Sunny Gilbert has been a lot of things over the years: University of Missouri track and field and cross-country star, professional triathlete, podium-topping trail runner and mountain biker. Oh, and don’t forget PhD scientist. Her most recent accolades come from the cyclocross circuit as a member of the Van Dessel Factory Racing Team. Here’s a look at her world on and off the bike.
With everything else on your plate, how did you get into cyclocross?
Cyclocross was a late addition, and it grew organically from the fact that I was living in Corvallis, Oregon, at the time. The weather there was brutal on bicycle parts, especially my fancy triathlon bike. I was quickly told to get a “rain bike,” something that could hold up to the grit, slick and muck found in the area for the nine months out of the year that it rained.
I was still racing as a professional triathlete, but as soon as triathlon season ended in October, my cycling friends let me tag along to their cyclocross races. Before long, I was finishing at the top of the Women’s A category in the Oregon/Washington cyclocross scene.
And it would have stayed there, probably, except that I moved back to St. Louis. The pro triathlon scene was less accessible, but the proximity to UCI Elite Cyclocross events in the Midwest was impressive. One sport slowly transcended the other. Last season was the first time since 2002 that I didn’t compete in a triathlon!
What is it about cyclocross that suits you?
Nothing, actually, except maybe mental strength and an ability to suffer and mete out my efforts to keep getting faster throughout a race. There doesn’t seem to be an ideal body type for cyclocross, nor age. Technical ability comes into play on certain courses — mountain bikers tend to have an advantage over road racers when it comes to mud and features.
There’s a great website [crossresults.com] that analyzes your performance on different terrain and different conditions against different competitors. I’m pretty even across the board, unless the race is dry and fast! Working on it, always working on something. This year I worked on my starts, and it paid off with a few hole shots! Next year, I’m sure it will be hammering the straightaways.
This cyclocross season was a big one for you. Tell us about it.
The highlight had to be lining up in Zolder, Belgium, for the Kerstperiode, my sixth UCI Cyclocross World Cup. Winning is always good, too, and I doubled the number of UCI career wins I had, including one at the Category 2 race at Jingle Cross. It was a night race, which can be tricky with the shadows, and the venue was filled with spectators. The race came down to the final laps, with me and two other women trading blows. I played to one of my strengths — turning — and pulled away for a solo ride down the final straightaway and across the finish line. And then there was Indiana. That was a mud-fest, lightening-delayed, near-twilight race with no lights.
Are you seeing a pattern here? I like challenging races!
You call yourself a “slashy” (runner/triathlete/cyclicist/adventurer). If you had to pick one outdoor sport, what would it be?
That’s tricky. Really, I just like the feel of rubber on dirt, whether it’s under my shoes or under my tires, weaving in and out of trees, up and downhills.
What’s your favorite training spot?
Again, I have to pick one? I haunt Lost Valley, Greensfelder, Zombie, Bluff View and Sherman Beach pretty regularly. I really like Forest Park and Castlewood Park for cyclocross training variety — anyplace that has punchy hills, stairs, a little singletrack and plenty of grass. The work that has been done to bring the Valley Park trails around puts it on the list.
What is your favorite local outdoor event?
It’s a draw between the 2TG Dirt Crits and the Alpine Shop Trail Running Series. I’m a huge fan of the short, fast, off-road racing leagues.
What’s next on the horizon athletically?
My next adventure will be the Squealer Mountain Bike Race, and then I head to Marathon Mountain Bike Nationals in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. I haven’t done much mountain bike racing regionally, and definitely not the longer Marathon divisions, but it sounded exciting. And it’s close!
Cyclocross training has already started in earnest for next season. The first race on the calendar is the UCI World Cup at the Trek Factory headquarters in Waterloo, Wisconsin.
Author: Brad Kovach is the editor/publisher of Terrain Magazine
Photo: Rick Shanks