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Just Breathe: An Interview with U.S. Cross Racer Sue Butler

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2008 Cyclocross World Championship, women. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty.

Johnny Cash. Chocolate. My trusty Leatherman. Sue Butler. Which one doesn’t belong?

Made your decision yet? Yes? Well, which ever one you chose, you’re wrong.

Here’s the deal. All of the above are all people or things that are so versatile that it’s hard to think of a situation where they wouldn’t be appreciate. I’ve never put some Cash on the radio and then thought “Actually, I think I may want to listen to something else.” Likewise, I can have chocolate milk at breakfast, a mocha for an afternoon caffeine reload, and a hunk of dark chocolate after dinner. The Leatherman? In the top drawer in my kitchen because I use it so often. And finally, Sue Butler. When it comes to bikes and bicycle racing, I don’t think there’s anything she hasn’t tried. Most people know her as a mountain bike racer or a cyclocross racer, but if you check her resumé, she’s done nearly all of it. Enduro mountain bike races (she won the 2010 High Cascade Classic), some stage racing, some criteriums, some short track, some Super D, and even some mountain bike stage races.

See? So, what does Sue Butler, Ms. Two-Wheeled Versatility, have to tell us about this past cyclocross season, her trip to Worlds, and bike racing in general?

So, I was reading a little about your start as a bike racer and was wondering what was your athletic history before you started bike racing? I’m sure it wasn’t that one day you just woke up and thought “Man, I think I’d be a pretty good bike racer”.

Well, it kinda was like that. I had rowed for the club team while I was in college (Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa). It wasn’t a varsity sport, just a club team. Prior to bike racing I had been pretty mediocre at most sports that I played in high school & college. I wasn’t a high school athlete, and I definitely was not a college athlete. I was more of a fun seeker.

After college, I started rowing for a Minneapolis club in Minnesota. I was rowing with a bunch of women that had real jobs. All great women and a great team. We had a fast eight and a fast four. We ended up competing at Nationals in the eight at the sub-elite level and were able to win. Yeah, it was pretty fun.

So were you riding bikes during this time?

Well, not really. I got my first mountain bike when I moved Oregon. I moved to Portland in 1996 and got my first mountain bike because some guy asked me to be on a multisport team in 1999 and he said that I needed to learn how to mountain bike. I was pretty much game for anything and I figured it was inevitable because all my friends that skied already rode mountain bikes.

I remember one the first mountain bike trips I took was up to Whistler in the summer of 99. Everyone else had all been riding for a while but I still didn’t have much technical skill. I had a pretty bad endo & took a chunk out of myself. They all laughed at me.

I met my husband [Tim] in March of 2000 and he got me on clipless pedals that spring. At the time, I was riding a basic $500 bike. He was shopping to get a new mountain bike and I ended up getting my first nice mountain bike at River City Bicycles in Portland.

So what were your first mountain bike seasons like?

My first season was in 2003. My husband was like “Let’s go to Bend & do this race.” My first season was only about two races, actually. So I did one beginner's race in Bend & then couple weekends later we went out to the coast and did a couple did couple of mountain bike races but then didn’t do much else.

In 2004 we signed up for Trans Rockies. We didn’t really know what our goals would be. We did a lot of training for it but we didn’t do much racing that year. We did a couple of local races and we might have gone to Sea Otter that year for the first time just to see what that was all about, but there weren’t many races.

In 2005, I did more racing & I was fairly good at it but I was working at the time. I was starting to think “Maybe I want to do this” and my husband told me “Well, you aren’t getting any younger. What’s going to happen if you take a year off and you suck at it and have to go back to work?”

So, at the time our school district where I worked was struggling financially and was offering leave of absences. I took a leave of absence, I hired a coach, Kendra Wenzel, and I started training for real. But then I learned that I would have to have knee surgery in Feb 2006. I had been picked up by the Bear Naked/Cannondale team & was super excited to be sponsored. I felt pretty privileged and pretty lucky to be sponsored. The sponsorship wasn’t much; a team bike and kit, but it was more than I had ever gotten before. Then at the doctor’s office they told me that I had to have knee surgery. I was so disappointed and didn’t know what to do so I  decided to rehab it as best as I could. I had a great physical therapist who really helped get me back on my bike and 5 months later I raced expert at Deer Valley Nationals, won, & catted up to pro.

