An interview with Brooke Miller, September 1, 2008
TIBCO's Brooke Miller is enjoying a record breaking season after claiming the United States of America criterium and road national championships. Miller spoke with Cyclingnews' Mark Zalewski about the changes to (most) of her racing wardrobe for the next year.
At first glance one might think there is a new wave of young talent taking hold for US women's cycling. Perhaps, as there is a new and first time ever champion in both the elite road and elite criterium disciplines - and for the first time ever it is the same person - Brooke Miller (TIBCO). But like much of the women's peloton, Miller came to cycling later in life. So while she is a 'newer' racer, she is mature in terms of life experience, something that translates well into her racing.
When looking for differences along gender lines among professional cyclists, at least in North America, a few consistencies usually emerge. These seem to stem from one variable - the men often start racing at a younger age than the women. This translates into different age windows, with the average age of a female racer older than a male. As well the education level is also higher for the women as the men often bypass or put on hold higher education. Both cases are true for TIBCO's Miller.
Excuse me, that is Dr. Brooke Miller, Ph.D. As the always-affable Miller put it, the joke that around the women's peloton goes, "I am hardly the only Ph.D. in the peloton! The women are just generally older and more educated."
"I think I am better because I am older and mature." - TIBCO's Brooke Miller feels she has age on her side
Okay, she is only 32, but for many professional men retirement might begin to loom large around that age. However Miller is just now entering the prime of her cycling career, with sights set on some big milestones. And her age... ahem, maturity is a large part of that. Miller can see the differences clearly when comparing her cycling to when she was a scholarship division one college volleyball player.
"I think [my age] is really good," she said. "When I was younger and played volleyball I didn't have any perspective. My weakest aspect was my head. A lot of it was I didn't have my maturity. And now with cycling my biggest strength without question is my head. I've seen riders who are better athletes than me who aren't as headstrong. Cycling is very psychological and I think I am better because I am older and mature."
Still, there are younger riders in the women's peloton too, and that only motivates her more in terms of training and racing.
"I do see a sense of mortality more than younger riders and that transfers over to my training," she said. "I don't have the luxury of missing a training session, of missing an interval, or of throwing away a season. At 32 I don't have the time to lose focus like a 25 year-old. So I have a more focused approach because of it."
Though she played collegiate volleyball successfully at the highest level, Miller and sports have not always been aligned in the stars, or with her parents. While always 100 percent supportive of whatever she did, they were not always convinced of the whole 'sports' thing.
"My parents are not super sports oriented," she laughed. "My dad is a Ph.D., my brother is a Ph.D., but I've always been a natural athlete. My parents didn't care about the volleyball until they saw how much it meant to me, and then they became my biggest fans.
"The same thing with cycling; at first they didn't care at all," she added. "Then when I won the collegiate nationals I was invited to the Olympic Training Center. My dream had always been to go to the Olympics with volleyball. So hearing my name in the same sentence as the world Olympics gave me goose bumps."
She tells the story of how her mother reacted to her early cycling success, looking back on it now laughing.
"It took 12 hours for me to call my mom and tell her," she said. "I was on the phone with her and I said, 'Mom, they want me to go to the Olympic Training Center!' And she said, 'Well when IS the next Olympics, are you going to want to keep riding that long?' "
"I was devastated at the time," she added. "Then I raced Redlands in 2006 on a composite team. I was told Ina [Teutenberg] can win this race no matter how and they said to just do what she does."
"So she attacks 5 minutes in, then 10 minutes later she attacked again," said Miller. "I finished 13th and was euphoric, so excited. My mom didn't tell me at the time but she thought of telling me, 'You should give up, you don't have what it takes'."
However sometimes it just takes a little time for parents to come around. "They were at both nationals [this year] and she told me after, 'I'm sure glad you didn't listen to me'," she said. "They buy TIBCO jerseys now and wear them around. It means a lot to me that they wear them around."
Now her parents can add the stars and stripes to their collection, something that her father, who turned to cycling after experiencing heart problems, is looking forward to. "It's my dad's birthday so he gets one of them," said Miller. "He is so excited to have everyone ask him about it. He started riding a couple of years ago having never exercised regularly before, and he became addicted. He has lost a ton of weight and it's great for a cardiac patient."
Helpful teams and university degrees
Before winning collegiate nationals and her current status as a top professional, Miller almost did not pursue cycling as a competitive sport, let alone a career. Her first passion was evolutionary biology and she had backed into a Ph.D. program in it.
"That was seven years, seven long years," she said. "But I loved it; I fell in love with evolutionary biology. I wasn't done learning after undergrad because I spent all four years playing volleyball."
"Until the last couple of years of my dissertation I didn't let myself know too much about cycling," she added. "I just rode when I felt like it and raced on the weekends. I know how I am - I don't half-ass things and if I took it seriously it would be an all or nothing thing. Up until 2005 when I won the collegiate title, my academics, my teaching and my husband were my priorities.
