After embarking on her first Euro Cross Academy with some of the most exciting and talented riders from America, mechanic Andi Zolton will form part of the support crew for the USA at the upcoming UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Arkansas.
Zolton, a former racer and brand ambassador for LIV Racing USA, has worked alongside some of the biggest names in the off-road world, including Rebecca Rusch, but when Euro Cross Academy organiser Geoff Proctor offered Zolton the chance to work in Belgium over the holiday period, she jumped at the chance.
“I’d heard about the programme because I used to race ‘cross a lot, and then in the last fall I started working for the Olympic development programme at USA Cycling as one of their mechanics,” Zolton told Cyclingnews.
Zolton’s path towards being one of the elite mechanics on the off-road circuit started at a young age when she received her first mountain bike. From there, her love for the sport and her fascination with gear began to blossom.
"I started wrenching as a mechanic back in college, so around 2006, 2007, and I've done that more than anything else since then. Growing up, I just had this strong draw towards bicycles. I just loved my terrible department store mountain bike that I had and really wanted to know how to fix it. Then when I was 18, we got new neighbours and the dad of the family was an assistant bike manager at a local bike shop and he gave me a summer job. I'd go back every summer, and every winter, and I had this strong draw towards bicycles and how they worked. I just followed it," she said.
The Euro Cross Academy adventure meant spending the holiday at a base in Belgium with almost a dozen young riders and the rest of the support crew. The camp has been a launchpad for a string of highly successful American riders in the past and its importance and relevance in the grassroots of American cycling cannot be understated. The programme provides young athletes with the chance to experience European racing and culture for the very first time and see them challenge the best of the best in European cross-racing.
For Zolton, it was a chance to work with aspiring young athletes and help their budding careers as riders. The programme was fun but intense, with long days and a busy race schedule that included several rounds of the UCI World Cup, and Zolton appreciated the atmosphere and the chance to help guide the athletes.
"It's great. I like it," she said on the eve of the final European race in late December. "I've never really worked with kids like this but it's fun and they're a hoot. They're great athletes and it's great to spend time with them off the bike and then be able to help them out in the pits at the races. It's a great group.
"I've had a really positive experience. I enjoy working as a team, and the pits are good. There's honestly nothing negative to say because I've been watching these races for years and it's amazing to be part of it. On a deeper level, I enjoy being a cog in the machine that makes it all happen. I didn't really ever have the time or the money to push my racing far enough to do these races. I would do one or two UCI races a year and raced in China, but that was about it."
A typical race day for Zolton during the European camp would start the previous evening, when the equipment would be checked over and packed up for the next morning. Along with co-mechanic Dave Hartman, who will also be at Worlds for Team USA, Zolton would put the finishing touches to the bikes during the early morning pre-race ride, and then work flat out during the intense racing programme.
"The day before the race we'd get all the racers B bikes dialled back to race mode because they'd usually train on the B bikes," she said. "We'd get up in the dark the next morning, set-up everything for the riders, make sure that everything is squared away before the riders get there. They pre-ride the race, typically, and then we'll wash the bikes down. Sometimes the races take place right on top of each other but we'll set the riders up on the trainers, finalize any last details like tire pressure, which we write down on a whiteboard for them. It was mostly muddy in Europe, so there's been pitting every lap and it can get tense at times. After the race, we'll clean everything up, head back, and then just prep for the next day."
The atmosphere within the pits at the European races was always geared towards providing the best possible care for the athletes. However, there's no denying that Zolton works in a world dominated by male mechanics, while the number of females in her professional sphere remains low. There are many depressing preconceptions and elements of gender bias in sport - as there is in almost every walk of life - and the world of bike mechanics is no different. However, Zolton has faced up to those challenges every step of the way.
Zolton also hopes that her experience in Europe has helped shine a light on what young female riders could achieve if they wished to follow her pathway towards being a full-time mechanic on a national programme. "There's really only one other female. Everyone else is a man and maybe I get some looks and some people don't think that I'm a mechanic," she said when asked about the gender split at races back in December.
"Sometimes they think I'm just there helping but I don't feel weird at all. My whole life I've been a female amongst males, whether it's in the bike shops or in the bike industry, so it's what I'm used to. I think that means you need to come in with a certain attitude, but you act in a way so that people understand what you're doing. Then it's all fine.
"I just always assume, whether it's a customer or anyone, that because I'm female they think that I don't know what I'm doing. Whether that's true or not, I just go in with the attitude that I have to be confident. It usually works. I always have that hope," she says when asked if her actions and direction could act as an inspiration for more female mechanics.
"So maybe some of the girls who are racing even now, if they're mechanically minded, they can see me in the pits and realize that one day they could do this too. I just want to show them that it's a good experience and that's it's possible."
At the World Championships in a few weeks' time, Zolton will be part of an elite group of mechanics on hand to support the riders on the US national team. After that, she will focus on a number of other projects including Roam Events.
"With Roam, we put on women's mountain bike events. I do my own mechanic work on the side as well but I think there will be a lot more travelling and wrenching this year."
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Daniel Benson is the Editor in Chief at both Cyclingnews.com and BikePerfect.com. Based in the UK, he has worked within cycling for almost 15 years, and he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he has reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he runs the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.
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