Words by Lydia Tanner
I lined up behind Kelli Emmett once, at a national championship Super-D. I remember being briefly impressed with her badass kneepads, and that was pretty much the last I saw of her. She’s made a name for herself with her bike handling and amazing endurance, but what struck me most as we travelled to the Crusher in the Tushar last week, was that she’s also a really cool person.
At a gathering hosted by Jans bike shop in Park City, she giggled and chatted with everyone who showed up, and the formal question and answer session quickly took on a conversational feel. Inquiries like “who’s your greatest mentor” turned to “what’s your spirit animal?” or “do you remember the first guy you chicked?” Sometimes in these situations a pro will command a room, but Kelli found a way to genuinely engage everyone instead. When asked about the secret to getting stronger, she replied simply; “keep it fun!”
Traveling with Kelli reminded me of how true this is — and it speaks to her longevity in the sport. It’s easy in racing to count calories, track watts and whittle down your recovery time, but that approach can be a recipe for burnout. So rather than a powermeter or GPS, Kelli wears a pink Swatch with a big digital display. I asked her about it and she confessed it doesn’t even tell the correct time — she just uses it to plan her intervals.
Kelli spends most of her time (she says about 320-325 days a year) traveling. Whether that’s following the Enduro World Series or driving around the US with her dirtbike and camper in tow, she rarely stays in one place for long. Instead of wearing her down, all the time on the road seems to energize her. “If I’m home for more than a week I start thinking, okay, when’s the next trip?” she says with a laugh.
The night before the race we all grilled fixings for tacos, drank wine, and told jokes until way past our bedtime. The next morning she was all smiles — until a few seconds before the start. The Tushar is no small feat, climbing 10,000 feet over 70 miles, and in those moments before the gun, I saw a world class racer getting focused for a long day. It was like she was on a different frequency.
Kelli finished in the top five, but the number next to her name was nothing compared to the grin pasted on her face at every aid station. Despite claiming to be “in a dark place” at the bottom of the QOM climb, she finished strong (and perhaps more importantly) happy.
Some pros let you know they’re pros — they talk about their nutrition, their gear, their training, their sponsorships — but other pros wear broken watches, eat cookies, and ask about your favorite trail. You can’t necessarily tell what incredible riders they are until those moments before the gun, and that’s when you realize that they’re in their element.
Traveling with Kelli and the Juliana crew reminded me that you don’t have to be type-A to be successful. Racing can be fun, even when it’s stupid hard — and that’s what it’s all about, right?