‘Crossing things up: A conversation with Amanda Nauman

From career cyclocross racer to career gravel rider, Amanda Nauman has seen just about everything that the dirt, mud, and inclement weather can throw at her. Apparently, the more the merrier; she won Unbound Gravel in 2015 and 2016 when it was known as Dirty Kanza, has stood on the top step at the Belgian Waffle Ride, and won the Rock Cobbler despite the promoter’s assertion that “It’s not a race.”

Do you pin on a number? Is there a start time and a finish line? Then if Amanda Nauman’s involved … it’s a race.

She has watched the changes in domestic racing and been a force as participant, competitor, organizer, and mentor. She shared her time with me a couple of weeks ago to answer a “few” questions. Enjoy!

Seth Davidson: How is gravel different from road racing? The thought here is that road racing was originally on unpaved roads, cobbles, and goat paths, which seems very similar to gravel.

Amanda Nauman: In its truest sense I don’t think it is different from road or MTB. Put at least two people together with a finish line, and it’s a race no matter the bike or terrain. A lot of people see road racing as structured and rigid with categories and rules. On the flip side, gravel’s an unsanctioned, free-for-all, mass-start style of racing. So when you ask me how they’re different, I don’t think of the dirt or pebble sizes, I think of the rules or lack thereof. The racing is the same.

Seth Davidson: Cycling seems to have a plethora of disciplines compared to other sports. Why? Is that a good thing?

Amanda Nauman: I come from a swimming background, there are four strokes and everybody’s good at their own strokes and distances within those strokes. So for me, having that individuality within a sport is just how it is and totally normal. There are many ways people can express themselves on a bike; much like in swimming everyone had their own stroke or distance. I think it’s great that there are different ways people can get on two wheels, fast or slow or sketchy or whatever. It’s a good thing, cycling’s a large umbrella.

Seth Davidson: What do men need to know about gender discrimination in sports?

Amanda Nauman: That it exists. That’s what I want men to know, and not pretend it doesn’t exist and that everything’s equal. And I want them being open to have conversations about how to make women feel more included and equal. That awareness is the only thing I’d want to stress.

Seth Davidson: Have you experienced discrimination as an athlete?

Amanda Nauman: Not that I can think of explicitly. I have certainly been in work environments where I was treated differently because I was an athlete pursuing a racing goal. And I’ve definitely felt like I haven’t been treated equally or fairly as a woman when it comes to race results and sponsorship opportunities. It’s a subjective space that’s hard to quantify of point to a specific example, but I’ve felt it.

Seth Davidson: Have you experienced discrimination in your non-cycling life

Amanda Nauman: No, luckily.

Seth Davidson: Your mom is Indonesian and ethnically Chinese. Did she face discrimination here?

Amanda Nauman: No, and I spoke with her about it before this interview. She has absolutely experienced racist comments but not discrimination. She hasn’t outwardly felt like someone was making a comment or preventing her from doing something because she was a woman or minority. She left an oppressive country at age fourteen because her parents knew there were better opportunities for her in the United States. [In Indonesia] women were given this box you had to fit in, no career, just stay at home and have kids and it was a waste of time to pursue higher education. She had the complete opposite mindset and drive in that regard and saw the US as a place to pursue these things she couldn’t pursue in Indonesia. We never really talk too much about the fact that her ancestors were Chinese, but when she was younger, Indonesia went through a nationalistic phase and her family was forced to change their names and become more “Indonesian.” It’s wild to imagine a place where that was acceptable, the government telling you that your name was too Chinese you need to change it. She has experienced discrimination like this in Indonesia, which is why she came here. The US gave her opportunity and freedom she wouldn’t have otherwise had. She went to an engineering school and wanted to fly helicopters, and that wasn’t going to happen in Indonesia, but she came here and did it. She set a great example for me growing up, even though we never explicitly talked about it, that women can do whatever they want; and if this is something you want to do, don’t ever let the fact you’re a woman or Asian be a reason why you shouldn’t.

