The Sea Otter Classic is all bicycles, all the time. The schedule is so full that the pro women raced a criterium on Thursday morning at 8 a.m. Alison Powers of NOW-Novartis won, followed by Loren Rowney of Specialized-lululemon and Emily Collins of Vanderkitten-Focus.
For Vanderkitten-Focus, Sea Otter is a hometown race of sorts as the brand is based in Berkeley, California, so the team always wants to show well there. But really, the "kittens" always look to go big. "Everyone’s got a chance in bike racing," said Emily Collins when I caught up with her earlier this season.
Vanderkitten-Focus are frequently the scrappy underdogs against the bigger budget teams like Specialized-lululemon or Exergy, but that reality does not seem to phase them. "Anything can happen, and we’re just going to try to stick it to them," said Collins.
An ex-triathlete and distance runner, the 21-year-old Collins fell in love with the bike in high school. She counts winning the U23 jersey at the Tour of New Zealand as her best result so far, and in 2011, she finished fifth overall in her national tour.
"We’re good friends at Vanderkitten, there’s a good atmosphere," said Collins.
Dave Varecchia started the Vanderkitten clothing brand in 2005. His cat Ophelia played model for the Vanderkitten logo. “Clothing for women who kick ass” is the Vanderkitten mantra. From the start, Vanderkitten committed to supporting women athletes and over the past seven years, the team has included multiple national champions.
“Vanderkitten is a symbol for empowerment of female athletes everywhere,” reads the brand’s mission statement, and the cycling team is the tangible result of that mission.
The team is funded in part from sales of Vanderkitten clothing, and the women can frequently be found at races selling t-shirts to fans. This is grassroots, do-it-yourself, women’s racing. Vanderkitten technical director Jonathan Coulter tells a story of the women packed in a van driving across the country. Team captain “Jenn X” Reither drove, while the other women take turns napping in the back between the bikes and wheels.
“You’ve got to love it to do it,” says Australian Jasmin “Jazzy” Hurikino. “Being on the team and traveling with the team, that’s as good as racing.” Hurikino plays a supporting role at Vanderkitten-Focus, and occasionally gets to chase stage wins for herself. “I can’t time trial, so I’m not a stage racer,” she said forthrightly.
Hurikino called last year’s Sea Otter Classic one of her favorite races, because she helped Collins score third overall in the omnium format race. The Australian, who also started her athletic career in triathlon, would love to score a stage victory at one of the Women’s Prestige Series Races, which includes Redlands Classic, Nature Valley Grand Prix, and Cascade Classic.
The 2012 Vanderkitten-Focus team includes six returning riders: Reither, Collins, Jasmin Hurikino, Maura Kinsella, Starla Teddergreen, and Vanessa Drigo. Reither, the team captain and most experienced rider, has ridden twelve editions of the Redlands Classic. Teddergreen comes from messengering, and Kinsella also competes in college racing in addition to riding for Vanderkitten-Focus.
New to the team is former U.S. national time trial champion Kathryn Curi-Mattis, New Zealander Katie Chilcott, former junior U.S. national champion Ruth Winder, who has both U.S. and U.K. citizenship, Courtney Dimpel, Kathleen Billington, and 2009 Australian time trial champion Bridie O’Donnell. Billington finished fourth in the U.S. national road race last year, which Robin Farina of NOW-Novartis won.
“I’m excited that the team is bigger and stronger this year,” said Collins. “We’re going to have some fun this year!”
For Winder, meanwhile, signing with Vanderkitten-Focus is a kind of homecoming. She raced for Vanderkitten as a junior, and she returns to the team after racing for PB & Co. Twenty12, now Exergy Twenty12. Born in the U.K., Winder came to the United States at age 7. She started on the road, then did a bunch of mountain bike racing.
Currently, Winder is in Europe riding with the U.S. National Team and earlier this week, she finished the challenging La Flèche Wallonne World Cup. “Vanderkitten-Focus is a fun team to be on, and I feel like I can trust everyone,” said Winder. “I’ve been on teams before, but never on a team like this one where everyone is on an equal level.”
The Vanderkitten team works hard to keep the vibe positive and fun. “We’re great friends,” said Chilcott. “Anyone would do anything for anyone else.” Hurikino is especially proud of Vanderkitten’s commitment to promoting women’s cycling. “I like the atmosphere we create, and how we spread the Vanderkitten love for women’s cycling,” she said.
“The focus on women and sport is a really good thing about Vanderkitten,” agrees Collins. She also feels lucky to ride for Coulter. “He is so very focused on the riders, and a really caring manager,” she said. “It’s not about the money with him.”
It can never really be about the money in women’s cycling, of course. For the Vanderkitten women, a good portion of their pay-out for the year comes from prize money. And indeed, Coulter makes a point of seeking out criteriums and races with good prize lists for the team.
Consequently, it was a disappointment, though not necessarily a surprise, to the team to learn that they did not receive an invite inaugural Exergy Tour with its $100,000 prize list. The race is ranked UCI 2.1 this year, and the ranking carries specific rules about which teams can participate. Because there are no other UCI-ranked stage races in the United States, it is difficult for a smaller-budget team like Vanderkitten-Focus to get the points necessary to be eligible for an invitation.
Despite missing out on the Exergy Tour, the Vanderkitten women have plenty of racing ahead of them. For Collins, the Nature Valley Grand Prix and Liberty Classic, or “Philly,” are her favorite races. Hurikino is also a fan of Philly. “It’s not my style of race, but the atmosphere is electric. It feels like Europe,” she said. Vanderkitten-Focus will also travel to Canada in May for the Chrono Gatineau and the GP Gatineau.
But first, the Vanderkitten-Focus women have three more stages of Sea Otter to race. This year, the overall is calculated on time rather than last year’s omnium format which counts points for placings. There is still a road race, time trial, and circuit yet to race before the weekend is over.
The Vanderkitten-Focus women may have a more difficult time matching last year’s podium finish. But like Collins said, anything can happen in bike racing, and everyone has a chance.
And every time they pin on a number, the Vanderkittens will be looking for a chance to stick it to their rivals.
Photos copyright Christopher See.