Last year at the Pan-American Championships, the familiar faces of Maghalie Rochette, Ellen Noble, Kaitie Keough and Courtenay McFadden led the way in the Elite Women’s race, but finishing right behind them in fifth was a bit of an unknown in Canadian Jenn Jackson.
Or at least, an unknown in the cyclocross world. Jackson grew up as an elite cross-country skier who won the Canadian U23 National XC Skiing Championships in 2017. That same year, Jackson had also started mountain biking competitively and won the U23 Nationals at the same venue four months later.
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“Since I like a good storyline, I thought linking these two events in a new sport to my old one would be poetic,” Jackson said about that special season. “It went almost better than I could have hoped. I won U23 National titles in both cross country skiing and mountain biking that year, at the same venue, just 4 months apart.”
Jackson’s storybook finishes also marked a transition for her. Heading into 2017, she knew it would be her last year of competitive skiing, after the stress of always having to be “on” and training intensely caused her to burn out on the winter sport.
Skiing’s loss has been cycling’s gain. Jackson has raced the XCO World Cup circuit full-time for the past two seasons, and this past fall, she decided to pick up a cyclocross bike as well.
“The sport sounded totally bizarre to me, but I dug the idea of it being a slightly offbeat sport,” Jackson said about cyclocross. “Big feature technical skills, heat and the length of races are what I’ve struggled with most in mountain biking, so with those being less of a factor in cyclocross (and the addition of running!) I knew it was something I wanted to try.”
Jackson jumped right into cyclocross, racing at the Rochester UCI weekend last year and pulling off a top 10 finish despite a last-row start. She then went on to finish fifth at Pan-Ams and take second behind Rochette at Canadian Nationals.
She enjoyed the discipline and lack of pressure so much, her first season also included a trip to Europe for Kerstperiode.
“Seeing the passion, energy and commitment the racers, staff and fans have for cyclocross made me feel like cycling as a career pursuit could actually be real,” she said about the experience. “My own racing also helped me start to see and believe that being world-class isn’t impossible, it’s still a long ways away, but at least I can see it now.”
Last season’s success also brought a new team for 2019. Gone will be the famous plaid kits of AWI Racing and in will be a spot on the Easton – Giant p/b Transitions LifeCare UCI team alongside Michael van den Ham and Dylan Postier.
Jackson debuts with the team in Rochester this weekend after racing XCO Worlds last weekend. We caught up with her to learn about her varied background and impressive rise in North American cycling.
Cyclocross Magazine: Where did you grow up and how did you get into cross-country skiing?
Jenn Jackson: I grew up in Midhurst, Ontario, but now my family lives in Horseshoe Valley. The move coincided with the end of my ski career and encouraged my two-wheeled pursuits as the new neighbourhood is a hotbed for cycling. It probably the highest density of National Champions per hectare in Canada for cycling.
Our parents are very active people and cross country skiing was our winter activity. My brother and I grew up skiing at Hardwood and Horseshoe and then racing for Hardwood Devo as we got older.
CXM: How long were you a competitive skier? Do you miss it at all?
JJ: After graduating high school, I was part of the National Team programming for four years, based out of Thunder Bay. I’d say I was serious about being a skier by grade 11, that’s when I started training and having big goals.
I miss the people more than anything. I spent so much time living, training and traveling with my friends and teammates in Thunder Bay; when I don’t see or talk to them, it feels like there’s this big hole in my early adult life that I’ve lost contact with. I do try to stay in touch though, it was cool seeing some of them at the Olympics last year and having other great successes in the ski world.
I also miss the versatility and functional fitness of being a skier. Biking is cool, but to be really good at it you have to give up proficiencies in other activities.
CXM: How did you make the transition to cycling? Mountain biking was your introduction?
JJ: Yes. I started riding casually in 2016 while I was working a summer job at a bike shop, hitting the local race series and a couple of regional events with friends. I skied through winter 2017, then come spring started mountain biking with some more intent.
As a last-year U23, I wanted to compete at the Canada Games (having also done so two years prior in skiing) and compete at Mountain Bike Nationals in Canmore, Alta. Cross Country Ski Nationals were also there that year, and since I like a good storyline, I thought linking these two events in a new sport to my old one would be poetic.
It went almost better than I could have hoped. I won U23 National titles in both cross country skiing and mountain biking that year, at the same venue, just 4 months apart, and then also won a silver medal at the Canada Summer Games in the XCO to go with the gold medal I won at the 2015 Canada Winter Games.
CXM: What about cycling made you want to switch sports?
JJ: While I was working at the shop in summer 2016, I knew the upcoming winter would be my last competitive ski season—coming off a massive burnout, I knew I didn’t want to ski anymore but felt I needed to race one more year on my own terms as proper closure.
