After five years of amateur competitive cycling, Jade Wilcoxson has parlayed her 2011 Nature Valley Pro Ride opportunity into a real pro contract with the new Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies women's team.
Now the 33-year-old physical therapist from tiny Talent, Oregon is making dramatic changes to her lifestyle to accommodate her new profession, including quitting a full-time job that required eight years of education, renting out her house and converting a 300-square foot shop into a studio apartment for herself.
"It's a big change, putting all of that on hold and knowing that I can come back to it when I've tapped out the racing," Wilcoxson said. "But I'm diving in head first and trying not to worry about how am I going to make it work. I'm just enjoying the opportunity of a lifetime."
Wilcoxson got the attention of team directors by winning multiple elite amateur races and consistently placing in the top 10 at USA Cycling National Race Calendar events throughout 2011. In April she traveled to California for the Sea Otter Classic, which featured Olympic gold medalist and former world champion Kristen Armstrong's return as part of the Peanut Butter & Co. Twenty-12 professional team.
"I got there and I was intimidated, and I was just hoping not to get dropped," Wilcoxson said. "I did all four races down there and ended up second overall and won the circuit race. So then I'm standing on the podium next to Kristen Armstrong, and I was like, 'Wow, maybe I could give this a go.' That really inspired me for the rest of the season, trying to find more national opportunities to race."
Wilcoxson followed Sea Otter with an overall win at Washington's Enumclaw Stage Race, where she qualified to compete at the NRC Nature Valley Grand Prix as part of the composite "Pro Ride" team. She finished sixth overall at the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic riding with a Mike Engleman-coached composite team that featured Canadian Olympic gold medalist and multi-time world champion Clara Hughes in a showdown with Armstrong and the Peanut Butter & Co. Twenty-12 squad.
Then Wilcoxson made the most of her Nature Valley Pro Ride opportunity, finishing seventh overall while winning the best amateur jersey and grabbing fifth place at the difficult Stillwater Criterium stage.
"There were a lot of big teams there, and I was top 10 overall," she said. "So a lot of the teams were wondering who I was."
She followed that with a fifth-place overall finish at the NRC Tour de Toona, almost making the podium with fourth in the time trial and finishing inside the top 10 during all the stages. She capped off her national results with a 10th-place overall finish at the Cascade Cycling Classic riding as a guest with the Now and Novartis For MS team, once again finishing each stage in the top 10.
At the end of the season it wasn't long before an offer from Heal and Colavita came in. Wilcoxson said her consistent results and knowing the right people paid off. She specifically credited Engleman's help.
"He has a ton of contacts," she said. "He and I really hit it off. He was my team director when I got to ride for Clara Hughes at Mt. Hood. Just before that I qualified for Nature Valley, and he was also the team director for the Nature Valley team. So he and I got to work together for two stage races in a row, and I did well in both of those. So having him in my corner and pushing for me and promoting for me was a big factor."
But before Wilcoxson was able to celebrate too much; news came down just a couple of weeks after signing a 2012 contract that Colavita was pulling out as a sponsor.
"Before the news came out, they had contacted us and said this is what's happening and don't worry because everyone who had signed a contract with Colavita was going to Optum Health," Wilcoxson said. "So the Colavita people were really respectful of our contracts by not leaving us high and dry and making sure that we had a home to go to."
Since then Wilcoxson has focused on clearing her calendar and simplifying her home life to prepare for a season of travel and racing, including a lot more time devoted to training.
"Since September I've been in the gym lifting weights and getting base miles in, so at this point I feel like I'm a lot stronger than last year," she said. "It's kind of hard in Southern Oregon because there are only a few other female races, and so it's really hard to know how I measure up against other women. I ride with the boys all the time, but that's entirely different. So I never really know how strong I am until I go to my first race, and then it's apparent."
Wilcoxson also said that after five years of basically riding solo, she's excited but also a bit apprehensive about learning the team game and finding her place on the new squad. But most of all, she's just ready to race.
"I'm ready to get this party started already," she said. "There's been so much anticipation since September when I signed. I'm just ready for the anxiety to be done with and just start racing and see how it goes."