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Behind The Scenes: TWENTY16 Women’s Pro Cycling Team Camp

Allison Arensman sits on a colorful wicker stool at the end of a cul de sac, patiently waiting while the Felt Bicycles video crew clips a lavalier microphone onto her collar and makes fine adjustments to their equipment. The 21-year-old North Carolina native is preparing for her second full year on the TWENTY16 Ridebiker powered by Sho-Air professional women’s cycling team. And, having just wrapped up her wintertime cyclocross season with a trip to the World Championships in Zolder, Belgium, Arensman is taking a few weeks off the bike. With her teammates currently out on a three-hour training ride, she’s the first in the interview hot seat.

And it truly is a hot seat. The clock hasn’t even struck 10:00am on this Saturday in early February, but the sun’s harsh rays indicate that it’ll be yet another unseasonably warm Saturday in Encinitas, California. Thin lines of sweat begin accumulating along the brows of all in attendance, and those who opted to wear black shirts that day are questioning their decision-making capabilities.

But the sun is precisely why the TWENTY16 squad has traveled to the beachside community and cycling hotbed, which is situated 25 miles north of San Diego. Warm weather all year round, as well as easy access to a diverse mix of roads, climbs and fast local group rides, makes Encinitas a popular destination for cycling teams looking to kick off their season with training rides, sponsor meet-and-greets and palm tree-laden photo opportunities.

Behind Arensman is the beautiful 4-bedroom/3.5-bathroom house that the team has rented for the week via Airbnb. TWENTY16’s mechanics have set up the team’s equipment trailer in the driveway, and they’ve been hard at work all morning building up the squad’s new Felt F Series and ZW Series bikes that will be raced throughout the upcoming season. They’ll be building bikes well into the evening. Dozens of boxes of shiny new SRAM components are stacked in piles nearby, and countless Zipp carbon fiber wheels stand at attention inside the house’s attached garage. Next to them, Brian Hodes, a veteran cycling photographer, sets up a photo studio with backdrop and lights in order to snap some glamour shots of the riders later in the day.

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TWENTY16 team mechanic Ralf Medloff spent most of the day building brand-new Felt F1 road bikes for the team.

Back on the street at the bottom of the driveway, the Felt video cameras begin to roll and Arensman, displaying a degree of professionalism that belies her youth, sits up straight, smiles wide and refuses to squint her eyes while staring into both the bright sun and the camera lens as she answers question after question. Tell us about your experience on the TWENTY16 team.

“The support of this team really blows my mind,” says Arensman. “They’re not only there for the riders, but they have soigneurs who really take care of you. And then we have our director, Mari Holden, who takes care of so much. She helps keep all of us calm and mentally focused. And then, of course, our general manager Nicola Cranmer is just amazing, especially the way she comes around and uplifts and brings together everyone on the team. And the team’s support of school isn’t something I really expected. They really support education, which I haven’t experienced even on some local race teams. So it’s really humbling being part of Team TWENTY16.”

More questions, more answers, more sitting patiently in the morning heat, and then Arensman is excused and strides confidently up the driveway and into the house. There will be plenty more interviews throughout the weekend for most of TWENTY16’s riders. The majority of the squad should be returning from their ride at any moment. So, for now, the vacant hot seat awaits its next occupant.

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TWENTY16 mechanic Tim Brennan makes some adjustments to a Felt F1 road bike. (Photo: Brian Hodes/VeloImages)

A UNIQUE TEAM

“This is actually more of a media camp than a proper training camp,” says Nicola Cranmer, general manager of the TWENTY16 team. “So it gives the girls a chance to do video interviews, meet with sponsors, learn about the products, get together and not worry too much for the time being about specific training days.”

Several of TWENTY16’s riders will be heading to the Valley of the Sun Stage Race in Arizona the following week, but the team is preparing for a long season of road racing that will run all the way through October. And for the riders who are part of TWENTY16’s cyclocross program, like Arensman, their season will continue deep into the winter. Nicola Cranmer knows a thing or two about competition, as well as the importance of pacing and endurance.