Seth Davidson: What do you think about having separate women’s fields in gravel events?

Amanda Nauman: I have mixed feelings depending on the course, the event, the style of race that it is. It’s dependent on those variables. For example, in 2016 when I won BWR they tried a women’s category where we started in between a couple different waves of men. It turned into a strategic game of planning to jump in with the men coming up behind us and each woman trying to get away from the other women. So depending on how it’s implemented, it adds a layer that can be more strategic.

Seth Davidson: Does it distort race results when women mix in with groups of men?

Amanda Nauman: No way. I think that’s part of the game and part of the strategy depending on the event, especially BWR where it’s more road racing style and there’s way more opportunity to stay in a group on the road and spread out on the dirt. It doesn’t distort it at all. I think where it becomes muddied is if a group enters with the plan of having a man or multiple men pulling a woman or group of women as far as possible with the goal to win. In the natural selection of a mixed category start, how people are able to move around, move up, or get away, that’s part of the racing. But if a group of guys show up to just protect a woman from the wind, yeah, people have a problem with it, otherwise it’s just natural selection and that’s part of the race.
Here’s an example: Last year at Mid South it was muddy and the front guys threw down when we hit the mud, probably eight minutes into the race. We were going as hard as we could and amidst the chaos I could see Hannah Finchamp get to a group just ahead of me. The realistic part of my brain knew that if I didn’t get there in those first few critical moments, there was a very high probability she was going to win if she escaped, and she did. Having the men in the mix adds to the group dynamics and allows the racing to shake out much differently. Had she been solo with just the women’s field chasing her, maybe we could’ve brought her back and made it a much closer race. But that’s not how the cookie crumbles in the mass start format of gravel.

Seth Davidson: How do you like racing with men?

Amanda Nauman: It’s awesome and super fun. I appreciate riding and racing with like-minded cyclists regardless of gender.

Seth Davidson: How do you like starting with/racing against recreational riders?

Amanda Nauman: It’s great. I never had an issue with that. I think it’s awesome. I raced triathlons in college, and starting just minutes behind the professional fields was inherently part of that sport. I loved being an amateur racer and having the opportunity to compare myself to professionals on the same course. Here’s an example from when I went to the 2012 Saint Croix 70.3. At the time, Lance Armstrong was racing triathlons again and I was a big fan. The swim start at that event takes place on an island offshore. I had swum over to the island as a warm-up and I remember him getting out of the water right next to me. I couldn’t believe it. Another time, I was at Age Group ITU World Championships in New Zealand and walking around the venue near Sarah True (Sarah Groff at the time). I was starstruck and stoked to be doing the same event. Those are special moments for me, and I always think about that because of the position I’m in now. I’ve found success racing gravel and cyclocross and I’m aware there are women and juniors who look up to me. I recognize the importance of being at events and taking time to connect with the community. If I can be welcoming and motivational, I understand the impact that can make on recreational riders or aspiring racers. I want to be a good example and put on a good show for bike racing fans at the same time.

Seth Davidson: What do you think about professional gravel racers?

Amanda Nauman: I’ve seen the evolution of that identity first-hand. In the beginning I would have laughed at the concept because gravel races were hardly even a classification. As the popularity of the discipline rose, so did the popularity of the figures at the front of the racing. It was a natural evolution of brands wanting to be associated with the rise in popularity. In gravel, the “professionals” are more brand ambassadors than anything else. I remember listening to an interview with Ian Boswell a year ago after announcing he was going into gravel and he was asked whether he considered himself a professional athlete anymore. He said no because he was no longer in the drug testing pool and he now had a desk job. If Ian lines up at some of the big gravel events this year, he’ll be lining up with people who absolutely consider themselves professional gravel racers. So perhaps that label is whatever you want it to be. And to each their own on how they choose to identify.

Seth Davidson: Do you want to see more or fewer World Tour pros in gravel events?

