She has graduated from tiger stripes to the Stars and Stripes.
Emma White’s first bicycle — the one that had training wheels, and then didn’t — sported a cool tiger pattern paint job.
When she was about 6, she had a red one she pedaled in the kids’ fun ride portion of a mountain bike event at Windham Mountain: “Her very first race ever. It was hysterical. She beat all the boys that were older and bigger than her!” Emma’s mom, Chris, said in a text message.
The bike Emma White, a Duanesburg High and Union College graduate, will be riding this week — for Team USA at the Tokyo Olympic Games — is a Felt TA RFD Superbike with a mount for a Garmin device that attaches to a heart monitor.
Every tiny detail, except one, is designed to approach optimal aerodynamics. That one exception is a small sticker with “KC” printed on it, for Kelly Catlin.
Instead of spokes, you see circular black panels filling the rims, and the short black handlebars point forward, like horns, giving the bike a slightly menacing look.
It’s actually on the market and can be yours for the low, low price of $26,000. They haven’t sold many.
Team USA women’s track cycling won the silver medal in team pursuit with this bike at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics; White and Team USA don’t intend to settle for silver this week.
The 23-year-old, who charged through the ranks of junior and amateur cycling to become a professional rider, won a gold medal at the 2020 UCI Track Cycling World Championships in Berlin and is among five women making up the United States’ contingent for track cycling team pursuit in Tokyo.
Based on the victory at Berlin a year and a half ago, they’re considered the favorites to win the Olympic gold medal next week, and if they do, it will culminate months and months of training without racing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It will also culminate a meteoric rise through track cycling for White, who rides professionally in rough-and-tumble cyclocross and was recruited by Team USA to make a transition to track, which races short laps on a banked velodrome, two years after the Rio Games. Now, just like that, she’s in prime position to bring an Olympic gold medal home.
“Of course there are nerves, and there’s always pressure, but I really feel like, with the last year and a half, when there was so much unknown, and everybody’s going into it with so much unknown, I think that we are all going in with the same mindset of we’ve done everything we can do,” White said last Thursday in a phone interview from Los Angeles.
“All the work is done, and the best thing we can do is just go and do the best that we can. That’s the only thing we can do.”
“Last year, having won the World Championship, they were looking really good, but she seems to think that they’re going a little bit faster than they were last year,” Chris White said. “Who knows what everybody else is doing, how all the other countries have prepared the past year? But she seems to feel that they’re in good shape.”
‘Thinking about her’
Besides White, the Team USA women’s track team pursuit consists of Chloe Dygert, Jennifer Valente, Lily Williams and Megan Jastrab.
In team pursuit, two teams of four start on opposite sides of the velodrome, and for the Olympics, they’ll complete laps totaling 4,000 meters, with eight teams advancing out of Monday’s qualifying based on time. The medal round is Tuesday.
Besides pursuing a gold medal, the Americans have dedicated all of their competitive efforts to Catlin, a star teammate who died of suicide in 2019. She was White’s pro teammate with Rally Cycling and a roommate of hers at White’s first Team USA camp in L.A.
“We’ve been thinking about her a lot the past weeks and months, and certainly heading into Tokyo, she would’ve been at the top of the roster on the team,” White said. “So, yeah, absolutely, we’ll be thinking about her the whole time.
“I was still pretty new to the track team in 2018, and she was a really good mentor and teammate. She was a very unique person, but very driven, a very smart, talented person.
“I know she’ll be with us and trying to fight for that gold.”
White was introduced to track cycling in 2018 when her coach, three-time Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong, suggested to Team USA women’s endurance track head coach Gary Sutton that they needed to give White a look.
She attended a talent identification camp, and once she had established herself as someone with Olympic potential, Sutton said it took about five to six months before White had fully made the transition to track cycling. And White has progressed from being comfortable only in the fourth position to serving as an option at all four positions on the track.
“You’re really starting from scratch when she came onto the track,” he said. “But she adapted really well and she picked up things very quickly.
“Kristin Armstrong was the one who got on the phone and said, ‘Listen, you’ve got to look at this young girl, she’s good.’ She’s gone from strength to strength. And she’s become a lot more confident, she’s so smooth on the bike and her skill factor is very, very good.”
“Gary was the coach at that camp, and when I was in the airport on the way home he called me and said that I had a really good chance to be on the Olympic team in what would’ve been two years from then,” White said. “It was a shock. I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I need to make a decision quick.’ I love cyclocross, but I knew I would’ve never forgiven myself if I hadn’t taken that opportunity and see where it could’ve gone.