For ‘cross, I did a couple of ‘cross races in 2005 just for fun with the girls at River City Cycles. Wendy Williams convinced me to do a couple more ‘cross races just for fun in 2006 and I’ve been doing them since then.

That brings up a question. Looking at your race resumé, you’ve done enduro races and ‘cross racing all in the same year. Do you wake up in the morning, flip a coin, heads it’s a ‘cross race, tails an enduro race?

Well, I didn’t know what I was doing after knee surgery and I couldn’t really have a regulated training schedule so I signed up for the Trans rockies again. I signed up to do another enduro mountain bike race and I also raced at Masters Nationals. My physical therapist pointed out that maybe some of these races aren’t best for racing fitness but I want to keep it fun. I don’t want to not do some of those really fun races even though they probably don’t make me faster for cross country racing because they are so much fun.

So, tell me about Cyclocross Worlds.

This is third time going to Worlds. I could have gone last year but I didn’t want to race until the end of January. 2009 was a hard year for me, health wise, and I couldn’t guarantee that I would be at my best for Cyclocross Worlds. I didn’t want to go over there and race it just to race it because I had done that before. I just couldn’t guarantee that I would be at my best. It was a hard decision but probably the best decision I made.

That brings up another question. When you’re having a tough day, week, month, or even year on the bike, do you ever put on your gold bikini & walk around the house while you tell yourself “I’m a World Champion. I’m a World Champion. I’m a World Champion.”?

I do yard work in it.

Really? (ed. note: I was really hoping that she actually did do that)

No. (ed. note: sad face)

With setbacks and tough training, it’s one of those things that I’m really competitive in general but I’m also really competitive with myself. Setbacks are hard but you can really improve from them. It’s not that your work ethic changes but you learn to not take things for granted. Breathing, I don’t take that for granted anymore. Racing in 2009 was scary. I was ready to wrap it up, walk away from racing, and say “I’m done.” I’d never experienced asthma before. It was horrible; I’d be racing & wouldn’t be able to breathe and I’d think “I don’t want to die.” It sounds dramatic but when you can’t breathe that’s what you feel like. You feel like you are going to die.

So, going in to this year I was a little hesitant because I didn’t know how my body was going to react. I had been mountain biking but cyclocross  is different. Cylcocross is 40 minutes at the red line. I had had a really good short track that year and for the most part I was healthy, but setbacks are natural. You just have to reset & move forward. If you start thinking maybe you shouldn’t be racing with the pros and you play that mental game then you aren’t going to be successful.

I actually forget where the gold bikini is. I run across it every now & then when I’m cleaning my dresser & have a laugh. I want to do SSCXWCs again but I haven’t been able to do again because of scheduling conflicts.

So, were your health issues in 2009 just asthma related or was there more going on?

Well, I originally went in because I had low levels of iron. The doctor that I saw listened to me breathe and the first thing he told me was “You have asthma”.  I was like “No I don’t.” And he told me “Yeah, you do.” I had had issues in the past but nothing that had ever stopped me before. I guess I just hadn’t put it all together before 2009. So, when your body is fighting low iron levels & asthma, it puts up a fight. It definitely stopped me in my tracks. And it’s hard because I hate taking medications.

So did you treat 2010 as a rebuild year?

Well, one thing I did that wouldn’t have fit neatly into a program was that 100 mile race [the High Cascade 100 out of Bend, Oregon]. I also did four road stage races, and more crits, which really help for my cyclocross training. All those accelerations and decelerations in crits translate well to cyclocross racing. It’s gotten to the point where I can pinpoint what I’m not really good at and work on those. One of those things is running. I’ve never been a good runner but I’ve really been working on that. I’m still not as fast of a runner as I should be but at least it doesn’t kill me like it used to.

How often do you run?

I only run twice a week and not for super long distances. I really focus on run ups & on being comfortable running. The thing is you don’t ever want to be sore from running. You may get into a situation where you have to run a half a lap and you don’t want your legs to be trashed from running the next day.

So you qualified for Worlds by placing in the top 20 at a World Cup race over in Europe.

I qualified for it by finishing in the top 15. So ironic because the race I did the best at I felt the worst for. I was sick. I was soo sick but that race is done on heart & head alone. I had front row call up and I had a really clean & clear race. It’s just so funny that my best race in Europe this year was the one I felt the worst at. I really want to improve on my European game; it’s not that I’m getting slower but that everyone’s getting faster, which is good. I used to be able to get into the top twenty pretty regularly but now getting in the top twenty, well, you have to work really hard for that.

