Webcor's maple leaf blows into California
Canadian 'import' Erinne Willock has been turning a few American heads these past couple of months at the San Dimas Stage Race and Redlands Bicycle Classic in California. But the Canadians have known about this 23-year-old from British Columbia for some time. The talented climber rode for her country in the junior and senior World Championships, including the 2003 Hamilton edition, and spent the past two years working for Canadian star Genevieve Jeanson on the Rona squad.
When the Rona team closed up shop at the end of last year, Willock went looking for a new team. She found one in Webcor Builders, home to 2004 U.S. time trial Olympian Christine Thornburn. In the first race with her new teammates, Willock worked hard to counter attacks, but then found herself out front all alone. She spent the next two-plus laps on a solo time trial to the stage and overall win. Cyclingnews' Mark Zalewski was able to track down the up and coming North American rider in between a massage and haircut to have a chat.
Cyclingnews: So Erinne, a lot of people were asking about you after your display at San Dimas. Would you care to introduce yourself to the Cyclingnews audience?
Erinne Willock: Well, that's fun! I'm from Victoria, BC in Canada - I train up there in the winter, with a programme in Victoria. I joined Webcor Builders this year - San Dimas was the first race with them and it was pretty exciting. There was great team support and I'm really excited about the year. It was a good way to start.
CN: How did you first get started in cycling?
EW: I guess it's been in the family for a while. My father and my uncle both rode on the national team and so we had racetracks around the house and in the backyard since I was like three years old! But then I didn't touch it for like ten or fifteen years - I was doing gymnastics and springboard diving. Then I started in a high school series when I was fourteen. There were only five races in the league the first year - both mountain bike and road. I just loved that. It started from there - I got a license and went to more mountain bike and road races...actually I did all three - mountain bike, track and road. My first year as a senior was the first year I only did road.
CN: So you started more on the mountain side and then came to the road?
EW: Not necessarily, it was pretty much the same amount for both...I guess there may have been a bit more mountain biking because it was so popular in my area. I went to the 1999 Junior Worlds in Sweden. But that was my last mountain bike race ever! (laughs)
CN: Did you have any role models, particularly female cycling role models, when you were growing up?
EW: Uhhh, yeah...I mean, my dad was always a big role model for me. He taught me a lot about racing. Also, over in B.C. I rode a lot with Allison Sydor and Leslie Tomlinson, the mountain bikers. So they were definitely role models and I looked up to them, and I still do! Allison Sydor is definitely still good.
CN: What was it like racing in the Road World Championships in your home country in 2003?
EW: In Hamilton, it was pretty cool. Obviously in my own country and tons of fans out there, and my family out there. Even just friends and fellow riders, watching and cheering - yeah, it was a great experience.
CN: Was that the biggest race you had done in your career to that point?
EW: Well, Sweden was pretty cool as a junior, but I didn't have a very good race, my bike broke, and it wasn't in my home country - so Hamilton was better.
CN: How did the World Championships go for you in 2004?
EW: I was in a breakaway for most of the race. There were three of us, and then four. But we got caught with a lap to go. It was still good, because I got to setup Lyne Besette.
CN: So how was riding for the Rona team the past two years?
EW: That was great; a great experience. I got to race in the races I needed to, I learned a lot, I got super strong, the girls on the team were fantastic - I had a positive experience with that. And now I've moved on to Webcor! Finally, I did my first full year of training this year - I am not in school at the moment, so I was able to train full time. Winter went really well.
CN: Rona was quite a big team, with a big-name rider in Genevieve Jeanson. What were some of the things you learned while developing with Rona?
EW: I mostly learned how to work and race hard. I learned what it would take to be at that level - race competitively at that level. I saw the way Genevieve raced and trained - it gave me a lot of motivation, and I found out that's what I want to do, and now I am trying to do it for myself.
CN: Has this first year of training for a full year been a shock to the system or easier than you thought?
EW: It's been easier to deal with, it's gone really well. Just not being in school - I can train properly, not get sick and eat well...all the little things I guess are adding up.
CN: Did you finish school?
EW: I'm actually just taking a break right now. I've done three years out of a five year degree in the education department at the University of Victoria, to be a secondary teacher in P.E. and biology. I've deferred, so I get pretty much four or five years off.
CN: So you have plans in place for life beyond cycling?
EW: Yep! I'm more than half-way through it so I figure I will go back.
