Lauren De Crescenzo has proven she is fast and fit, on both paved surfaces and rock-strewn odysseys. Now as one of 15 new women among the 70-rider field of the Life Time Grand Prix, she's working on her technical talents in order to contend in four of the mountain bike events among the seven-race series.
The 2021 Unbound Gravel champion, and runner-up last year, is in her third season at Cinch Cycling with a calendar dominated with gravel events, in the US and abroad. Unlike the past two years, she has a new approach coming into Emporia, Kansas for another top finish at Unbound, which is "not using racing to build fitness."
"For 2023, we opted for a different run-in for the first part of the season, so I can be fresher for the second half," De Crescenzo told Cyclingnews a few days before taking the start line of the opening gravel contest of the Grand Prix.
"The majority of the Life Time races are in the second part of the season, as well as US Gravel Nationals and UCI Worlds. This approach requires me to be on top of my Cinch Cycling training program and can mentally be more challenging, as I’m not using racing to build fitness."
Last year, De Crescenzo had transitioned from a full-time job at the Centers for Disease Control to a full-time job as a pro cyclist. She won the Valley of the Sun stage race in Arizona and won the Tour of the Gila before finishing second at Unbound, 9 minutes behind new elite women's winner Sofia Gomez Villafañe in treacherously muddy conditions.
Last year, she said, the field was noticeably "stacked". It was the first year of the Grand Prix, which had accepted applications from a large number of world-class mountain bike riders, like Venezuelan Olympian Villafañe, Commonwealth Games bronze medalist Haley Smith of Canada and others. Villafañe went on to win Unbound and Smith the overall Grand Prix title.
"Within the team, we now refer to gravel as 'super cycling', where the best from every discipline meet on equal ground. I’m super excited to take on the Grand Prix this year, even more so with my good friend and teammate Holly Mathews. Both of us are in a similar situation with our road backgrounds, learning off-road skills as we go along," she confirmed, happy to have added the Factor Lando XC to her racing arsenal. "Taking on this whole new discipline has been a challenge, but it turns out MTBing isn’t as scary as I once thought, it’s actually super fun."
This year De Crescenzo skipped the Tour of the Gila and other road races. She defended her title at Mid South Gravel in Nebraska in the spring, winning for a second time.
"Mid South is very similar to Unbound, in terms of the course and the way the race plays out. We went into Mid South at a high level to test our fitness, nutrition, equipment, and strategy. The team rode really strong with two of us [with Mathews] on the podium and all of us in the top 12," the former epidemiologist at the CDC said. "Personally, I felt super strong, which gives me a lot of confidence moving forward."
Her first ever mountain bike race was Fuego XL MTB, which is a prerequisite for earning a top 10 in the overall of the Life Time Grand Prix. With a top 10 placings at the series conclusion in October, the best of the elite men and women will earn shares in the $250,000 cash purse. There are no payouts for finishing 11th to 35th in either division, so the stakes are high to be good in all off-road disciplines.
Into the Gravel spotlight
Winning Unbound 200 in 2021 launched De Crescenzo into the spotlight of gravel. She said that it set her on a new trajectory as a professional athlete, and was incredibly special because “it changed my entire life”.
The race itself is still a top test for endurance, but has made rule changes this year for the elite fields. The elite women will have a dedicated start, two minutes after the elite men.
"With a women’s-only start with such a high-calibre field, I would expect groups of women to stay together, similar to what we saw at the UCI Gravel Worlds Championships," said De Crescenzo, who finished 20th for the US at the inaugural Worlds in Italy last year.
"One thing I love about road racing is racing strategically, attacking, covering moves, making good decisions, and I’m looking forward to being able to do that on the gravel. I doubt we’ll see field sprints, but there’s a good chance we see small groups coming to the line in some of these events."
She said she now expects similar tactics and outcome at these gravel races that have separate starts for women and 'stacked fields' like big one-day races on the Women's WorldTour, such as Paris-Roubaix Femmes or women’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The start of Unbound will see the most positive impact.
“I’m a big advocate of safety, and I feel so much relief because up until this point, the first hour of Unbound has been a blood bath. Last year, there were multiple pile-ups in the first hour. It was unnecessarily dangerous.”
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Jackie has been involved in professional sports for more than 30 years in news reporting, sports marketing and public relations. She founded Peloton Sports in 1998, a sports marketing and public relations agency, which managed projects for Tour de Georgia, Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and USA Cycling. She also founded Bike Alpharetta Inc, a Georgia non-profit to promote safe cycling. She is proud to have worked in professional baseball for six years - from selling advertising to pulling the tarp for several minor league teams. She has climbed l'Alpe d'Huez three times (not fast). Her favorite road and gravel rides are around horse farms in north Georgia (USA) and around lavender fields in Provence (France), and some mtb rides in Park City, Utah (USA).