Racing in Europe is hard for Americans. I struggle with jet lag and really need to figure out my traveling and all that. The Europeans, I don’t think they understand the stress that all the traveling puts on your body, it’s really taxing. Especially living on the Best West Coast. It’s two long flights. I think I just need someone who will pay for first class tickets every time I fly.

This brings up another question. From the outside, it seems as if sponsorship and athletic development in the US is more, uh, open market, capitalist, etc. whereas in Europe it seems as if there is more state sponsored support for athletes. What do you think?

Ha, funny. We’ve been talking about this a lot lately. When I was in Belgium, I stayed with friends. I’m 39 and the women there, the women my age, they have kids, a family and they think I’m crazy. There’s a lot less racing in women’s categories in Europe than in the US. Granted we have a bigger country but I feel that women here are supported more culturally. But in Europe, if you are talented athlete in Europe you will get money and sponsorship.

Cycling is still a sexist sport, but perhaps more so in Europe than in America. It’s a weird relationship. If you’re at that top top level you’ll get that support, where as here in the US there are way more mid level people getting support & racing. Just look at how deep the fields at our local weekend races.  All the women here in the US are all podium capable at the top level. I don’t know how to explain it but I think it’s coming.

When we hear of someone getting popped for doping in cycling, it’s only very rarely a woman that was caught doping. What do you think?

Well, it seems as if doping scandals come from teams & individuals that do have a ton of money. Doping isn’t one of those things where you can just go and do it. I can’t even get my blood tested for my iron levels as often as I should because it’s so expensive.

But I’m always so naive. I mean I hear about athletes getting vitamin B12 shots and I think “wow, they can get vitamin B12 shots?” I had no idea that you could do that. And most of the scandals that you hear about are in road cycling and in the mens fields, where there is more money. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen in women’s cycling but the pressure to produce isn’t there much as it is with the men. There’s not as much money invested.

I also think also that women are smarter than men in that way. I think we look at the consequences more than men do. Men are all about instant gratification, “I want to win & I want to win tomorrow.” Women, we look at things and the possible consequences, “Well, if I do this, then that might happen, and that, and that.”And there’s also personality differences between individuals. That accounts for a lot when you’re talking about doping.

Oh, so what’s the story with the $1000 fee to race at Cyclocross Worlds?

Well, cyclocross racing and mountain bike racing is not a team sport, right? Road racing is a team sport, you need a primary rider as well as a couple of support riders. And cyclocross is not an Olympic sport. So it’s obviously not a priority, even though internationally our women are doing really well. There are two nations that don’t support their athletes to go to worlds: Canada and America. It costs more to send them there. Maybe it will be different when Worlds are here in North America.

But I don’t know why athletes are charged the fee to go to Worlds. I can’t even answer that. I’ve heard the rumor that a certain individual says that “well if they will pay, then let them to pay.”

So tell us about your crash at Worlds.

You know, for the first time in my life I had a fairly decent start. I took the outside, and I was doing well. Things got a little crazy at the 180degree left turn and I got pinched on the inside. Then on the off camber Amy slipped and fell. I was right behind her and I stopped. I didn’t want to ride over her and I was going to have to get off anyway. After I got going again at the uphill I couldn’t breathe but I relaxed. People went past me but I remembered some advice: “Don’t let the first lap rule your race”.

Then there was a big descent and an up hill after the steps. I was pedalling really hard to make it over the top, where maybe ten people were off their bikes. I thought, “Maybe I could shoot the gap” but I ended up having to dismount. The first lap was kind of a shit show; I wasn’t in the first group, I was fighting for position, so I knew I had to go. I could see the lead group and it was still a pretty close race so I gave it my all. It must have gave it too much because I felt myself hitting the fence. I must have flown through the air. My number was ripped off downward, and my right side was bloody, and I had a hole in my hip but in all the pictures I’m on my left side.

But I tried to get up right away. “I have to go!” But I couldn’t get up. “Holy cow!” I was probably in shock because when I stood up I couldn’t put pressure on my right leg.I was soo angry that I couldn’t finish that race. I was trying to stand up and already the medics were on my trying to get me over the fence. My helmet was totally smashed on right back side, so I guess it’s best that I didn’t continue.

