"A fan as much as an athlete" - an interview with Amber Pierce

Amber Pierce by Milay Galvez - Milay Galvez

Catching up with Amber Pierce, on what it's like as an American in the European peloton, how fans can use social media to actively help women's cycling, and a lot more!

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Amber Pierce is a big favourite of mine. She’s an American rider who raced for Webcor and Team Tibco on the USA circuit, before making the jump to Europe with Kuota Speed Kweens, and moving to Diadora-Pasta Zara, where she’s been riding in Giorgia Bronzini’s sprint train, and will continue racing for them as they become Pasta Zara-Cogeas-Manhattan for 2013 – you might remember her video Q&As from the 2012 Giro Donne, where she answered fan questions on anything we could throw at her, after most of the stages.


She is also the brains behind Click-Thru Thursday, a really simple idea where fans can spend a few minutes a week to make a difference to women’s cycling. I caught up with her to ask some questions on how all that is working, life in the peloton, and a lot more.

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PdC: You're a rider from the USA, living in Austria, and riding for an Italian team in races all over the world - how does that work in daily life?

Amber: It depends on the day! When I'm home in Austria, I'm usually training solo, catching up on emails (in three different languages), speaking Austrian dialect with the grocers and farmers at the market, then speaking English with David at home in the evenings.

When I'm on the road, the language mix gets more complicated. Last year, the team spoke primarily Italian, which I'm slowly learning. But we'd also be travelling through Switzerland or Germany or France, so I'd often help with translations in German and French, which frankly does not go very smoothly! More often than not, I get the languages mixed up in my head and start spouting random German words when trying to speak French, or vice versa.

PdC: Were you always good at languages, or is this something you've had to learn?

Amber:
I studied French in high school, and my parents taught me a bit of French at a young age (mostly children's songs), which I think has helped me to have a good ear for different phonetics. I didn't know a single word of German before moving to Austria, and just as I started to get a handle on the Austrian dialect (thanks to my KUOTA teammates in 2010), I signed with an Italian team and was back to square one!

PdC: Brilliant! So by the time you've got Italian under control, it'll be time for a move to a Dutch team?

Amber: Haha! Actually our new team manager Ruben Contreras is Swiss, and he is most comfortable speaking French. So, we email and speak mainly in French, which in a way has brought everything full circle.

PdC: Nice! Have you ever been tempted to try to jump to an English-speaking team? It seems from all your media that you relish these challenges, but do you ever look at somewhere with more Americans and wish you were there? Or does the fact that Diadora-Pasta Zara has been pretty international make it easier?

Amber: Racing with English speaking compatriots is definitely easier, in terms of communication and especially when it comes to sense of humor! Americans definitely have a style of talking and joking all their own, which has become much more clear to me in the past years! On the other hand, there are so many other factors that go into a "good" experience with a team - how they handle logistics, what kind of support they can offer, the calendar the plan to race, etc. So while learning new languages and cultures is perhaps more challenging, it's part of the whole package. Plus, I think it's good to get outside my comfort zone and keep things stimulating; there are definitely cultural nuances to racing, as well, and I think it's important to see bike racing from different perspectives, too, not just an American one.

PdC: I guess another aspect is the fact you're living in another different culture, in Austria - have you ever been tempted to move closer to the team base - live in a team house etc? Or does the distance help?

Amber: For me personally, the distance is nice. I'm a bit of an introvert (surprise!), so I need time to myself to recharge. I like having a home that is my own, in that regard, and it helps me manage my overall stress levels. It's a balance, though, because living in Austria often requires a bit of extra travel now and then, which can also be stressful. I think the value of building a life of my own in Europe, outside of and beyond cycling, is important and healthy and has really helped me. I just have to be judicious about travel logistics, so I don' t end up with more travel hours than absolutely necessary.


PdC: How does it work, then, in terms of time training solo, and time riding with the team?


Amber: We're all generally on our own when it comes to training. Most of us have our own individual coaches (though a few women are trained by the same coach), and we each definitely have our own training plan. Riders are very different from one another, so it's important that we're working on our own strengths and weaknesses. Training camp is the time when we ride together to learn one another's wheels and postures and styles and "tells." A few of the girls live in the team house most of the year, and the rest of us come in and out depending on the calendar. We usually all gather at the house a few days before the race to ride together, then travel together to the race. It's at the races that we come together as a team under the direction of our DS.

PdC: Do you tend to be in contact with the other riders remotely as well? I guess, apart from the friendships you make, do you talk tactics, what you think about races and other teams before you get together in a team-style, or does that wait?