“And it’s been such a whirlwind. I got thrown in the deep end with the team. At that point they were the current world champions and I had never ridden a track bike before.”
“The track was her way to get into the Olympics, but it also suits her physiological build, where she’s not a climber, she’s not skinny as a twig, she’s muscular, she has really good power,” said Emma’s older brother Curtis, an accomplished pro cyclocross racer who has represented the U.S. at eight World Championships.
“Apart from cyclocross, her skills have been sprinting and time-trialing. She’s a very powerful rider, so those skills she’s been able to cultivate have helped steer her toward the track, which is a four-minute, anaerobic, all-out effort.”
It surely is a leap from the little girl who beat the big boys in the 30-second fun ride.
Cycling has always been an integral part of the White family activities.
Curtis, who is almost two years older than Emma, began competing at the age of 9, and she followed a year later. They also have younger siblings Sarah, Anna and Harrison.
Emma was so strong-willed and talented that she frequently needed to remove herself from the confines of age and gender.
“We grew up, like many other kids, just riding our bikes around the yard,” she said. “My dad started taking my older brother to some bike races when he was old enough, and every bike race has a kids’ race, very, very short, 30 seconds for little kids that are rolling around on the grass. And that was me. It was co-ed, and I loved beating the boys.
“It was like every weekend was a family vacation somewhere. And if you didn’t bring a bike, you’d be pretty bored.”
“She was far stronger, in my opinion, than the average young girl,” said Emma’s father, Tom. “She was just a tough kid. And as far as stamina, she would go as far as we would go. There was never a question of ‘I’m feeling uncomfortable, I’m going home.’ She was always in it.
“I think most people would agree she has a sweet disposition, but, yeah, she can turn it on pretty intensely.”
“There came a point where she was too good for the women’s amateur races, but not old enough to be in the professional women’s races,” Curtis said. “So she hopped into the amateur men’s races.
“There were one or two years where she was a 15- or 16-year-old girl racing against grown men. There was one race we did in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where she was riding through a sandpit and accidentally crashed out three grown men. I don’t think anyone had a problem with it, because you see a young athlete succeeding, and you know they’re going places.”
The latest place is only the biggest stage in her sport.
Very early last Sunday morning, the American women’s team pursuit riders left Los Angeles, where they had spent a week training at a velodrome configured similarly to the one they’ll face in Tokyo.
They were tested for COVID right off the plane and are tested every day, while maintaining their own extra health and safety routines to ensure that they can just get to the race they were supposed to ride last year before everything was canceled.
It’s a race they’re supposed to win, too, except that it only takes the tiniest detail to be off to cause the tiniest loss of time, and every thousandth of a second counts. In 2016, Dygert, Catlin, Valente and Sarah Hammer finished 2.218 seconds behind Great Britain for the gold medal.
“It would be fair to say that there’s a lot of pressure when you mention the word ‘Olympics.’ No question,” said Sutton, who competed for Australia at the 1976 and 1980 Olympics. “But I think the way you handle pressure is it can change based on knowing you’ve prepared yourself the best you possibly can, and they know they have.
“I have no question about Emma’s handling any pressure. She’ll be nervous, but everyone gets nervous, and I feel confident Emma’s in a really good place. She’ll be dialed in, like all of them.”
The Whites had made plans for a long family vacation to Tokyo last year before the Games were postponed.
Now, Tom and Chris are traveling to Orlando, Florida, where NBC has set up a venue at DisneyWorld for family viewing parties. Curtis will watch from the Boston area with his girlfriend and her family.
The fact that the women’s team pursuit starts at 2:30 a.m. Monday and Tuesday is a small detail.
“I’ve already started to alter my routine, so I’m highly focused … been setting the alarm for 2 a.m. for the past month,” Tom said with a laugh.
“It’s crazy,” Chris said. “When she got over there, she was given all the team gear, all the clothing, and seeing her teammates over there, it’s just really, really exciting.”
“As a family, we’ve gone through cycling together, we’ve created memories together and have been able to learn at a very similar rate,” Curtis said. “To be honest, that [gold medal] would be really cool, but I think this experience is hers, and I’m really excited to see her make the most of it.”
“Since I was 10 years old, I’ve had so many people help me get to where I am right now,” Emma said. “And truly, every day that I’m training I think of those people who went out of their way to help me.
“And especially being in a team event, it’s not just me, it’s not an individual thing.”
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