Originally from Salisbury, England, Cranmer’s long history in bike racing began in 1987 when she started competing in professional NORBA mountain bike events. But she’s best known in the industry as the founder of the TWENTY16 team, which began life in 2005 as the ProMan Hit Squad. Today, TWENTY16 Ridebiker powered by Sho-Air is one of the most recognizable and respected squads in women’s cycling, having racked up race wins across North America and internationally. But what Cranmer is most proud of is the team’s commitment to developing young female cyclists.

“TWENTY16 Ridebiker powered by Sho-Air is unique because we have a real development component,” says Cranmer. “And we don’t only focus on Elite-level racing. We have 15 junior athletes on the roster, and it’s really important for us to focus on developing the next generation of female athletes. In fact, we’re also the only professional team that incorporates our top junior riders into the professional program, which really speeds up their development. One of our team members, Chloe Dygert, is a perfect example of that. She’s won the Junior World Championship last year in both road and time-trial, which is an achievement that’s never been accomplished before by an American cyclist.”

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Last year, TWENTY16’s Chloe Dygert won the Junior World Championship in both the road race and time trial events. (Photo: Brian Hodes/VeloImages)

Of course, developing young talent is important, but for any professional cycling team to keep the lights on, results are key in order to attract fans and sponsors. And while this year is a particularly important one for the sport of cycling, it’s especially important for the TWENTY16 team. The squad has drawn a line in the sand with its name, and many of its riders are training with a gold medal on their minds as the calendar races towards the Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil.

“Our name ‘TWENTY16’ represents the Olympic Games,” says Cranmer. “And so we used to be called ‘TWENTY12’ going into the London Olympics. And after this season our name will be ‘TWENTY20.’ So the Olympics are always a big goal for us. I think that every time one of our athletes puts on the team kit and it says TWENTY16, they know that it represent the Olympics. And for women’s cycling, that’s the pinnacle of the sport.”

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Winning a World Championship means that Chloe Dygert gets to wear the hallowed rainbow jersey, one of the biggest prizes in professional cycling.

Indeed, TWENTY16’s Olympic ambitions start off with a support staff that includes Sports Director Mari Holden, a multi-time U.S. National Champion in both the road and time trial disciplines, as well as a silver medalist in the time trial at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. But as far as the riders go, while there are several Olympic hopefuls on the roster, all eyes will be on one of the most accomplished Olympic cyclists ever to come out of the United States, Kristin Armstrong.

GOLDEN AMBITIONS

The time trial event at the previous two Olympics (2012 in London and 2008 in Beijing) were both won by TWENTY16’s Kristin Armstrong. The Idaho resident also has two World Time Trial Championships, four U.S. National Time Trial titles and one U.S. National Road Race title to her name, along with several other race wins accrued during her long career. After winning gold in Beijing, Armstrong stepped away from the sport to focus on starting a family with her husband, Joe Savola. Shortly after their son, Lucas, was born in late 2010, Armstrong announced that she’d be returning to racing with the TWENTY12 squad (as it was known at the time) in order to defend her gold medal in London. She succeeded, and then retired for a second time.

But with her competitive fire stoked yet again after working with so many up-and-coming athletes on the TWENTY16 squad, Armstrong delved back into competitive cycling for a third act, which she hopes will culminate in an unprecedented third gold medal at the Olympic Games in Rio. But Armstrong’s role within the team goes well beyond that of a talisman. Her years of experience and TWENTY16’s unique development program allow her to help cultivate the next generation of female racers.

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TWENTY16 rider and two-time Olympic gold medalist, Kristin Armstrong. (Photo: Brian Hodes/VeloImages)

“TWENTY16 is unique for many reasons,” says Armstrong. “Number one is that we have a very special junior program that I’m very proud of. And I think that development in the sport of cycling is very important. We have a scholarship program that helps girls go on to college. And so while we all have a passion for sport, and we all have competitive blood, at the end of the day, your education is so critical to what’s next in your journey. So that’s something that I’m very proud of as being part of this program.”