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Amber:
We definitely keep in touch even when we're not all at the team house together. We develop friendships and pretty deep bonds, just because of the nature of what we do: we're traveling and living together for extended periods of time, and competing together, which in and of itself is a very challenging and emotional endeavor. So we support each other at the races, and off the bike as well. We don't actually talk much about the races other than the day before or maybe a day or two after, depending on what happened. We mostly talk about normal life - catching up on what has happened since we last saw one another. So I guess I'd say we keep in touch mostly as friends, and leave the race talk for racing.

PdC: I've always wondered - how does it work when someone you're friends with moves to a new team - or you move your team? Does it make things difficult, or is it pretty easy to compartmentalise?

Amber: It's totally easy - the only tough part is that we don't get to see each other as often! This happens a lot, as there tends to be a lot of turnover with sponsors and teams each year. The friendships are strong, though, regardless of the jersey!

PdC: It seems like the women's peloton is a pretty friendly place, overall - what's your favourite thing about life with the travelling circus?

Amber: Other than the racing itself, I really do think it's all of these friendships I've developed over the years. It is such a joy to see friends I haven't seen in a long time, which makes the early season races special - they're like a reunion of sorts for many of us! I love the women on our team, too, and travelling together always means we laugh a lot and create some great inside jokes. They're usually terrible you-had-to-be-there kinds of jokes, but they make us laugh! The travelling becomes routine, and you quickly feel at home with your teammates on the road that way. It's a big adventure, which I get to share with some very incredible women - it is awesome (to put it in American terms).

PdC: Ha! And what's your least-favourite thing... that you're willing to tell us!

Amber: The travel itself can be gruelling. There are wonderful, bright and fun aspects of travel -- seeing new and exotic places -- and then there are those Ryan Air flights which put your femurs under uniaxial compression if you're over 5ft tall. Or the 10 hour trans-Europe "road trips" which are great fun for about two hours... then not so much. I won't even get into the fun of travelling with bike bags...

PdC: Or hoping your bike actually arrives at the same airport you do?

Amber: Yes! More than a few times I've lost luggage at a race. My teammates are always so kind and let me borrow clothes, which usually means the borrowed t-shirt becomes a crop-top, and the yoga pants inadvertent compression tights.

PdC: Ha! It's not uncommon, is it, to see a rider on twitter, desperately begging for a bike to race on... and then, next day, profuse thanks to team-mates and other teams - that always makes me smile.

Amber: That is another wonderful aspect about the travelling circus! When it comes to the racing, everyone is ultra-competitive, but no one ever loses sight of the fact that we're really all in the same boat. We all know that at one race, we might be offering help, while the next we may be the one asking. It's quite moving, when you really think about it.

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PdC:
That brings me on to the reason I wanted to interview you today!

It feels like the riders in the women's peloton all have that passion for the sport in common - you know, that you all have other things you could be doing other than cycling, that would pay you more, and give you an easier life - but you're in it for the love.

Which I guess brings me on to talking about your social media efforts at the moment to help women's cycling.... Click Thru Thursdays! I've linked to your initial article, and to the #ClickThruThurs twitter hashtag, but can you give us a nutshell description of what this is?

Amber: Click Thru Thursdays are a weekly event where fans can get together on the interwebs and support their favorite athletes, teams, programs, events, sponsors in cycling, by "clicking through" their links and generating quantitative ROI for them.

PdC: Excellent! I love it, because it seems SO simple - why didn't we think of this before?

Amber: I don't know! I didn't really think much of the idea when I wrote about it; I just figured, hey why not throw it out there? Even if we got a few people participating, we could do something positive. But what is really cool is that fans are beginning to realize just how important they are to this sport, and this is a way they can make their voices heard, in a positive, constructive way. It's empowering, and the response has been phenomenal! Cycling fans from all over the world are participating, and every Thursday, you can see #ClickThruThurs posts starting up in Australia and Asia, then moving toward Europe, and finally to North and South America. It is really exciting to see the growth already taking place, and I'm hopeful that as the season gets going, we'll see even more great feedback happening!

PdC: I've been really enjoying it myself, because of all the interesting things I'm finding out - and new people I'm "meeting" - but you've got some stats to show it's making a difference, haven't you?

Amber: Yes! We had a bit of a lull over the holidays, but with the racing getting going, I think we'll see some big growth in the coming weeks. I'll be really curious to see if teams and sponsors start to notice the difference by the end of the year. Or, if as Dan [omnevelnihil] said, we see press releases being saved for release on Thursdays!

The feedback is consistently positive from fans, and we're getting a LOT of great comments from them!

