The two Amy D. Foundation Elites on their start in cyclocross, training tips, inspiring younger female riders, and looking to the future.
Amy D. Foundation Elites, KK Santos and Emily Werner, are coming off encouraging seasons from a year ago. Santos’ was highlighted by an 11th place finish in the Saturday C1 at Cincinnati UCI Cyclocross Weekend. For Werner it meant finally getting that elusive C1 top 10 she’d been after along with consistent and better results at the C2 level. As Santos and Werner team up once again for the Amy D. Foundation, both come into the 2019/20 season looking to further develop their skills and build upon last year’s momentum.
It’s been a journey for Santos and Werner to get to this point in their cyclocross careers, however. Like any other athlete, they’ve had to start at the bottom, meet and overcome challenges, adjust to higher ranks of competition, as well as learn how to balance everyday life with training and competing.
I recently sat down with both riders to talk about their start in cyclocross, the challenges they faced early on, training, and inspiring the next generation of female riders as they themselves look to their own futures in the sport.
In Conversation: KK Santos and Emily Shields Werner
When did you get your start in the sport? Who inspired you or what was it about cyclocross that made you want to compete?
Santos: “At around age 12 I gave the sport a chance because of a local development program that was encouraging kids to race bikes. I stayed in the sport because of people like Georgia Gould and Tim Johnson. I met Tim at one of my very first races. I went up to him with a broken shifter and asked him if he could fix it. I realized who it was after the fact, but he was more than willing to help a young junior out. Georgia also went out of her way to help out junior racers. She always had the best attitude and was very easy to approach. I stayed in the sport because I wanted to be like them. I wanted to race in the pro ranks and be someone juniors felt like they could ask for help.”
Shields Werner: “I competed in my first cyclocross race when I was 10 years old. My dad was promoting a race that was part of the North Carolina Cyclocross Series. My twin sister, Katherine, and I saw some other kids getting ready to race and we thought that we should too! My mom dashed home to get our mountain bikes. That was the day I fell in love with cyclocross racing.”
What was your biggest challenge when you first started out?
Santos: “My biggest challenge starting out was lack of equipment. All juniors want fancy $10,000 bikes, but with a lunch-money budget more often than not they can’t afford to buy themselves a fancy new cyclocross bike. Starting out I was working with an older bike that needed a tune, plenty of replacement pieces and wasn’t even the right size. I realized if I was going to keep racing it every weekend I needed to take extra good care of it. When I couldn’t afford to replace something I would Google how to fix it or ask my local mechanic. Plenty of races have been won on older equipment with wheels that have old tubulars glued on them. As a young or even new rider starting out, you have to make the best of what you have. My parents would always say “it’s not the bike, it’s the engine” and now as an adult, I could not agree more. Make the most of what you have!”
Shields Werner: “When I first began racing it was purely for fun, so there were not that many challenges. I encountered more challenges in freshman year in high school. Until then, I had run cross country, played tennis, golf, and soccer. Freshman year, I tried to keep playing soccer and run cross country, indoor and outdoor track. I eventually quit soccer and focused on running and cycling. No one at our high school rode bikes so the coaches wanted my sister and me to focus solely on running. Due to our love of cycling and our parents’ influence, we continued cycling and running and were successful at both.”
How big was the jump in competition early on and now to your current level? Were there any notable differences at each stage in the sport?
Santos: “Every stage of racing is so incredibly different. You have the awkward starting out phase where you are trying to learn everything (and figure out what you need to buy so you can fit in), the phase where you’ve been racing for a while, but are trying to balance high school and friends (which most of the time your school friends literally have no clue what you do), then the phase where you are trying to make it to the pros and get sponsored. Every level is different and brings its own set of challenges. The biggest difference I saw was the level of support. When you first start out you have your parents, then your development team generally has some volunteer parents that help you, but once you reach the ranks right before pro it’s hard to find support. That is what is so great about the Amy D. Foundation. They support you so you can accomplish your goals.”
Shields Werner: “The harder jump was from undergrad to graduate school. I completed my undergraduate degree at Lees McRae College. Even though it is a small school, they have a huge cycling team. The whole college supports cycling and my professors were very understanding about missing school to race as long as you got good grades and kept up with your work. When I transitioned to graduate school I raced all the collegiate races on my own and was way more stressed and busy. None of my classmates or professors really understood what I was doing and why. I always knew I wanted to take some time off to race when I was done with school. Luckily for me, I have very understanding parents who supported me in my goals. This is especially difficult for women, as I feel a lot of us peak at a later age in life. If you aren’t on a pro team during or immediately post-college it is difficult to get support because you are no longer considered a development rider.”
What were your training methods like early in your career?
Shields Werner: “At the very beginning when I was 10 years old, my sister and I would play tennis during the week and only ride our bikes during the weekend.”
Santos: “Early in my career, I rode my bike until I felt tired, then I’d ride a little longer.”
It’s easy to assume that your training has changed since then. What is it like today?
Shields Werner: “This year, I began working with Katie Compton. Katie is so knowledgeable and understands everything. Any worry or concern I may have she always has an answer for and advice on how to work around it. She has helped me not only with my fitness, but my focus and confidence as well. She has literally been through everything and can therefore relate to any problem or challenge I am facing.”
