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An interview with Amber Rais, March 16, 2007
Amber Rais: Going platinum
At twenty-six years old Amber Rais is starting her second season with the women's Webcor-Platinum Professional Cycling Team. Her life had taken her in many unexpected directions before becoming a rising star in North American cycling. Rais had just completed in Merced's first 2007 NRC event when Cyclingnews' reporter Kirsten Robbins caught to find out what led her into the sport of cycling and what lies ahead.
Relatively unknown to fans outside the San Francisco 'Bay Area' where she lives, Rais has been racking up solid results at the national level after taking up bike racing relatively late in life. Like many racers, the sport became an obsession, and quickly took over her previous academic and acquatic way of life. In addition to racing, this ambitious woman will be writing a diary for Cyclingnews during the 2007 season, giving a glimpse what it takes to develop into a professional road cyclist with aspiration of the world championships and an Olympic dream.
"I think adding a personal side to my diary and giving people an idea of what the lifestyle is like as a rider is important," Rais said. "I want to blend a personal side of a cyclist to what it is like being a cyclist on the road and provide behind the scene anecdotes to the life of a cyclist - my life."
After just two seasons of racing, she has her sights set on European racing, becoming a member of the US national worlds team and eventually aiming for the Olympics. "My big picture goals are to be a top international stage racer," Rais said. "I want to get to Europe and be a stage racer there. I eventually want to medal at the world championships and Olympics. But I am focused on my short-term goals first and it can be over whelming and daunting to think ahead so far.
Webcor-Platinum offered her a 2006 contract after several fruitful guest rides in the 2005 season, but last year Rais had a rough start to the NRC season after crashing and breaking her wrist in the Redlands Classic. The early spring injury marred the rest of her California racing swing. "I want to have an injury free season," Rais said. "Last year I broke my hand and had little fitness in the spring."
Rais describes her self as a jack-of-all-trades, and her versatility comes into play when working for Webcor-Platinum's Olympian Christine Thornburn in the North American stage races and the team's sprinter Laura Yoisten in the criteriums. But when the timing is right, Rais is an opportunist who carries the strength to back up her attacks, and has made several successful breakaways in the past.
"I won stage two the 2006 Tour of Bermuda and my time trial has been getting a lot better. I want to be a stronger and more effective domestique so that I can fill in where ever I'm needed. I can endure an enormous amount of pain if it is for my team, because I find it incredibly rewarding to sacrifice myself for my teammates."
Life before her bike
Amber Rais life has not always been about her bike. Like many late-bloomers in the cycling world, she was highly successful in other sports, and Rais' athletic career was born in the water. Rais hails from in Reno, Nevada where she began swimming competitively as a youngster. She spent twelve years racing for the Lake Ridge Swim Team before graduating as valedictorian from Reno High School.
Rais was offered a partial scholarship to Stanford University competing in their division one NCAA swim program. "I feel in love with sport and worked really hard for swimming and academics combined," Rais said. "They recruited me for the four hundred individual medley. I swam there for three years but had to have shoulder surgery and stopped swimming. It was also becoming too much with school and everything else."
Burnt out from the life of a competitive athlete, she decided she would never return to competition in any sport again. Rais was studying human biology at the time and becoming focused on academics and acquainted with what Stanford University had to offer. "After I stopped swimming I wanted to stay fit but I had burned out on swimming and didn't set foot on a pool deck for two years," Rais said. "I didn't want to be competitive either. I would have been happy not participating in competitive sport ever again."
Marine biology caught her attention in 2001 and she made the move to Monterey California on a research project at the Hopkins Marine Station. "I went down there and fell in love with marine biology," Rais said. "I concentrated my studies on marine biology and environmental policies when I discovered the Earth Systems program that offered interdisciplinary courses based on environmental sciences, economics and sociology that impact the environment. I then graduated with a Masters of Science in Oceanography through the Earth Systems program at Stanford."
Getting into the sport
Done with swimming, Rais kept in touch with acquatic life at sea during her university years researching marine biology. She spent months aboard various sailing vessels to gain experience working with marine life. "I did a research cruise on 135-foot sailboat research vessel from Hawaii to Palmyra Atoll near the equator that used to be an army base in World War II," Rais said. "I learned how to sail and we did oceanographic experiments and on the odd occasion, swam with sharks."
Her base in the relatively rural area south of San Francisco just happened to be a cycling hotbed, and it was nearly inevitable that Rais would find her way onto a bike. "I rode around Monterey up and down 17-mile drive," Rais said. "I had some friends into mountain biking. I tried a Stanford collegiate mountain bike race and enjoyed it. When the road season started I wanted to try collegiate racing. I didn't want to train because I didn't want expectations or pressure of competition. I rode once or twice a week and raced on the weekend."
Within two years what began as a way to stay active flourished into winning the collegiate national championships criterium and omnium in 2005 and placing fourth in the road race. "I ended up going to collegiate nationals in 2004," Rais said. "I got dropped in the criterium and crashed in the road race. The turning point was watching the men's criterium because it was raining and dark. I couldn't believe how fast they were going and how fearless they were. I turned to my teammate and said, I want to get good.
"I was missing being competitive so, the next season I started training in November for the up coming road season. I rode on group rides and began training longer hours. I started dating David Pierce and had the benefit of his tactical insight on every race I did. As I was getting stronger I had his guidance to help me improve as much as I did."
Cycling has become a full time ambition and a main focus for the next few years, but Rais leaves extra time in her schedule to work part time in environmental research for her alumni university, Stanford and lends her guidance to rebuild their collegiate cycling team.
"I coach the women's Stanford cycling team to try to recruit and keep people interested in this sport," Rais said. "I want to provide encouragement to others who are thinking of cycling or thinking of taking it to the next level.
"I also graduated at the end of last summer and continue with research work for fifteen hours a week that can be on the road or at home. This way I can have my foot in the door with my academic career and still be competitively training and racing. When I eventual retire from cycling I'll have something interesting to go back to."