When the cyclo-cross season started back in September, Jade Wilcoxson's name was not on anybody's list of possible candidates for the US team that will compete at the world championships next month in Louisville, Kentucky. Wilcoxson, a first-year road pro who had never before raced a full season of cyclo-cross, had not even submitted her own name to USA Cycling for Worlds consideration.
But a season of consistently improving 'cross results for the Optum Pro Cycling rider, capped by an improbable second-place finish in the Elite women's race at the US cyclo-cross national championships last weekend, earned the 34-year-old a coveted starting spot at the first-ever cyclo-cross world championships in the US.
"That was crazy," Wilcoxson said of the moment she found out she'd made the Worlds team. "It's unbelievable, really. I'm still pretty shocked about it and incredibly excited. Who knew that my first time wearing a USA Cycling kit would be at a world championship event."
It's a lot to take in for a rider who just one year ago was working as a physical therapist in the small Southern Oregon town where she lives. Earlier that summer Wilcoxson, who at the time had been racing in regional amateur events for a couple of years, earned a spot on the Nature Valley Pro Chase composite team and went on to win the best amateur rider prize at the 2011 Nature Valley Grand Prix. After the season she signed her first pro contract with Optum Pro Cycling.
Wilcoxson wasted little time piling up top-10 and podium finishes on the road in 2012. She was fourth overall at the SRAM Tour of the Gila and came in second on the difficult Stillwater Criterium stage of the Nature Valley Grand Prix while helping teammate Carmen Small capture the overall win.
Wilcoxson won the overall at the Joe Martin Stage Race on the last day with a victory in the final criterium, and she won the criterium stage of the Tour of Elk Grove. Wilcoxson topped off her season with a high-profile win at the Blue Ribbon Alpine Challenge in Aspen, Colorado, on the same finishing circuit that the men's USA Pro Challenge stage used for its finish later the same day. Wilcoxson's rookie-season efforts placed her third on the NRC individual rankings, which teammate Small won.
Then Wilcoxson turned her attention to cyclo-cross and her team's fledgling program. Wilcoxson kept her success rolling with seven top-10 finishes at USA Cycling races in 2012, placing third and fifth at the Volkswagen Jingle Cross Rock races before riding to fourth at the US Gran Prix of Cyclocross finale in Bend. But the silver-medal ride at the national championships took almost everyone by surprise.
"I was incredibly shocked," Wilcoxson said. "I even asked somebody on the sideline, 'Did I get second? Did that just really happen?'"
The course in Verona, Wisconsin, had been worn in well by previous days of racing, but below-freezing temperatures on Sunday turned the track into a treacherously rutted base layer with a thin veneer of extra-slippery, barely melted mud smeared across the top. Not exactly the kind of conditions a roadie who had just finished the USA Cycling National Team Pursuit Track Camp in balmy Los Angeles would be expected to do well in.
"It's like a rule that I don't ride my bike outside when it's that cold and treacherous," Wilcoxson said. "It just seems inappropriate. So I didn't have any expectations of doing well, and I was just gonna go out and have fun with my last race of the year."
Starting in the second row, Wilcoxson methodically made her way through slower traffic toward the front of the field, setting the race's second-fastest lap time along the way.
"Coming through the last lap, my mechanic yelled at me to just stay steady and I'd have a podium," Wilcoxson said. "I was like, 'Really?' Because it was just so messy and muddy, and people were crashing all over the place; there was so much carnage that I really wasn't sure where I was. I knew that I had passed some people, but I didn't really know who was in front of me."
In front of her, Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective) was riding away to her ninth consecutive US championship while Nicole Duke trudged along in second after suffering two flats and a host of weather-related mechanical issues.
"When I came up on Nicole Duke, I was kind of shocked about that," Wilcoxson said. "There was a nice long road section coming into the finish, and I thought if I could just stay with her until we get to that road section and then maybe lay down a sprint, then that would be ideal. And that's what ended up happening."
The second-place result garnered the attention of USAC cyclo-cross director Marc Gullickson and the Worlds selection committee, which used one of its four discretionary picks to put Wilcoxson on the team. She'll join Compton, 2012 Olympic mountain bike bronze medalist Georgia Gould (Luna Pro team), U23 champion Kaitlin Antonneau (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com), Amy Dombroski (Telenet-Fidea) and Meredith Miller (Cal Giant-Specialized) on the start line February 3.
"It's going to be amazing," Wilcoxson said. "My brother just bought a ticket to come out to Louisville and watch, so I'm really excited that he's going to be there to share the excitement with me. I'll make him take a lot of pictures of me in my USA kit. Once again I'm going to try and not put too much pressure on myself and enjoy every second of it."
Wilcoxson won't have much time to let the worlds experience soak in, however, as she will head back to Los Angeles the following day for the Optum Pro Cycling team camp and the start of the 2013 road season. It's not much of a rest before she takes on her sophomore professional season, considering her 2012 campaign started at the Merco Cycling Classic in March. The question of whether she is biting off too much has already been raised among people who care about her performances.
"I think other people are more worried about it than I am," Wilcoxson said. "Kendra [Wenzel], my coach, and I have definitely had a lot of conversations about it, and I think she's doing a really good job of managing my fitness – obviously, I guess, considering I'm on month 11 of my season.
"So we're trying to be aware of the potential for that and be smart about my training and when to push harder and when to lay off," Wilcoxson continued. "I won't really know when I hit that wall until I hit it, and hopefully I won't. I still feel really good. I don't feel physically or mentally burned out at this point. I think I'm good to go, but we'll see how next season goes."