Interview: Sunny Gilbert on Her New Sponsor Search, Van Dessel Team Ending, Gravel, Boulder and More – Cyclocross Magazine

After 11 years of cyclocross sponsorship, Van Dessel is stepping back from its Elite and grassroots cyclocross programs.

Although the company continues to release new bikes in the cyclocross/gravel category and now sponsors the Floyd’s Pro Cycling Team, one of the biggest sponsors of women’s cyclocross will be missing from team names this fall.

French national champion Caroline Mani hinted that the bike company’s cyclocross program was changing after thanking Van Dessel on her Facebook page. After that post piqued our curiosity, 2018 Louisville Cyclocross Nationals silver medalist Sunny Gilbert confirmed to Cyclocross Magazine it wasn’t just Mani but the entire program.

While Mani has since joined the Point S Nokian cycling team, at least for the cyclocross offseason, and Cassie Maximenko has decided to skip the 2019 season in an attempt to recover from being hit by a truck, Gilbert’s racing program now has a big hole to fill.

We reached out to Van Dessel founder Edwin Bull and Sunny Gilbert to learn more about the situation.

Bull lamented the corporate constraints his company faced, saying the decision was “not an easy choice to make” and hinted it wasn’t his personal choice but remained positive on the 11 years of sponsoring cyclocross athletes, starting with 2007 National Champion Jeff Bahnson.

“Sponsorship does have a cost, both financially and in terms of energy needed to do it well,” Bull explained. “I take supporting the riders and making sure they have everything in place to focus and push beyond their limits very seriously. In order to run the program, we need to run it right, with the proper support structure in place. The athletes put everything into it, and if we can’t match that from a team perspective, then we are not really helping them. Having the team where it needed to be was in jeopardy for next season and so a decision needed to be made.”

Sunny Gilbert ran her Van Dessel to a fourth-place finish on Day 1. 2016 Jingle Cross cyclocross festival. © A. Yee / Cyclocross Magazine

Bull was entirely complimentary in reflecting on his time supporting Gilbert and described her as one of the best brand ambassadros anyone could hope for. “Seeing Sunny progress over the years and then ride this incredible race for second at Nationals was just the best,” Bull said. “She has always been a rider that has impressed me tremendously with her talent, dedication, and incredible personality. Her focus and energy are the best and seeing her and Doug make so many sacrifices to set up their season and come into Nationals 100% focused and ready—and then have it all fall into place with the perfect conditions and perfect race—was just the best thing ever.”

Even Sunny Gilbert was a little surprised by her big ride. Elite Women. 2018 Cyclocross National Championships, Louisville, KY. © A. Yee / Cyclocross Magazine

He continued, “I’m so proud of her and so happy to have been able to play a part in the journey to get her there. All the pieces that took to get there—the energy, the bikes, the focus and dedication, the sacrifices—that’s why I love what do what I do and what gets me out of bed in the morning. There’s a been a lot of good days like that, but Sunny’s ride at Nationals was a very special day.”

Gilbert also gave us an update on her situation through a quick Q & A. The new Boulder resident balances a full-time job in biotech with her pro racing career and is optimistic she’ll race a full program this season, but is hoping she and her former teammate Mani will find a new sponsor.

See our Q &A with Gilbert below, and stay tuned for more from Bull on the tough decision and his reflection on Van Dessel’s long history with cyclocross.

Cyclocross Magazine: It’s been a great run with Van Dessel, including an awesome run, literally, to a silver medal at #cxnats. How does the ending of the Van Dessel program impact your upcoming cyclocross season plans?

Sunny Gilbert: Well, I’m not going to lie, it does throw an Allen wrench into my spokes. Sorry, I couldn’t resist a little bicycle punnery. I have been so fortunate to have Van Dessel as a sponsor these last three years. Even more so, when they brought Caroline onto the team two years ago. The combination of those two things raised my cyclocross game to new heights!