PdC: It's been great seeing teams like Specialized-lululemon and Orica-AIS posting #ClickThruThurs links, both for their own information, and others in general.

Amber: Yes! I love that - this is an inclusive effort: everyone is welcome to participate, and everyone wins!

PdC: It feels very "women's cycling" to me - and I liked what you've said before, about working to increase the whole pie, rather than your own small slice of it.

Amber: Yes, and when it comes to marketing women in the sport, we really are all in this together. The more fans know about all the personalities and riders, the better it is for all of us.

One point I'd like to emphasize: I had a brief conversation with a friend who works in marketing, both for a women's team and for a private firm. He made the point that while "impressions" have value, sponsors look more for direct branding - engaging the fans (potential customers) directly with events, openings, etc. While the foundation of Click Thru Thursday is the concept of "clicking through," it also opens the door to more interaction with fans, more frequently. Plus, these are fans who are fully engaged and on board; as the project grows, it would be wise for sponsors to take note, and perhaps look for ways they can forge stronger relationships with the fan base through the opportunities Click Thru Thursday presents.

That, and Click Thru Thursday isn't just about clicking; it's about taking a few minutes to show support for your cycling favorites, whether that be by writing an email or tweet to thank a sponsor, or choosing a certain brand of bike gear over another because they support the sport in a way that you appreciate. So there is very valuable potential here for direct branding, as well as more quantifiable aspects of ROI like site visits, Facebook likes, and click-through rates.

PdC: Yes indeed. I worry I'm a bit gushing about CTT, but one of the things that has made me really happy as a fan, in 2012 and 2013, has been the opportunity to actually take direct action to help the sport I love - and as a non-brand-y person in general, I am definitely paying more attention to who the sponsors are - remembering to tweet Boels Rental, for example, to thank them for saving the Holland Ladies Tour. I just need something I can actually buy that's connected to a sponsor... so if anyone wants to give me the money for a Specialized bike, or fly me to the Netherlands for a BrianWash hair-cut....!

But joking aside, has there been any negative feedback?

Amber: Actually, no. I've had several people offer additional insights, like the importance of supporting our brick-and-mortar bike shops, and not just shopping online (an excellent point!), but so far, all of the feedback has been extremely positive. I think in part, it's because this is a non-competitive effort. Everyone can participate, and the focus is positive: let's support the things we love about cycling (as opposed to - let's gripe and be snarky about what we don't like - which can be fun, too, let's be honest, but it has a different place).

PdC: Indeed - I've had a lot of comments from people saying how nice it is to be able to do something positive - especially when we're still in the long, drawn-out death throes of the Armstrong saga etc.

What are your ambitions for CTT? Both in terms of short-term plans, and long-term blue-sky thinking?

Amber: Of course, as a woman I'd like to see this grow awareness from women's cycling, and what truly phenomenal role models these women could be for young girls, if only we could get the same media attention as a celebrity's botched plastic surgery. Bigger picture, though, I want this to benefit the whole sport, and help turn our collective focus to what we love about cycling, to support and reward all the good, inspiring work and people and projects and programs that are making the world better with bikes! I really think the most effective way forward for the sport is to honestly address and deal with the negatives, but in the meantime, go full-steam-ahead on all the great stuff that is ALREADY happening. Growing and nurturing the good stuff will only lead to more good stuff, and I think we can all agree that's a worthy goal!

PdC: Are there, for example, any people or organisations whose involvement, or just mentioning it, would thrill you?

Amber: Oh jeez, I get excited when ANYONE posts about it! But seeing the big influencers in the sport get on board would be amazing.

I was super excited to see Lululemon and Orica Green Edge tweet with the hashtag - getting more women's teams on board would be great: Hitec, Blanco, TIBCO... We also have some pretty influential women in social media - Vos, obviously, Evelyn Stevens, Kristin Armstrong, Ina Teutenberg, Emma Pooley, etc. To gain even further reach, it would be very, very cool to see a few of the pro men get involved, and maybe even get some of the World Tour teams to post. The bottom line, though, is that this is a fan-driven effort, and the more fans we can get involved, the more powerful this effort will be.

PdC: Yeah, that's what's so lovely about it - although I think I'll feel like we've "arrived" when we get our first, I dunno, "Armstrong is innocent" troll using it!

Amber: Hahahahahaha! TRUE!!!!

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PdC: I think the beauty of it is, though, that while you've started it, it is, as you say, a fan-based action - so it's not one of those things where, for example, it tails off when the racing starts. I always feel for riders who get apologetic because they've stopped blogging in the racing, and want to tell them "it's fine!"

It makes me wonder - as a rider with a strong social media presence, do you ever feel pressure to keep that going?