Over the course of the summer, I found a really great niche of people, new friends who helped me into the cycling community and gave me an opportunity to grow and become a better version of myself after feeling pigeon-holed in the ski world. Everything was fresh and new; I could be a beginner again, but this time aided with the experience and perspective I’d gained during my time skiing. I felt freer, without expectations.
It’s just fun too. A lot of training for mountain biking is just riding your bike. Of course, there’s deliberate practice and structured work, but there’s also space to play on the bike and ride with friends who aren’t necessarily trying to compete at an elite level. In skiing, you’re always training with other elite skiers, but in cycling there’s a much wider variety of people to train with.
The lifestyle aspect of cycling really appeals to me—that it’s socially acceptable to ride a ton, be fast, do citizen/local events and only do it for the sake of doing it. In skiing, it felt like Olympic-style competitions were the only way to legitimize the effort and level I wanted to ski at. The lifestyle had to be 100% focused on being an elite athlete, and there wasn’t space for much else.
That said, I think I put myself in a bad space and pressure cooked myself skiing, so coming out of that and arriving in cycling with more perspective and experience has helped me find a healthier mindset.
CXM: It seems like a lot of the endurance switches over well from skiing. What physical skills have you had to train specifically for cycling?
JJ: Sometimes I feel way less fit now as a cyclist than I was as a skier. Maybe it’s just my imagination though. Skiing is a full-body activity, so there are more muscles drawing on what your heart and lungs can provide than cycling, where you just use your legs.
Even if I’m perhaps less fit than I used to be, I’m definitely more efficient on the bike now with a few thousand hours of pedaling in my legs.
CXM: What has it been like racing the World Cup mountain bike series as an Elite this season?
JJ: It was a lot. A lot of opportunities. A lot of learning. A lot of amazing places. And also some tough times managing energy and expectations.
This was my first international season, and in the Elite field, it’s the real deal. I wish I hadn’t missed U23, it would’ve been nice to have that window to gain development experience. After two really strong races in the opening World Cup rounds, I had to check myself several times throughout the summer when I went back for more races to be both fair and honest about my performances.
I really enjoyed and appreciated being on the national team projects for the second and third trips to Europe. Having Catharine Pendrel and Sandra Walter to ride with, learn and gain perspective from was invaluable. They’re also really fun, upbeat people, who like cookies at least as much as I like baking.
Racing ’cross in Belgium last Christmas really helped take the edge off my first few mountain bike World Cups though. Starting at the back of 90-plus rider fields wasn’t new or overwhelming. Heck, I had 90 minutes instead of 45 to make passes!
My UCI ranking has improved a lot over the summer since I’ve done more races than last year. I’m still starting pretty far back and just missed out on Short Track opportunities, but in every World Cup, my finish position was better than my call-up, which was encouraging.
CXM: You definitely turned heads with your fifth-place finish at Cyclocross Pan-Ams. How and why did you decide to start racing cyclocross?
JJ: Ahhh, thank you. My head was also spinning after that weekend!
I actually knew and was curious about cyclocross before I started mountain biking. While I was skiing in Thunder Bay, my dad got into ’cross, and I’d get the occasional update about his races and the local scene throughout the fall.
The sport sounded totally bizarre to me, but I dug the idea of it being a slightly offbeat sport. Big feature technical skills, heat and the length of races are what I’ve struggled with most in mountain biking, so with those being less of a factor in cyclocross (and the addition of running!), I knew it was something I wanted to try.
I’d planned to try cyclocross in 2017, but an injury at the end of the mountain bike season put my debut on hold until 2018. I went to Rochester in September last year, I think I finished around 10th coming off the back row and then did a couple of local races before Pan-Ams and Nationals in November.
CXM: Were you at all surprised by the success you had in ’cross?
JJ: I had no expectations so I was definitely a little shook after it all. And I think saying “I had no expectations” is an easy answer, but I genuinely did not have any because, like when I started mountain biking, it was a totally fresh slate. I had no points of reference or experience.
I think if no one made a big deal about the results, I wouldn’t have registered any greater significance than having put up a good fight and raced well, but because everyone was super excited for me, it made my 5th at Pan-Ams, 2nd at Nationals, and results in Belgium seem important.
And I totally respect the people I was competing against for those positions, I don’t mean to belittle or exaggerate anything, it’s just that I was in such a liberated mindset last fall that the racing was everything and the results just happened.
I didn’t view getting results in cyclocross as a means to getting anywhere, unlike with cross country skiing and now mountain biking where the weight of trying to qualify for funding or get a contract plays on my mind more than is healthy or productive, so I could just race ’cross for the sake of racing cross —have fun and race fast. I’d like it to stay that way, but now there’s definitely some pressure and expectations to manage.