I speak German so on the whole ride over to the hospital the medics were asking me where it hurt and I kept telling them “I’m not hurt, I’m disappointed.” I begged them not to take me to the hospital but they did. They had too. 

Why were you so opposed to going to the hospital?

I wanted to see Katie win. I didn’t want to leave the venue. I wanted to see Katie cross the line. In retrospect it was the right decision, but it was really hard at the time. I guess I was so disappointed that I just wanted to see some victory. And it was so hard, waiting at the hospital for hours without knowing what the outcome of the race was. Finally, they pulled up the results on the internet at the hospital and read out “Marianne Vos” and immediately I was like “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.” I was pretty disappointed for Katie because she was in such form for it.

It was a hard trip because when I got back to US base camp I learned that Meredith had flatted, Amy hadn’t had a good race, it was Kaitlin’s first race there. My disappointment was compounded by everyone else not having a good race. I wouldn’t have been so disappointed if everyone else had raced well. And Katie raced well but you could tell she was disappointed.

So, you’ve never had to take the A bus from a race? Or a training ride?

No, I’ve never crashed out of a race, ever. It’s a very bizarre experience to be hauled away from a race in an ambulance. I guess I was due but it was still disappointing. But, I was talking to someone last night, “If I had to be hauled away in an ambulance, why does it have to be at Worlds?” and they told me that “If it had happened before Worlds you probably wouldn’t have made it there.” The biggest thing that bugs me is that I’m never going to know how I would have done that day. That stinks. It’s a hard one, a hard pill to swallow.

So what type of riding do you prefer? What kind of racing do you prefer?

Well, I love riding my mountain bike. Nothing makes me happier. Wednesday I rode my mountain bike even though I shouldn’t have. A friend called me up and asked if I wanted to go for a dog ride. I love singletrack, I love being in the woods. I love skiing too but I love, love, love my mountain bike. Cyclocross races are nice because most of the times you have a redemption day the next day which is very nice. If you do poorly on the first day you have a second chance. Mountain bike races are getting to the point where they are getting to be like long cyclocross races. When I ride my mountain bike I want to be riding single track.

So what’s on your iPod playlist that you listen to while warming up?

Oh, man. I don’t know any song names, I don’t know any names of artists. I essentially listen to what’s on. Friends will ask me who’s playing a song and I’ll just make up a name. I couldn’t even tell you. My husband puts playlists together for me.

What makes a good cyclocross race?

Well, I like mud, as long as it’s rideable mud. My least favorite were those old New Jersey races because they would just be running races. I really do like the course in Portland but it’s a bit of an unfair bias that I have as it’s my home course. I thought that Bend was spectacular this past year.

What makes a good mountain bike race?

I love the High Cascade 100. It’s 85 miles of singletrack in Bend. It’s phenomenal. I think that’s why I won it last year, I was having so much fun. It’s a spectacular compilation of what Bend has to offer for singletrack. The Mellow Johnny’s Classic was good too.

What about Leadville?

I haven’t done Leadville for three main reasons. One, it’s at elevation and I have to ask myself if I really want to put my body through that. Second, it’s all double track and fireroads. Finally, it’s really hard to get into and I think it’s not 100% lottery.

Do you have any pre-race rituals?

I just try to relax and remember to take my inhaler. I’m trying to get better about that this year. I don’t like to get to regimented about a pre-race ritual because then if you forget part of it you’ll just get anxious. I do check my saddle though. I learned my lesson after lining up with a saddle that wasn’t tightened down. I don’t like to be too regimented but I definitely like to be prepared. And I just breathe.

Do you bring anything special from home to help with living out of a suitcase?

Not really. I’m a pretty easy traveler. I just need my contacts, toothbrush. I’m not too anal about anything. I do bring a coffee maker and coffee because I do like coffee in the morning. Just one of those one cup filter deals that you use when you are out camping.

Do you bring anything back from Europe?

When I come home my suitcase is usually full of dark chocolate. My husband wouldn’t let me in the door with out it. And this time when I came home I brought home Wendy Simms some Neuhaus chocolate. I’m gluten free so I can’t have any cakes, cookies, or brownies, so I have to rely on the dark chocolate.

So, if you knew you were going to be stranded on a magical island and could only take one bike, which flavor would you choose?

I’d probably take a mountain bike. You can always ride a mountain bike on the road, but you can’t take skinny tires on single track and my magical island would have a lot of single track.

Interview by Marian Hunting.