Amber: Yes. But it's not a bad thing. As strange as it may sound, it's about building and investing in relationships. We (or at least I do!) develop friendships with fellow cycling fans (I consider myself a fan as much as an athlete - I love this sport), and I do feel badly when I drop the ball on those relationships. It can be very challenging during the racing - the travel means less time to get anything done (including normal life things like paying bills), and often internet is a rare commodity. A lot of athletes I know feel the same way - we want to connect and really enjoy it, and we also sense instinctively that it's a two way street, that we need to give back, too.

Some athletes are more involved and engaged with social media than others, and that's cool. I personally try to stay involved, and although I do drop off the map from time to time, it's usually beyond my control. I really value the support of cycling fans, and more, the friendships that develop from a common love of cycling. So, for me, it is important to invest in those relationships.

PdC: I guess there must also be pressure on those riders who don't blog and tweet, too - do you find yourself trying to persuade your friends to get accounts?

Amber: Actually, I don't, and that might be a cultural thing. Most of my American teammates are active with social media, but many of my other teammates have either just gotten started or don't want anything to do with it. I think it's got to be a personal choice.

PdC: There are definitely cultural aspects - the way Italians riders use twitter, for example, seems different to the Dutch - and I like that a lot!

So, looking back at your own cycling career, what advice would you give to young girls in the USA who might be looking at the women's peloton, and wanting to be racing at this level?

Amber: Find a way to get to Europe, and build yourself a solid support network.

Learning a language or two helps immensely as well, but could be considered part of building a good support network. It's impossible to re-create the style and level of racing here, and it has to be learned on the ground, through experience. The more you can get, the better, and you'll have a MUCH easier (and more fun!) time if you have people around you whom you like and trust and can be yourself.

PdC: What do you think the biggest differences between North American and European racing are?

Amber: There are so many it's difficult to give an overview, but using the broadest of brush strokes, I'd say European racing offers less room - tighter roads, bigger pelotons, more road furniture, and less room for mistakes. American racing is aggressive and fast and can be very technical (crits), but in a different way. The roads are big and exposed, and for the women, the pelotons are smaller.

PdC: I do love the blogs from USA riders who come over to ride the Dutch races for the first time - there's the "I'm never coming back, ever again!" reaction - or Evie Stevens' hilarious blog on her "Dutch Anxiety" and how she learned to love it after all. What is it about bike racing that keeps you going, when you're on those tiny narrow, cobbled roads, crowded with road furniture, and 200 women battling for your place, attacks happening every 45 seconds, in the wind, rain and chaos?

Amber: In a race, it's moment-to-moment, looking for opportunities, or anticipating strategy. Big picture, it's the quest for excellence - to continually set new challenges and limits, and I think that's actually a commonality among many, many crafts, professions and trades. There's a great quote by Bruce Lee: It's many different fingers pointing to the moon, if you focus on the finger, you miss the beauty of the moon. That's not an exact quote, but the gist of it.

PdC: So, my final questions for tonight - what are your ambitions for the coming year? Both in terms of on the bike, and the rest of your life - and what would you like to see for the sport in general?

Amber: For myself - I'm hoping that I can race healthy. I'm trying a new approach to my training and preparation, and my goal with that is to build into a high level more slowly, without sacrificing my health. And, I want to win at least one race. Last season was the first season of my career that I didn't win a single race, and that was harsh. That said, I'm looking at this season as more of a transition - from a state of overtraining to healthy high-level form.

For the sport in general, it's probably a year of transition as well - it's a post-Olympic year, and in this case, a post-USADA-Reasoned-Decision year, as well. I think if our efforts are focused in the right places, a lot of good can come from this. So, my hope for the sport is that we can build from what's been broken down, and build in a positive direction - forward, toward the future. Onward and upward!

PdC: Excellent! Thankyou very much for your time - and good luck with #ClickThruThurs!

***

To find out more about Amber, read her "25 things" post, and other things she’s written on Triple Crankset, including her initial piece on Click Thru Thursdays. You can also listen to her talk about it after the first one, on omne's and my podcast.

Amber's next video Q&A will be this Friday, 11th January at 19:00 CET, with special guest Rachel Heal, Director of USA team Optum Pro Cycling. Tune in to http://impetusagencyapps.com/amber/chat.html to join her - and follow her on twitter at @AmberMalika.

Amber is sponsored by Glacier Glove, and if you’re in the market for some cold-weather gloves, you can get 25% off the costs if you use the code "amber" (without the inverted commas!) on their webstore.

Photos by Lyne Lamoureux and Milay Galvez, supplied with permission by Amber Pierce

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