Amanda Nauman: I think the more, the merrier. As this discipline evolves there’s no hiding that the UCI sees it as an opportunity to create something for themselves. Even though this is an unpopular opinion, I think it would be worthwhile to have a separate show for the UCI license-holding riders. I’ve heard people say it would be cool to have an Unbound Gravel type of event that was for pros only and be able to do the t.v. media coverage, and have all the narratives just around the pros. Just imagine a Strade Bianche style race in the Flint Hills with the fastest riders in the world dueling it out. I know that’s intriguing and appealing to me as a fan, and I think there’s something to that format. There’s an opportunity to have an elite level of gravel events and it feels like just a matter of time before that happens. As much as I hate to admit it’s a possibility, the more that World Tour pros show up to unsanctioned gravel events, the more the UCI is going to want a piece of that cake. There’s no doubt that elevating the speed, intensity, and professionalism will make more people interested. But how this involves, well, I’m curious to see myself.

Seth Davidson: What unique obstacles do women have to overcome as competitive cyclists?

Amanda Nauman: Being given the same respect as men. It goes back to one of your first questions, it’s in the same vein, women have to overcome the fact that they aren’t treated completely equal yet. It’s weird to think back in 2011 and 2012 how much I just accepted the fact that we were treated differently and less than the men. At the time cyclocross was in a transition period in Europe. Prize money was starting to become more equal and the schedules were getting rearranged, so the elite women didn’t have to race so early in the morning. It was ridiculous that we accepted anything less than that as the norm for so long. There have been a lot of little wins in the past decade like getting the Junior Women 17-18 category the recognition it deserves and I’m hopeful that one day it will feel completely equal and we can tell stories of how ridiculous it was before change was demanded.

Seth Davidson: What do you think about gender discrimination in equipment design such as saddles?

Amanda Nauman: My longest running sponsor is SDG Components and they’ve been at the forefront of offering a female-specific saddle. When it comes to saddles and saddle companies, I believe that soft tissue relief has been addressed for men and women. Women have been given options that are as good or better than men in that regard.

Seth Davidson: Are you more or less data-driven than your competitors?

Amanda Nauman More. I have a math brain and went to an engineering school. I love Excel and I do a lot of calculations. Way more than my competitors.

Seth Davidson: Do you typically train with a power meter?

Amanda Nauman: Yes. I have a power meter on my gravel bike, my road bike, and typically on one of my ‘cross bikes. For my spare ‘cross bikes and my mountain bikes, I use heart rate data.

Seth Davidson: Is MTB or ‘cross a better training ground for gravel racing?

Amanda Nauman: ‘Cross, but both are great. The handling skills required on your gravel bike you can learn from being efficient in a ‘cross race setting. For sure my ‘cross background gave me a leg up in gravel racing. My first Dirty Kanza win was 2015, the “mud year.” Without my ‘cross experience, there were issues I’d never have been able to manage. For instance, knowing the feeling of when your derailleur is about to snap because it’s clogged with mud is inherent knowledge for a ‘cross racer. There were so many sheared derailleurs that year because most people don’t know what it’s like to ride through peanut butter mud.

Seth Davidson: What do you think about Major Taylor?

Amanda Nauman: The first word I thought of was trailblazer. I’ve been to the Major Taylor Velodrome and it’s a great tribute to someone who became a role model for any athlete who has faced discrimination. His autobiography is titled, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World: The Story of a Colored Boy’s Indomitable Courage and Success Against Great Odds. He wanted to be remembered as someone who faced challenges when many things were stacked against him, and did the best he could despite the circumstances. When I think of Major Taylor, I think of Cullen Jones. In 2008 he was the first African-American to hold a world record in swimming (4x100m free relay). He had that presence of someone doing something that’s not the norm and showing people that it’s possible, just like Major Taylor did. It’s great because Cullen took that opportunity and platform and now spends a lot time working with different organizations to try and dispel that stereotype that black people don’t swim. It’s interesting to look at what is happening in that realm and how it translates to cycling. He’s said that a lot of people tell him and think, “I can’t swim because I can’t float.” He says that’s not an excuse not to learn how to swim. “I can’t float either, and I have Olympic medals.” In that culture it’s been ingrained and he’s working hard to show people the stereotypes don’t matter, you can still rise above it.

