In just her fourth season of racing cyclo-cross, Nicole Duke (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) has quickly climbed to the upper echelon of US elite women, regularly finishing in the top five at national events and staking out a legitimate shot at grabbing an elite medal during nationals this week in Madison.
But this isn't the first time the 38-year-old mother of two from Boulder, Colorado has occupied podiums at national and international races. More than a decade earlier, Duke forged a successful pro career in MTB downhill and dual slalom.
Duke excelled in soccer while growing up in Florida, eventually earning a college scholarship, but she also spent a lot of her free time riding dirt bikes. Then she discovered mountain bikes in the mid-1990s.
"I started out with cross country racing before I discovered downhill and dual slalom," she said. "And that's what I really excelled at, the technical side, because I'd grown up on the dirt bikes. That was more fun to me anyway. So I started doing downhill and slalom and went pro the next year."
Racing as Nicole Grant, her maiden name, for teams such as Mongoose and Giant, Duke finished consistently among the top 10 in downhill events and among the top five in dual slalom before hanging up her bikes in 2001 to pursue a career as a hairstylist. She married Ben Duke in 2004 and gave birth to their first child, Ryder, in 2005. But the competition bug bit again and Duke tried her first cyclo-cross race in 2007.
"When I was a downhill racer in the late-90s, there was a scene here in Boulder, we call it Wednesday worlds, where we'd get together and practice cyclo-cross on Wednesday mornings," Duke said. "I used to do that just randomly in the winter for training. But that was years ago, and I never raced."
But a growing cyclo-cross racing scene in the US and support from some influential people in the local cycling community made it easy to get back into the sport.
"I just started to dabble in it and it was fun," she said. "And I thought it was a good event to do with a family. I mean the races are only 40 minutes long. We have a bunch of local races that are family-oriented, so it just kind of worked. I had always preferred the shorter races like short track and that kind of thing. And I didn't have time to train to be an endurance rider. So it just kind of fit my lifestyle at the time."
Duke made a splash in some of the local races that year, competing on a mountain bike and taking third in women's open class at the Colorado championships. But racing slipped off the radar again in 2008 after the birth of her daughter, Canin.
When the 2009 season approached, it looked as if Duke would be sitting out another year of racing until her husband nudged her back into competition. "I wasn't sure if I was going to race or not," she said. "I didn't even have a bike. Then, literally a month before the season, my husband surprised me with a bike. I hadn't really trained too much because I'd just had Canin, but I started again and had a blast at the local races."
Duke grabbed a handful of wins in 2009 and finished consistently in the top three at local events, taking third again at the Colorado championships and going on to finish third in the Masters 35-39 race at nationals, where she finished 28th in the elite race. The results, relative to the amount of preparation that went into the season, prompted Duke to "get serious" for the next season.
She signed with the Boulder-based Hudz-Subaru team for 2010 and started training in earnest. Duke used paddle board racing in the summer as cross training and then in August hit the bicycles hard. "It wasn't at the training level at the pros or anything," she said, "but I wanted to do well locally."
During an early season race in Colorado, Duke found herself leading Amy Dombroski, one of the top US elite riders, before flatting and falling into second. Duke said she realized at the time that she may need to adjust her goals for the season.
"My form was amazing and I couldn't believe it," she said. "That year ended up really successful, but I had no idea my body could do that or that I could go there. I did not expect it at all. I did not expect to do so well on a national level."
In fact, 2010 proved to be Duke's breakout season. She scored two seventh-place finishes during her first USGP races in Louisville.
"It was funny because no one knew who I was," she said. "They kept calling me Kathie Sherwin, because we were in the same kit for the team, and nobody knew who I was. I think after that I realized I could compete at this level."
Duke went on to make the podium each of all three days at Jingle Rock Cross in December of that year before grabbing sixth in the elite race at nationals and winning gold in the 35-39 event. The high-profile national results eventually landed her a contract with the Cannondale/Cyclocrossworld.com squad for 2011, a season in which her steady climb to the top has continued.
She won the Boulder CX at Valmont Park before heading east to grab podium spots both days of the GP Gloucester. She grabbed a qualifying marker for the US worlds team by finishing 14th at the first UCI World Cup at Plzen. She finished in the top 10 of each USGP race and capped off that series in Bend, Oregon with a second place on the last day after having a disappointing day one, when she was riding strongly in second on the final lap before crashing and having to walk her bike a cross the line for 7th.
Duke won the Colorado championship on December 18, and now she has her sights set on a top-three finish at nationals on Sunday in Madison. After that, she'll head to Europe for the final round of the World Cup in Belgium and then she hopes to compete at the world championships in late January.
This second climb to the top has been a wild and quite unexpected trip, Duke said, but she's ready and willing to see where else it takes her, adding that she hopes to compete in more World Cups and finish consistently in the top three at national races.
"At my age, having two kids and working, this has really been a surprise. I had no idea," she said. "I look at this time right now as a gift. Who knows how long it's going to last. It's not like I'm young and expect this to be a 10-15 year career. And who knows how long my body's going to last. So right now I just take it year by year and just look at every bit of travel and the friends and the people I meet as just a gift."