Krista Park (No Tubes Cannondale) was named to the US Olympic Long Team in December, but she says the honor hasn't changed her approach to racing. What has influenced her plans for the 2012 season is steady improvement, year after year.
Park got a late start in pro racing. "I quit my job in 2007, which was my first year racing and not working," said the now 37-year-old former electrical engineer.
Park and her husband Todd live in an RV to keep expenses down and to enable her to race as a pro and travel the globe.
"Every year we take this one year at a time. In that first year, I travelled and raced and figured because I was good at this, we'd live on one salary and then maybe the next year, I could get a real job. But I keep getting better every year, so there hasn't been a good time to stop. So we're still taking the same approach - no pressure, no expectations and one year at a time."
Park evaluates her success based on her fitness and her power numbers. Over the years, she says her power numbers just keep getting better and the race results come along with them.
Last year, Park earned a top five overall in the US national series and placed third and fourth at individual races. She also stepped up to race in a more committed way on the World Cup circuit. But she is striving for a balance between the high profile international series and lesser known events.
"The World Cup experience meant more to me than the results," said Park, who enumerated her goals for 2012. "I'm not targeting anything but World Cups. I will do some underground endurance events. I think you can get too focused on being pro and the real world is not doing World Cups. They are out drinking a beer and doing other events. I'll do more of those races than any particular other series."
The World Cup learning curve was a steep one for Park, who raced the circuit in 2011 as a privateer. "I was a new person without a team manager telling me what to do. I had to figure out how to drive on the wrong side of the road." She learned the hard way, by making mistakes. For example, at one World Cup, she accidentally made hotel reservations in the wrong town far away.
Park will continue to race as a independent rider sponsored primarily by Stan's and Cannondale, but she will get some extra support while on the road at World Cups this year as the staff of the Cannondale Factory Racing team will be there to lend a hand.
"This year, Cannondale is offering support through CFR at World Cup races. That will be huge for me this year. I do everything on my own - I'm my own team manager, travel agent. I race, I train, I build my bikes and I'm my own mechanic. I love doing everything, but it's hard to race at this level and do it. Having that additional support will be a big help."
"I'll continue to bring an entire bag of tools and spare parts because I'll be on my own in between races, but at the races, during that crucial part when you're stressing out, I'll have these guys."
Her husband Todd will still travel to international races to help her out, too. She credits him with his continued support - financially and emotionally. "This takes up all my time, and if he expected me to do this just a little bit, it wouldn't work." She tries to make some time for just the two of them at each World Cup. "We set aside time to do a dinner date and go check out the town where we are."
Park has already started her racing season. She tested her legs at the three rounds of the Cyprus Sunshine Cup. What she found surprised her. "Being an Olympic year, I just learned that everyone is on fire. I looked at my power files and saw that I improved my power and I took two minutes off per lap. However, her own better fitness wasn't enough to give her the better results she might have expected to go along with it."
Next for Park is the World Cup test race in South Africa and the World Cup.
"My goal is to get in top 40 at World Cup because then my start position in not based on UCI points, and I'll have a more fair start. I'll start in the back again in South Africa and try to move up. Last year there, I went from second to last call up to 39th place - that's passing a lot of people. In the first one, I'll get there and then stay up there."
Park noted that Olympic selection is based on World Cup performance, so starting at the front is a big advantage. "The courses funnel to singletrack quickly. Sometimes someone falls off and you see a gap and slingshot to the front and other times, you watch everyone go around you."
"Mentally you can't really prepare yourself for that, but you can practice by racing with the boys because they start much faster than the girls. Training in Cyprus was also part of that because there was a fast field. It gave me five races in three weeks again riders like [2008 Olympic champion] Sabine Spitz."
Park says she does not expect to race most US Pro XCTs and she may also skip US Mountain Bike Nationals. She is devoting her limited budget to European training and travel. On top of that she's not a big fan of the national championship course in Idaho.
"The course isn't any fun. If it was a fun course, I think it would push me toward going. The altitude also hurt me last year. I thought it was just an excuse, but I got there and realized it actually does something."
Being part of the US Olympic Long Team is not something Park had aspired to for years.
"I didn't even think about the Olympic long team until I read the criteria and then I realized that I qualified. Being named to the world championship team solidified that because they took seven, but they were going to take nine for the Olympic long team."
While happy to have made the team, she's not letting that distract her from her overall goal of continuous improvement. "Being named to the Olympic long team hasn't changed anything. I take this all step by step and take the path of least resistance, whatever is working out."