Seth Davidson: Do organizers do a good job of marketing to the black community?

Amanda Nauman: I think organizers don’t do a good job of marketing, period. I’ve always had this beef with organizers specifically. Most bike racing organizers don’t have this marketing skill set and a lot of that probably comes from wearing too many different hats and not being able to focus on it. As a whole they can improve on marketing, period, but this question can apply more to USAC where it’s about development, nurturing, creating a community. I don’t feel like it’s the job of the race organizer. If cycling is a thing we want to grow within the black community and create more opportunities there, I feel like it’s more of a responsibility to the larger governing body than it is the individual race organizer.

Seth Davidson: How can we get more black kids racing bikes?

Amanda Nauman: It comes down to opportunity. Going back to Cullen Jones, he’s working at the root of why there aren’t enough black kids swimming. Perhaps the reason why a lot of people believe that black people can’t swim or don’t float is because we’re not addressing fear, stereotypes, legacies passed down over generations. In swimming, a lot of this stemmed from public pools being a racialized place many years ago.  Cullen realized he’d have to start at the bottom with education and changing the perception. With cycling, I don’t think it’s a question of “how” first. I think It’s a question of “why aren’t there more black kids racing bikes?” We need to answer that before we answer how to fix it. Lack of education, opportunities, safe areas to ride, that’s where we need to start. Then there will be more kids on bikes and then some of those kids will want to race. Going back to the marketing aspect, getting the cool factor instilled is a huge part, but also asking, “why don’t they think it’s cool right now?” A Nike ad with a black cyclist on a bike isn’t enough. At least I don’t believe that’s enough. If we find out why a majority of black kids don’t think cycling is cool, then we can start to fix that problem. We should be asking, “Why don’t you think it’s cool and what’s it going to take to motivate you to do it?”

Seth Davidson: What are the biggest challenges of promoting a new race?

Amanda Nauman: For us launching an event in the middle of a pandemic has been the biggest challenge. Realistically in a normal year in CA, it’s the permitting that’s the biggest challenge. Now that I’ve tried to make a race happen here, I understand why it’s so hard for promoters to do what they do. Promoting a new race specifically has been a challenge because there’s no precedence. We’re asking people to believe that David and I have gained enough experience at gravel events across the country and we know how to deliver a great event.

Seth Davidson: How do you want your Mammoth race to look in five years?

Amanda Nauman: The goal is to bring some semblance of the Kamikaze Bike Games back. It’s a famous festival they used to hold at the mountain, but it’s been canceled for a couple years now. We put Mammoth Tuff on the weekend that Kamikaze was normally held, the closing weekend of the bike park, in the hopes that we can reignite that flame. We want Mammoth to be a gravel destination, and on top of that the goal is to make it more than a gravel event, a reason for people to come back, celebrate and ride bikes in Mammoth.

Seth Davidson: ‘Cross used to be all the rage. Before that it was road racing. Now it’s gravel. Is this just a fad?

Amanda Nauman: I still think ‘cross is all the rage. ‘Cross still has a huge following in different parts of the country. Being in Tacoma, Washington for Cyclocross Nationals at the end of 2019 was a treat to see how much people absolutely love ‘cross in the Pacific Northwest. There are different pockets that have healthy local scenes and for those areas, ‘cross is still raging.
I don’t think gravel is a fad. I believe the discipline is in a transition phase of trying to figure itself out. It might look like a fad from the outside because of how many people are supporting the mass participation style of events. But it’s the lack of a license, the community feel, the ability to ride in the same event as your peers that will let this discipline live on. Time will tell how the discipline evolves, but the very root of gravel is community and coming together to do a challenging bike ride, and the passion for that won’t fizzle.

