Jessica Cutler grew up on Bainbridge Island and journeyed through a difficult adolescence to discover that she had significant talent as a cycling athlete. After ascending to the top levels of US women’s cyclocross competition, she’s in a transition process that includes mentoring young women who show promise.
Hometown and growing up
My parents were going through a divorce when I was a kid, and it had a negative impact on me. I was getting into trouble, and transferred from the Bush School to a boarding school in Pennsylvania. The distance between my parents and me enabled me to pull it together, and I went from getting Cs to As. My first year as an undergraduate was at Boston University where I was recruited as a springboard diver, but quit the team to pursue mountain biking, which I had discovered in high school. I transferred to Boston College in 1999, and I moved back to Seattle in 2002 still 5 classes shy of graduation.
Education and work
When I returned to Washington I worked for a couple of years as a legal receptionist and then landed a job as a legal assistant for the Washington State Attorney General. As part of that state job I was able to take classes at University of Washington, and I finished the undergraduate degree I was earning at Boston College.
The attorneys I worked with were supportive of me going to law school and with their mentorship I applied for and was accepted into Seattle University School of Law. I earned my Juris Doctor in 2009.
How did you get into cycling?
In 1996 as I was starting at my new boarding school in Pennsylvania my mom bought me my first mountain bike as a 17th birthday gift. I then befriended a couple of other students and teachers who mountain biked at the school and we started going on a few rides every week. I was even able to earn my gym credits through keeping and turning in a log of all of my mountain bike rides. There were lots of little trails just off of campus in Edwardsville, Pennsylvania and I was able to ride straight from campus to the trailhead. In college I put on a lot of weight and even though I still enjoyed cross-country riding, I focused on racing downhill in 1998-2000.
In late 2003 I was determined to get back into shape and my parents helped me by getting me a gym membership for Chanukah. At the gym I found a beginner triathlon group and gave myself the goal of finishing a triathlon. I won my first race, which was largely the result of my performance on the bike.
As I continued to excel as a triathlete I began to long for a sense of community I wasn’t finding in triathlon. In 2008 I got introduced to road racing via WSBA’s Meet the Team Rides. As a cat 4 I got second place in all the races I did, advanced to cat 2 within 3 months, and was a cat 1 the following season. I tried every cycling discipline except for mountain biking, and had decent results at every event.
Talk about your progression into and out of cyclocross competition
I had always heard good things about cyclocross and was interested in trying it. My first season was 2009, and I competed using four different borrowed bikes. At first, cyclocross was a nice way for me to keep up the intensity and fitness after road season; I like racing more than training!
You can quote me: “Cyclocross is better than training.”
I slowly fell in love with ‘cross culture. Cross is family friendly; the courses are self-contained and it’s easy for spectators and friends to see what is going on.
My experience is that there is more camaraderie in cyclocross that road racing. For example, I routinely share bikes with friends to help get them into cyclocross. My first Mason Lake road race was not welcoming; honestly, the people were unfriendly and unhelpful. From my perspective roadies tend to stick to their own teams, and riders don’t tend to befriend women from other teams. This is a culture that several awesome women (WSBA President Gina Kavesh and Secretary Martha Walsh) in Washington are currently working to change.
Transition from Professional Racer to Development Team Owner
Since I’ve publically declared my retirement at the end of this upcoming road season, I want to continue to be involved in the sport – specifically cyclocross – by creating a junior and U23 cyclocross development program for young women. My husband is going to help with the concept; he is patient, experienced working with professional teams, and wants to support women’s cycling however he can. This plan fits well with us wanting to start a family as it creates a way that I can still stay involved in the sport. In fact, it may turn out to be a bit of a family affair from the get-go. My sister Lucy may also help out. She is a Cat 1 cyclocross racer and will be moving back to Seattle after she finishes grad school. She has worked with non-profits and has fundraising experience.
This year my husband and I gave this program a little bit of a test run by sponsoring 17yo Shannon Mallory who I have been coaching for 2 years. We took her to several UCI races and were able to pay her entry to nationals where she finished a phenomenal 2nd place in the 17-18 category and 10th in the combined 17-22 category.
The interesting thing about cross and women is that cross is more feasible at a smaller scale than road racing. My initial goal for the program is to work with two young women next year.
By doing this, I don’t want to slight programs such as Rad Racing which have done an excellent job developing young local talent across genders and disciplines, but the needs of young female cyclocross racers are really unique, and I think having a very small cyclocross program solely focused on young women can really help to develop riders.
The focus of this program will be getting young women support (financial, equipment, and mechanical) at local races, having them compete at cyclocross nationals in their respective junior and women youth (age 17-22) categories, and work towards the ultimate goals of receiving invites to Euro Cross Camp, as well as the World Championship. Because of the recent creation of the UCI women’s youth category, I think the timing is right for this idea.
I’m starting to put the development program together now. My goal is to raise $15,000 for the 2016-17 cyclocross season. This will cover entry fees, travel for riders and staff, and other race-related expenses. Travel and bike transport are the biggest budget items, a travel race weekend for one rider and staff member can easily exceed $1,500 in travel expenses.
I have secured 40% of the budget for the development program from Slalom Consulting via the Slalom Consulting Cycling Team/First Strike Velo. The development program will likely be named “PNW Women’s Cyclocross Project” but for purposes of sponsorship we will also likely go as “Slalom Consulting Women’s Development” although that has not been finalized yet. I have leads for the remaining 60% from an angel investor. I am in the early process of creating a 501(c)(3) so all sponsors of the team will be able to write off their sponsorship.
I will be hand-selecting the young women who get invited to participate in my program. I’ll be looking for young women who are showing discipline as far as racing and training, and who have families that support their goals. Because I will be working with juniors, I want to make sure I stay in close contact and communication with their parents to ensure that they understand what the program will do for its riders but also what is expected of the riders.
It’s not a secret that bicycle racing is a different ball game for women than men, and this is also true in elite cyclocross as well. Most women bike racers are privateers; my goal is to help my mentees become good ambassadors, learn how to interact with their sponsors, and to help with their social media and sponsor relationships. Professional cyclocross racers quickly learn that training hard & riding fast are only part of the equation for success; because of this I hope to do a pre-season “sponsor camp” with the young women to ensure they know a little bit about each sponsor and know what each sponsor expects in return for said sponsorship.
I believe that a program that is more micro-focused on young female cyclocross racers and is not cross-discipline or for both genders will provide a good opportunity for young women to learn how to thrive in the sport. I’m excited to be in a position to pursue this project and I can’t wait to see what challenges and successes my post-retirement involvement in cycling brings!