"But the last couple of years I was a little burned out. I got over it and fell in love with my bike. I was planning on dropping out in November of 2006 and just racing my bike. So one of my proudest accomplishments is sticking with it and graduating.
Oh yeah, the topic of her dissertation: Penis chewing banana slugs... yum.
After winning her collegiate title while in her third year as a graduate student she went to the Olympic Training Center, which was the match that lit her fire. Not long after that she met Linda Jackson, who was piecing together a women's team.
"Linda took a chance on me in 2006 when no one would give me the time of day," said Miller. "Directors would not call me back and Linda was just directing a local shop team. I didn't know her vision was to create a professional team. I joined that team and she was an incredible mentor. I had three NRC wins and it was a big deal.
"Then she wanted to transition to the full team but we didn't have the riders," she added. "So I went with her to Interbike with the financial backing from TIBCO, but didn't have anything else. No bikes, no clothing, no food, nothing. And by Interbike you go to thank those sponsors, not pitch them. So she had me, who no one had every heard of, and just two other riders.
"I can't even begin to tell you how much it meant to me," said Miller. "This woman has one rider who has won a couple of races and no team yet. But to watch her talk to these companies and to have them say we think you can do it was incredible."
"We went from nothing to one of the top teams in the US... and I believe in her vision to make it one of the top teams in the world," Miller said. "To know it was not me but my team-mates who got me on the podium, it was a thank you to all them and all our sponsors for taking a chance on us. That meant the world to me."
After her trade team, Miller cites the increase in focus on women's racing from USA Cycling as a major factor for not only her development, but also the development of the entire women's peloton in the US.
"I think there has been a good reshuffling of the power in the peloton," said Miller. "With Lipton pulling out the talent was spread around the peloton. And I also credit Jim Miller stepping up the US national team residence program, giving girls a lot of experience racing [in Europe]. I know personally going over there it is hard! Kat Carroll and Carmen [McNellis], Chrissy [Ruiter], Allison [Powers], when they come back they race their bikes hard.
"I have benefited mentally and it comes over with how I race in the US," she added. "My attitude and style have changed a lot - to be more aggressive and not fearful. You have to get over that fear of failure of getting dropped in a break or not attacking at the right time. Racing at the higher level helped me take those risks and not be a wheel sucker and wait for the finish."
Taste the rainbow
Her cycling wardrobe's drastic change in color palette - from TIBCO's trademark soft and feminine hues of blue, to good old USA red, white and blue - is not her final ideal palette. She would like to add a few more colors, say the same ones of the world champion's jersey.
"I love winning the stars and stripes but I have my eye on another jersey," she smiled. "My career goal is to be on the team that brings home the World Champion's jersey on the road. If it's me or another person I want to be an American wearing the world champion's jersey."
However selection to this year's world's team is not automatic for the elite champion, especially as an Olympic Games year. Of the nine selection criteria the jersey slots in at number eight. As of now five of the six slots are all-but-decided with criteria such as Olympic selection, UCI points and World Cup results, and the final slot will be hotly contested too. But even being considered is a big accomplishment just two years into professional cycling.
"For right now I don't know if I have made the worlds team," said Miller. "Winning nationals is usually an automatic qualifier but there are so many strong riders. I am going to train as if I am going to go. And I hope I can go back to Europe and race more. With budget cuts a lot of projects were cut back. I haven't' raced as much in Europe as I would have liked to so I am going to maximize every opportunity."
Winning the jerseys
Miller readily admits that she was surprised to win the road title, and that she understands the whispers and comments that went along with it this year. "I heard the 'But the racing wasn't fast' or 'But what if Kristen [Armstrong] was there?' With Downers Grove there is no but," she said.
"In the road race I was plan B because we were hoping to get Amber [Rais] or Lauren [Franges] up the road," she added. "It wasn't my race to win, but I was really excited. At the same time I wanted to see Lauren take it. But as soon as I made it over the final climb I knew I was in position to win because the finish really suited me. And either way we wanted to TIBCO on the podium."
The often-heard negative comments about women's racing being slower and more predictable, with no one wanting to do the work, did surface in this year's road race. But Miller said that this was the only place that racing happened, with the rest of the races this year being very competitive.
"Last year it happened a lot but this year it has not been that way," she said. "You look at a profile and think it is going to be a tea party, but it has been so aggressive this year. It was actually a surprise to have [road nationals] be such an easy race with this year.
"I love it when people race their bikes," she added. "Aaron's has done a great job this year racing their bikes. And any time Armstrong comes to a race it is game on. It is so great to see riders forcing the race. We didn't have many tea parties this year."
The criterium national championship race in Downers Grove was hardly a tea party like in previous years. "The two times I've done that race it has been easy, until five laps to go," she said. "But this year Laura Van Gilder attacked a half-lap into the race, so it was riders off the front the whole day. I really had to earn that race and it felt great because my team had to race a perfect race."
Looking ahead for Miller, she said Europe is the destination. "Linda's basis for our team is that it will be one of the top teams in the world, and she wants to bring the team over to Europe," she said. "I love racing in the States, but Europe is Europe. That is what matters to me."