Seth Davidson: Is the racing community more collaborative or competitive? How?

Amanda Nauman: The UCI sanctioned disciplines I’ve raced in are way more competitive. On the flip side, I’ve found the unsanctioned discipline of gravel to be extremely collaborative. I’ve been on Google Hangout meetings with other gravel racers and promoters, but I feel like that would never happen with ‘cross racers because it’s so much more cut-throat. Standings, rules, qualifications, points, everyone’s trying to get an edge up and that’s the nature of those sanctioned disciplines. Everyone’s in competition so why would there be collaboration? In gravel we’re all kind of in the same boat of doing races for fun and promotional reasons, not for a better UCI ranking or call-up number at a championship event. Therefore everyone is more willing to talk about schedules and projects to work on together.
I believe the pandemic shed a light on this during summer last year. A majority of the gravel community was quick to collectively say mass gatherings aren’t safe and racing can wait through the end of the year. On the flip side, many ‘cross racers were willing to race if given the opportunity over the fall and winter. Up until all of the UCI races were canceled for the season, the major opinion there was, “I’ll do whatever I can to race safely.” I was blown away because that mindset has been ingrained in the cut-throat, competitive atmosphere. If ‘cross racers don’t race, they lose points, standings, and positioning. If gravel racers don’t race, they simply lose the opportunity to race and market themselves. It feels like gravel racers have figured out how to make up that lost opportunity to sponsors whereas it’s tougher for the ‘cross racers. So that’s a long-winded example of my outlook on collaboration versus competition in the disciplines I’m familiar with.

Seth Davidson: Who inspires you?

Amanda Nauman: My mom. It goes back to the fact that she had an idea of what she wanted to do, found the things she was passionate about, and never let anyone tell her she couldn’t do those things. Growing up in a house with that mentality and being told I could do whatever I wanted to was very motivating. I was inspired by how deeply she cared about and pursued her passions no matter what.

Seth Davidson: What drives you?

Amanda Nauman: I’ve thought about that a lot this past year without having the external motivation of racing, and I think everyone was forced to ask that question. I’m driven to be the best at whatever I set my mind to. I’m definitely very competitive but I’m also very self-driven. Finding something I really care about and pursuing it 100% has always motivated me. I like knowing I gave everything I could towards a goal. For instance, I love the feeling of standing on a start line with all the confidence because I know I prepared well and all the work was done to get to that point. That’s just as satisfying a feeling as getting a good result, in my opinion.

Seth Davidson: What question do you wish you were asked in interviews?

Amanda Nauman: A lot of interviews miss the question of “What do you want to leave behind?” because that shows motivation behind a person. And I don’t get asked “Why do you do all this stuff?” very often.

Seth Davidson: What do you want to leave behind?

Amanda Nauman: Being a good inspiration for kids. Bike racing is a very selfish pursuit. Everything revolves around you and your goals. A few years ago, I was asked to be part of the Women’s CX Project by Corey Green, Brett Hungerford, and Scott Dedenbach. It was a pivotal point in my life because I was able to mentor and help junior racers. It was important because I realized I could give back the knowledge that I had acquired over the years. As soon as I saw that all the hard work David Sheek and I had done for me to find success in racing could be used to help junior racers find success, I found more of a purpose. It was such a great feeling to mentor the next generation of racers. From that experience, David and I started helping USAC with their CX Talent ID camp, and it became something I was more passionate about than strategizing to get a World Cup spot. Bike racing is inherently selfish and that external validation is the motivation for a lot of people, but I hope that most of them get to a point where they can share their expertise and knowledge with the next generation or development teams because then we’ll all be better for it.

Seth Davidson: Thanks, Amanda!

Amanda Nauman: You’re welcome.

END


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