just ride and run. But it's not like I'm following some specific training plan. I like to ride my bike all year. After coming back from world's, I usually like to take a little break. I like to do some skiing while there's snow. But then I just kind of start up and ride.
CN: How did you qualify for world's the first time you went?
AK: The qualifications have changed every single year that I've raced so I don't remember what they were that year. I do remember that it was a big surprise. And it was so fun. That first year, I went early to Europe with my teammate. We did a bunch of races and had no idea what we were doing. It was so exciting. Just being in Europe was so cool. Every little thing was this new adventure. We were freak shows with our bikes because not many people from the U.S. had come over there, ever.
And no women because there was never a women's world's; we were this new thing. We did a race in Holland, a couple in Germany. This is how it was different than racing in the U.S. - you don't pay to race. Sometimes you get paid start money. Sometimes you get paid prizemoney. We were racing and actually making money. That hadn't been our intent at all, we just wanted to go and see what it was like to race there. Anyway, world's was an amazing experience because the spectators line the whole course two and three deep. There's this energy about it and it's pretty cool.
CN: How did you do?
AK: I don't remember. I might have gotten like 12th. It was a really, really flat course. That's just not my kind of course. I need a little elevation.
CN: You're stronger on running courses?
AK: I just do better when the terrain changes. When the course is flat like a road race it's not my thing. The nationals' course is not going to necessarily be my kind of course. But I gotta do it.
CN: Speaking of nationals, you won in 2002?
AK: Yeah. It was amazing. All during the race, the next gal wasn't that far behind me, so I had to keep going. There was a part where you transition from grass to the pavement of the finishing straight. Only then did I know I was going to win. Then I could let myself think about it. I always wondered how those people felt when they finished you know. When their arms were up. I couldn't figure out if I was supposed to cry or smile. It all kind of came out at once.
CN: You got to compete wearing the jersey next year?
AK: I think I might have hung it on the wall and looked at the actual national champion's jersey. Kona made me a stars and stripes jersey. That was the one I wore.
CN: How did you get connected with Kona?
AK: Kona, and Mark Petersen, our team manager, put on a race every year up in Bellingham (that's where Kona is based). Mark approached me at that race and asked if I was interested in riding for Kona. It was just out of the blue. Kind of luck for me. And the relationship has been great ever since. Every year we chat and decide what Kona wants to do or what can Kona do. Riding for Kona is a blessing. I think that nowadays, if you have a deal with anybody, you hang onto it, because the bike industry is not as lucrative as it used to be. Riders can't demand salaries or concessions from their sponsors any more. You're lucky if you have anything.
CN: You've had a good season. What's in store for you after nationals?
AK: I'm going to Europe about two weeks before world's. There are two World Cups, one in France and one in Holland, and I'll be doing those. I really won't have done any racing since nationals, except weekend practices, so going over is about getting the rust out of my racing. And to see the field. I want to know where everyone's fitness is before world's.
CN: How long will you keep racing cyclocross?
AK: I can't decide. I was thinking maybe this year was going to be my last. But I just can't decide. It depends. You get to a certain age in life and you have other things you need to do. I'm getting old, so if I'm going to have a family, I need to start it sometime soon. I just haven't decided that for sure.
CN: You came close at world's before; fourth in 2003. Hang on a couple more years, it might happen for you?
AK: I know. But then I'll be like 40 years old. That's so old! (laughs)