Teammates Sunny Gilbert and Caroline Mani celebrate their podium finishes. 2017 Ruts N’ Guts Day 2. photo: Peloton Sports

CXM: When did you find out about the changes in sponsorship? What were the official reasons?

SG: It was very recently. I had a great talk with Edwin Bull. Van Dessel and the parent company Kent International have decided not to have an Elite Women’s Cyclocross team for 2019-2020. It was a great ride, and I have every bit of respect for the hard decisions that everyone must make these days. I’ve already started looking toward the future, and plan to step up my sponsorship game in the coming weeks.

CXM: Although you didn’t all share the exact same sponsors, was there any talk of you three women trying to stay together and trying to find another bike sponsor?

SG: We would love to keep the band together. Unfortunately, Cassie has decided to sit the entire 2019 season out. She has really struggled after her accident two years ago. Caroline and I, especially now that we both live in Colorado, have been exchanging texts, emails, and Instagram likes, and have plans to reach out jointly to a few key entities that we would love to work with. I’ve always taken the approach that I want to ride, wear, and use the best, and represent brands I believe in, including Big Shark Bicycle, Van Dessel, TNR-tape, and back to my triathlon days, Clif Bar and Rudy Project. I do know that no matter what, I will be sticking on my numbers with TNR-tape again this season.

CXM: Besides bikes, what other kinds of support did Van Dessel fill?

SG: Ah, it wasn’t just about the bikes. Even though they are pretty sweet. There’s just something about riding a cyclocross bike designed by a cyclocrosser! And you couldn’t beat the names: Full Tilt Boogie, A.D.D., Motivus Maximus. It was a passion for bicycle culture! Van Dessel has this grassroots following all over the U.S. People are proud to ride them. And when I would travel anywhere, Virginia, Wisconsin, you name it, I would connect with loyal followers of the brand.

CXM: Any chance you’ll ride the same bikes next season?

SG: Right now, I’d say it’s 50-50. Fortunately, I have one of the best mechanics in the world in DougEFreshCX [Sunny’s husband], and who can work with me to get the FTBs race ready. Maybe with a couple of new groupos, and some sweet race wheels, wink, wink, it’s a distinct possibility. Also, I didn’t get to race the dropper post last year, so, I would love to press that Van Dessel into action.

Running, hopping, Sunny Gilbert does it all on the cyclocross course. Elite Women, 2017 Cincinnati Cyclocross, Day 2, Harbin Park. © Cyclocross Magazine

CXM: How does your recent move to Boulder impact your racing plan? How are you liking life there?

SG: Two words, loving it. There are so many great “hills” to climb and riders to train with! Also, I’ve done one gravel race so far, the Old Man Winter Rally, and have big plans for doing several more mountain bike and gravel races, including the Steamboat Gravel 100-miler in August. Though, I do miss my trail haunts in St. Louis, and cyclocross practice features.

As for race plans, it may mean flying to a few more races than I’m used to. And, if I am going to be flying anyway, I may as well fly to a few of the races I’ve never done before or raced for the first time last year. Look for my smiling face in a couple of new surprising places.

Gilbert recently moved back to Boulder, where she went to grad school and won a Masters 35-39 title. 2014 U.S. Cyclocross Nationals. © B. Nelson / Cyclocross Magazine

CXM: Seattle could be a mudfest with some running. Is that a big target next season?

SG: You know, if the mud in Tacoma is anything like the mud on which I learned how to race cyclocross in Oregon, then it will be a homecoming. And, I would not be the most disappointed person in the country if it meant I had to pull up my socks and run.

Sunny Gilbert ran her way past the field into a silver medal. Elite Women. 2018 Cyclocross National Championships, Louisville, KY. © A. Yee / Cyclocross Magazine

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I do love to ride my bike more than I like to carry it.

CXM: Thanks for the time, and good luck in the sponsor search.

SG: Thank you!

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I do love to ride my bike more than I like to carry it.

See also: Call Me Dr. Zjilbert: Sunny Gilbert Works Hard On, Off Her Cyclocross Bike