CN: How is riding with Webcor going? When was the first time you got to ride with your new teammates?
EW: I just flew down on the Tuesday before San Dimas, for the race, so I haven't been in the states too long!
CN: Wow, was that your first time riding with the team?
EW: I came down for a weekend in December for the sponsorship dinner and met the CEO of the company and went for a team ride with the girls. We had a Christmas dinner with all of the employees of the company - that was the first time I met everybody. I didn't ride with them until we started San Dimas
CN: So you had to make introductions on the fly. Did it pose any difficulty for you or the team?
EW: No, not really - everybody is really easy going. The girls all seem to do their jobs great, and we all work together quite well. It was a little surprising but it was really enjoyable! I don't know what to say about it - it all came together and worked!
It obviously worked! (laughs)
We went into the race to go hard on the time trial. I really had no idea what my fitness would be compared to the other girls, coming down from the winter training on my own. But that went well and then the team plan was to get in a breakaway for Saturday. I countered that one sprint, and then I was out there forever! Then the rest of the girls were covering the attacks and keeping control of the race for me during the remainder of the race.
CN: What was it like wearing the race leader's jersey? Have you ever worn one before?
EW: No, I haven't! I had the pink one on for the young riders, but not the yellow one! That was a bit of a change! But it was neat. I was a little nervous going into the crit, because crits aren't my forte. But all went well and I got to bring it home.
CN: Did it feel like a target on your back, or did it give you a boost of confidence?
EW: I think it totally motivated me. I was ready to fight for it. I just focused on holding a good position and keeping track of the other GC riders. My team did a good job keeping it in a bunch - we didn't want it breaking up.
CN: Are you going to be living in B.C. for the season, or will you get a place in Cali with some other riders?
EW: I'll be going back home to B.C. between most of the races. It's a busy schedule, so I won't be home too much. I've done Redlands and going to Sea Otter, but when I go home I'll be doing the national team project. I hope to do the Pan-Am Games and Tour de Laude. Then after that I'll go to the Montreal World Cup, Philadelphia, and Nature Valley - we're focusing on the NRC series mostly.
CN: What do you think of the Philadelphia race?
EW: It's good. I got Queen of the Mountains there last year.
CN: Ah, so you know your way up the Manayunk Wall then?
EW: I guess so. But it was a race to the base of the climb, not up the climb! (laughs)
CN: Now that you've shown you can lead and win a stage race, do you think you will be used more this season as a leader on Webcor?
EW: Yeah, I hope so. There are several girls on the team that can share that role actually. So we'll just play it by ear for each race. Definitely, I hope to have some opportunities to be team leader. And then also have the opportunity to work for the others.
CN: What are you planning to do to make sure that plan follows through?
EW: It will rely on results. I think in a couple of years I want to work on being a team leader and race winner. The Commonwealth Games will be coming up for us next year, and I want to be on that team. And continuing to make the World Championship team will be a priority.
CN: You have plenty of racing years ahead of you. Do you plan on staying here in North America, or trying to race in Europe like some other successful women have done in recent years?
EW: I haven't totally decided. Right now I am really happy in North America. I'm able to go home more often...I can speak my own language! (laughs). Right now I am still improving and can still gain experience from the girls here. In this team the directors are very experienced. Karen Brems is a former World Champion and Olympian, and Christine Thornburn has a ton of experience. So I feel like I am learning over here. And that's where I want to be.
I definitely want to do projects over there with the national team, or Webcor - if we went to Europe once or twice a year, that would be fine!
CN: If you could win one race this season (besides the illustrious San Dimas Stage Race), which would it be?
EW: Either the national championship or the Montreal world cup.
CN: You want to wear that maple leaf jersey for a year?
EW: It would be pretty cool to wear the maple leaf jersey, yeah! It's on the same course as last year - a very good course for me. It's got a big hill in it, about two kilometres long. It's almost harder than the Hamilton hill - steeper than that one. I was third there last year. The Montreal World Cup is a very prestigious race, and the T-Mobile International in San Francisco is always a very important race for the Webcor company, so that will be a focus for the team as well.
CN: Do you have any plans to go back to the mountain bike or track side of things?
EW: Nope, not right now! I'm happy with the road and I enjoy it. I've moved on from the mountain biking and I am sticking with the road. It is the cooler, faster and more trendy sport!