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Raylyn Nuss: Helping to keep cyclocross alive in the gravel era

Cycling News logo Cycling News 10/12/2022 Laura Weislo
Raylyn Nuss (Steve Tilford Foundation) © Getty Images Sport Raylyn Nuss (Steve Tilford Foundation)

Raylyn Nuss and her Steve Tilford Foundation racing team are on a mission to keep cyclocross alive in the USA. 

While cyclocross continues to thrive in Europe, stateside it been overshadowed by the industry's new golden child, gravel cycling. Nuss wants to get more support back into the discipline.

"That is literally my mission. I want to make purple hats that say 'make cyclocross great again'," Nuss joked to Cyclingnews.

Nuss points to the continued support of Trek, who hosted the World Cup in Waterloo, and the live streaming of the USPCX series as a bright spot in North American cyclocross. 

"It is legitimising USA cyclocross even over in Europe - the Europeans watch the US races as well because they're superfans of the sport. How can you say cyclocross is dying when we have 11 televised events? It gives me a lot of leverage as a team owner to try and get some sponsorships."

The success of the Steve Tilford Foundation programme so far, with Lizzie Gunsalus a top-ranked under-23 rider and Curtis White landing on the podium in every race except one this season, has given Nuss even more motivation.

"The three of us have full intentions of racing again next year. We have a really good bond. I might add a U23 male rider onto the team but it's going to depend on how much budget I can get from sponsors."

Nuss, 31, has achieved a lot in the last two years since quitting her job as an analytical development scientist for Pfizer. She won back-to-back Pan American championships and last month claimed a breakthrough victory in Northampton - her first UCI victory aside from the continental titles.

Perhaps her biggest accomplishment is building the team amid a pandemic and during a time when the industry has shifted attention to gravel. The team, she says, gives her "more purpose and meaning behind what I'm doing".

"Running a team keeps me occupied - it gives me something else other than just training and resting," Nuss tells Cyclingnews

"I think I'm wired from being a collegiate athlete and managing school and sports - I like having two things going on. It can be stressful at times - the cycling industry is volatile and getting sponsorships is not an easy thing to do."

Nuss is accustomed to juggling work and training, having balanced racing at an elite level while working for three seasons before quitting her job to start the team and race full-time. She took the plunge in 2020 despite the entire North American calendar being cancelled due to COVID-19. She and then-teammate Stephen Hyde had plans to race the limited UCI schedule in Europe but opted not to put the staff and the budget at risk.

"It was kind of a blessing in disguise since it was my first year adding an athlete or two onto the team. And it gave me a year to get my ducks in a row."

When racing came back in North America, it was missing quite a few of the top riders and then the long-standing Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld team shut down. But Nuss says cyclocross is not dying out.

"It's more the industry shifting its interest to gravel than the pandemic. A lot of funding towards cyclocross has fallen off, especially after Worlds was here in the US. It was really hard for me to keep the team going in 2022, and I had to change some sponsorships," Nuss said.

"I had a lot of people telling me I should be a privateer, that it would be so much easier: the budget's not as high, you can do more funky things because I like to do things really creatively. I can still do that with a team and that's what the sport is missing.

"I was so headstrong on keeping a team alive - it definitely added stress, trying to pull it all off, but I'm really happy that I did because it gives someone like Lizzie Gunsalus who was a devo rider for Cannondale a place where she can just continue to blossom and grow. She's still a full-time student and wasn't going to have time to run her own privateer programme - she's double majoring in chemistry and engineering."

Gunsalus' success - four UCI elite podiums this season - is just another confirmation that quitting her job was the right choice.

"Towards the end of this season, I think Lizzie is coming on super strong. She won U23 Pan Am's and I think she's got a really good shot at winning nationals," Nuss said. 

"I see a lot of myself in her and to see a rider like that be able to blossom for another year - that also makes all my stress of running a programme worth it."

Gravel pressure

Nuss admits that the industry trends have put pressure on the team to race gravel, and she competed in several events this year, including the Unbound 100. She and White plan to continue to race gravel in 2023.

"I'm getting pressure to do that, as I'm sure everyone else is. Curtis and I are both planning on doing a full gravel calendar, but we are going to be really strategic on the timing of our races so we can still have a strong cyclo-cross season.

"It's still to be determined if I'm going to do the Life Time series or BWR, or just grassroots events - we're still playing with ideas. But Curtis and I will be in the same team kit, the same kind of sponsorship line-up through gravel as well for 2023."

The announcement of the new Gravel Earth series, with events across Europe and Africa, was appealing to Nuss, too.

"I was really interested - if I could use gravel to explore the world and dive into some new cultures, that would make it even more interesting to me. I could use my off-season racing also as a time to just travel and experience the world. But I'm sure that's really expensive to do.

"I might try to go to one of them, like one of the races in Africa, but I don't know if I'll do the full series because all my partners want a strong US presence, so the majority of my racing will be there, but it's cool to see there is a new series."

This week, however, her main focus is on the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships where she will try to unseat three-time elite women's champion, Clara Honsinger after finishing second to her last season.

"She has been racing over in Europe and she's really great technically. I know she'll be coming back to the US with confidence, so it'll definitely be interesting. She's really good on the bike and super strong. Beating her would not be an easy thing to do but I am definitely going to go for it."


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