Santos: “If I only have a quick hour to workout I’ll substitute my ride with the gym or a run. It’s not ideal, but sometimes you need to make sure you don’t check out on the real world to spend four hours on your bike. Also, on recovery days I would still do my sprints. Sometimes I’d even ride on my off days. As I have gotten older I’ve realized how important it is to recover the body and the mind.”
What training tips would you suggest for young female riders just starting out?
Shields Werner: “I would suggest practicing skills as much as possible. Had I practiced and worked on my skills more then, I may have avoided some of the bad habits that I’m working to correct now. When you are younger you have more time to mess around and practice skills.”
Santos: “Young female riders should not be afraid to ride with boys. Training with the male gender will make you faster. It is a fact. You will push yourself because you’ll want to prove you belong there. Do not let the boys scare you off! It is also important to ride with your gal pals. Bring them with you to tackle the group rides. Before you know it the girls will be soloing off the front.”
Would it benefit them to ride with other females?
Santos: “Always! I read somewhere over half of all young females quit their sport due to the social pressures of becoming a teenager. Get your school friends to come to a race and show them what it’s all about. Go on a ride with them in your local park. Encourage your friends, it’ll be good for the sport and the future of your race category.”
Shields Werner: “Yes, definitely. Riding and racing against boys is okay but I think it can be intimidating to practice skills with them. I think that can be more beneficial to do with other females.”
What suggestions would you have for younger riders when it comes to balancing everyday life with training and competing?
Santos: “Do not lose touch with your friends just so you can ride your bike. I made the mistake of prioritizing my bike over my classmates and I suffered for that when I got into high school. Find a balance, just like with everything in life. Never let your bike become something that brings you stress and anxiety. Do it because you love it. If you become unhappy take a break and reset. Cycling is a sport that brings so much happiness into your life. Keep things fresh so you can enjoy it for the rest of your life.”
Shields Werner: “It is hard and I completely understand the stress of it. I would tell them to try their best to be efficient and not waste time. But you also need to remember to still have fun. One of my favorite things about going to school for cycling and racing collegiately is that everyone is in a similar boat when it comes to balancing school, training, and racing.”
What was the best advice you received and how would you expand upon that to the next generation of riders?
Shields Werner: “The best advice I have received was from Katie Compton. Even though it is hard to avoid stressing about results she encourages me to do the best I can and focus on small improvements each week, month and year. She said growth can take time and forcing it does not always help. Therefore, I would tell the next generation of riders that progress and improvement might not happen overnight and not to give up. If you stick with it and really care, I believe you can succeed.”
Santos: “The best advice I have ever been given was make the most of every opportunity. You can learn from a last-place finish just as easily as you can learn from a win. The bad days help you appreciate the good days, and if you never lost a race you wouldn’t realize just how sweet a victory can be. You are going to lose a lot of races in your life both literally and metaphorically. It is all in how we handle those losses that truly matters. Make the most of being a young person in a very vibrant sport, inspire your peers, be a good influence, and most importantly have fun!”
I understand this is the first time that the Amy D. Foundation has kept the previous racers on the team for another season. What does it mean to again be riding for this foundation and carrying on Amy’s legacy?
Santos: “I cannot describe how much of an honor it has been to race for the foundation again. Amy was a superstar, riding with her name on my back has and will always be the highlight of my racing career.”
Shields Werner: “Riding for ADF again is an enormous honor. I feel extremely lucky to have been given another year on the team and be able to carry on Amy’s legacy. I am reminded of this every race when people cheer, “Go Amy!”
Emily, you had a pretty good year last year, one that included a C1 top 10 finish. What is one of the lessons from last year do you see helping this season?
Shields Werner: “One of the biggest lessons I learned from last year is to not put so much pressure on myself. Last year I had the outlook that I would take one year off after school to try and become a pro. If I succeeded I would take more time off but if not, I would move on with my life and career. I realize now that this expectation was unrealistic. I need more time to achieve my goals and can’t do it in one season.”
How about you, KK? You had an 11th place finish in Cincinnati. What was one of your biggest challenges last year that’ll help this season?
Santos: “One of my biggest challenges last year was balancing collegiate mountain biking with cyclocross. This year I’ve been able to focus solely on cross, which has helped me develop a lot of my skills again.”
What does it mean to be riding together again? How do you push each other so that you both maximize your talents on race day?
Santos: “When prepping for a race, we generally talk about the race the night before and it gets us in the right mindset. Emily and I have already had so much fun racing together again. I am looking forward to the rest of the season with her and the crew.”
Shields Werner: “I was really excited to be on the team with KK again as well. It has been nice to spend more time with her and get to know one another better. We normally pre-ride the course together to find the best lines. We encourage and help one another as much as possible.”
As you move further into this season and beyond, what are your current and future goals in the sport?
Shields Werner: “My current goals are to podium in C2s and get top 10s in C1s. I would like to be able to secure a spot on a professional team and continue racing. Before I move on in life, I want to feel like I have accomplished all of my goals and reached my full potential in racing.”
Santos: “My short term goal is to have a solid nationals, but my long term goal would be to coach a few junior girls and possibly help run a junior cyclocross team here in Louisville.”
If you had to describe cyclocross and what it means to you in one word, what word would that be?
Shields Werner: “Exhilarating!”
Santos: “Cyclocross is exciting. Everything about it is interesting. It forces your mind and body to work together. It’s full of fantastic and supportive people. Most importantly, everyone has a fair shot to be the best at it. It’s all in who trains and races the hardest.”