The previous day, Armstrong, Holden, Dygert and other team members visited a local middle school. The TWENTY16 riders gave a special presentation to the students about the importance of education and creating a healthy, active lifestyle. Armstrong, in particular, emphasized the necessity of creating goals for one’s self, and the importance of perseverance and a positive attitude in striving for those goals. For Armstrong and the entire TWENTY16 squad, these keys to success are applicable to their success in their training, nutrition habits, and event their race equipment.

THE EVOLUTION OF RACE BIKE TECHNOLOGY

Besides being one of the highest-profile athletes on the TWENTY16 team, Kristin Armstrong is also known for her attention to detail when it comes to her equipment. And in bike racing, having things like the stiffest bike, the most aerodynamic clothing and the fastest wheels can make the difference between winning and losing. So bike and component manufacturers are constantly chasing marginal gains in performance. And few athletes know that as well as Armstrong.

“Over the course of my career, bike technology has changed significantly. Aerodynamics are now very important. When I first started racing it was very common to have external shifters with cables all over the bikes, and you’d be trying to wrap them up with plastic ties, and trying to do all these things that riders today don’t even worry about, and mechanics don’t even worry about. And now technology has taken a whole other step and things have really grown, really evolved. And other pieces have evolved as well, such as skinsuit technology, wheels, tires and more.

“What [team sponsor] Felt Bicycles has brought to me as an athlete is that their team of engineers is very knowledgeable in the factors that affect aerodynamics on the bike. So it’s not just about the Felt frame, it’s about all the other components that fit on that frame and rider. I feel that Felt is so much further along in technology than other brands that I’ve worked with because they can speak to the athletes that they support about all the factors of aerodynamics. There’s so much experience with their testing that you’re getting a lot more than just a high-performance bike frame.

“When I started riding Felt bikes, I didn’t really know [company founder] Jim Felt. I had met him, but no one had told me that he was Jim Felt. So Jim was just Jim. He was this really happy guy, really down to earth. And so when someone told me that he was the founder of Felt bikes, I was like, “Whoa! Wait a minute, really?!” I said that this guy couldn’t be the guy who has his name on the bike because he’s too down to earth! He’s so passionate about the sport of cycling, and he’s willing do whatever it takes to help you accomplish your goals. He’s there for you, no matter what level of athlete you are. Everyone is equal in Jim’s eyes.”

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TWENTY16 team rider Kaitie Antonneau rides the Felt ZW road bike.

PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT WITH PRO CYCLISTS

Back in the late 1980s, Jim Felt was one of the top motorcycle mechanics in the nation and worked with top brands like Honda and Suzuki. But when motocross star Johnny O’Mara asked Felt to build him a custom bicycle, Felt suddenly discovered a new career path. After a stint as a product engineer at Easton Sports, Jim Felt started his namesake brand with an emphasis on racing and innovation, and that included elements such as performance bike fitting and wind tunnel testing. Felt Bicycles has sponsored several professional cycling teams during its long history, but its relationship with the TWENTY16 squad is one of its most significant.

Felt Bicycles has been with the TWENTY16 team for five years,” says Jim Felt. “And part of the reason we sponsor these teams is for the valuable feedback that they give us throughout the year on how we can improve and build a better bike. And they know that when they’re talking to me, I don’t want to hear something that I just want to hear; I want them to tell me the truth about the bikes, whether or not certain things good or bad. And because of that relationship, it helps us build a better bike.”

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Riders on the TWENTY16 team have their choice of any model in Felt’s line of road bikes. (Photo: Brian Hodes/VeloImages)

Dan Stefiuk, a Road Sports Marketing Specialist for another of TWENTY16’s equipment sponsors, component manufacturer SRAM, also notes how important the team is when it comes to product development.

“We’ve been working with the TWENTY16 team for the last five to six years,” says Stefiuk. “We work with our pro athletes whether we’re developing a new wheel set, a new aero bar, a new electronic group or anything else. It’s one thing to simply support a team and have them race on your product, but it’s another thing entirely to collaborate with a team and use them as test rabbits to test our components in conditions that we can’t simulate. You can simulate some real-life conditions inside a test lab. But to be able to put prototype products into real-world conditions, well, you can’t attain that type of feedback elsewhere.”

Throughout the day, Jim Felt and Dan Stefiuk are seen chatting together. Sometimes it’s in hushed whispers as they discuss new product development, but more often than not their conversation fills the air with boisterous laughter and a level of excitement rarely seen at pro cycling team camps. It’s clear that they’re legitimately excited to be in attendance and connecting with the athletes who will define the trajectories of their companies’ products.

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Having pro cyclist test frames and components is a vital step in product development for the likes of Felt Bicycles and SRAM (which owns Zipp wheels). (Photo: Brian Hodes/VeloImages)

 ONWARD INTO THE RACING CALENDAR

It’s now just past 3:00pm, and the sun has refused to relent its grip on the day. A light breeze brings in a touch of cool air from the nearby Pacific Ocean, along with cloudless skies. TWENTY16’s mechanics are still at it, building up new Felt road bike after new Felt road bike in the driveway. Despite the endless hours of installing brake cables and tightening bolts, they’re smiling and relishing the chance to work on brand-new bikes.

“One thing that has been great at team camp has been opening the boxes and seeing the new Felt bikes,” says mechanic Ralf Medloff. “The thing I really like about the team’s Felt race bikes is their simplicity. There wasn’t too much overthinking that went into designing the bikes from a mechanic’s point of view, I think. You have the availability of outside cable routing or inside cable routing, for example. The frames are very high quality, they’re lightweight, but they are also very stiff. It’s always exciting to be working on something new, especially working on Felt bikes.”

Jim Felt himself even pulled out some tools and built several bikes for the team, putting to use his mechanical aptitude that was developed on the professional motocross circuit and honed through decades of designing racing bicycles.

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Jim Felt, the founder of Felt Bicycles, joined the TWENTY16 mechanics in building up brand-new bikes that the team will be racing on throughout the 2016 season.

The riders have long since returned from their training ride, and have cleaned up and enjoyed a good meal. They’ve spent a fair bit of time in the garage photo studio, and now they’re all sitting inside the rented house’s expansive living room, wearing matching black polo shirts emblazoned with the team logo, listening intently to Steve Blick of Oakley sunglasses (another team sponsor) discuss the details of the company’s latest performance eyewear.

After that, Jim Felt is offered the chance to address the team, and his presentation is short and sweet and to the point. He says that Felt Bicycles is like a family, and the riders on TWENTY16 are a part of that, before wishing them luck on their coming season and promising any amount of support they’ll need throughout the coming year. Kristin Armstrong and her husband, Joe Savola, get up in front of the room next and discuss their company, K-Edge, which manufacturers small but critical accessories for high-performance race bikes like chain catchers and computer mounts.

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The girls of the TWENTY16 team have some fun while shooting photographs during their first day of team camp.

A few words from general manager Nicola Cranmer wraps up the formalities of the day’s events—although the word “formal” would misrepresent such a day punctuated by the incredible openness and positive energy displayed by each and every athlete and staff member. Athletes, staff members and sponsor representatives all then begin to casually mingle, with conversations ranging from the girls asking bike fit advice from Jim Felt to inquiring about social media tips from one another.

There will be several more events like this for the riders and staff throughout the year amidst a very full calendar of races. But looking around the room, the girls aren’t thinking about the entire year in front of them right now. This afternoon is a time for relaxation before another day of training and professional obligations. They’re all smiling and laughing and clearly enjoying each other’s company, not just as teammates, but also as friends.

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Felt Bicycles founder, Jim Felt (left), and TWENTY16 General Manager, Nicola Cranmer, address the riders at team camp.

“This team is so tightly gelled, it’s really neat to see that,” says TWENTY16 soigneur, Sara Clawson. “It’s great to see athletes who are advocates of one another. And I think that this is a really exciting year. This team is particularly good at supporting one another and supporting one another’s goals and aspirations. And it being an Olympic year, several of the riders who are Olympic hopefuls, or who are already selected to their country’s Olympic long teams, really need to show their stuff going into that. So I think team strategy is really going to reflect that well.”

If today is any indication of TWENTY16’s strategy, as well as the team’s potential for success at the Olympics and beyond, then they are off to a flying start.

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