CXM: What have the most challenging and most unexpected aspects of racing cyclocross been for you?
JJ: Well, I get given a hard time by a lot of my mountain bike friends about how excited I am for cyclocross season; I think they’re worried I’ll convert to a full-time ʾcrosser.
I’m also not as good at running as I used to be pre-cycling, which is disappointing and has been a big struggle to get to a level where I’m happy with how I run. I enjoy running, but sometimes it doesn’t fit in (or it just makes my legs feel bad) with mountain biking in the summer.
Last year I found there was a lot more raw power in cyclocross than mountain biking, like super hard accelerations that were brutal to try and go with, especially early in the season before I got the hang of the style of racing.
CXM: What skills from mountain biking translate well?
JJ: I find it a bit tricky coming from the mountain to cyclocross bike. Sometimes I grossly overestimate the send capacity of a ’cross bike and get into trouble, but other times I ride super timid and don’t trust it like I trust my mountain bike. I think it’s a lack of practice and familiarity.
Once the mountain bike season is over, I’ll spend a lot more time on my ’cross bike. It’s just difficult timing to prep for the big early races in Rochester and the World Cups because Mountain Bike World Champs are right before and are a bigger priority. I think by later in the season, I’ll be riding a lot better.
Bike-body separation also seems to translate well from mountain biking to riding sand and mud in cyclocross, getting loose. My coach and I spend a lot of time working on being smooth on the bike. It sounds really simple—and the idea is—but it applies everywhere in your riding.
Yeah it’s impressive if you can rail a huge feature, ride a barrier or something, but those are discrete moments where you could gain 1 to 3 seconds a lap, but there are dozens of corners and braking points on course, each also potentially worth 1 to 3 seconds, that don’t seem as obvious but add up to a lot of time.
CXM: Looks like you jumped right in and raced in Europe. How did that come about and what was that experience like?
JJ: Yes,. That decision was actually made on my behalf by Scott Kelly, our Supreme Leader of Canadian Cyclocross. Joking, not joking.
It did take a few nudges, I don’t really like uprooting myself, but I’m glad I did. The racing went as well or better than the very loose expectations I had, but the team environment and race culture were by far the best part. Seeing the passion, energy and commitment the racers, staff and fans have for cyclocross made me feel like cycling as a career pursuit could actually be real. My own racing also helped me start to see and believe that being world-class isn’t impossible, it’s still a long ways away, but at least I can see it now.
Another part of why I wanted to go race Kerstperiode was with the upcoming mountain bike season in mind, it was a good opportunity to race in Europe at an international level before taking on the spring mountain bike World Cups and help get some jitters out of the way. It was also a healthy dose of intensity and on-bike time to get me through the winter since I couldn’t otherwise go away to train with my school schedule.
I wrote a blog post last fall about my decision to race in Europe, if you are interested in what I was thinking at the time.
CXM: How did you get together with the Easton – Giant p/b TLC team?
JJ: I made good first and second impressions at Pan-Ams and Nationals with the cyclocross friends I suppose. *laughs* Dylan [Postier] and MvdH reached out after those races, and we were back and forth talking over the winter. I wasn’t too sure I wanted to commit to a cyclocross program because I’ve seen a lot of people struggle to manage it well with a full mountain bike season, the latter of which I generally view as a more viable, realistic “career” path in cycling.
But after racing in Europe, I totally wanted to race more ’cross. I guess my perspective shifted from seeing cyclocross as something that detracted from my mountain biking pursuits as seeing it as a way to get an edge and become a better racer altogether.
Even though this team is new to me, it feels like a good place to be—maybe it’s the familiarity of a Canadian contingent with MvdH and Craig [Richey], or it could be Dylan’s southern accent. Either way, I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity so early in my cyclocross career.
Last year I kind of winged it and got by, so I think having the team to keep equipment on point, help with my ’cross-specific technique, and learn the racing ropes from could open up opportunities for improvement. Cyclocross is new to me, but I’m happy working on learning it.
CXM: What does your racing schedule look like for the season?
JJ: Rochester will be my first cross weekend, then the two World Cups! After that, I’ll take a little break and catch my breath because that will be four big race weekends in a row with Mountain Bike Worlds before Rochester, and I’ve been full-gas since the spring with mountain bike racing.
Beyond that, I’ll definitely be at Fayetteville, Nationals and Pan-Ams, but I need to respect my motivation and energy and see what jives with the team schedule. There are so many races to choose from with cyclocross, but I’m not really interested in chasing points—the idea stresses me out too much. I prefer to earn points and ranking by racing well rather than just racing a lot.
Racers who are full-gas every weekend are insanely impressive, but I know I can’t be “on” all the time, so I’ll pick my battles and try to come in clutch when it matters.
CXM: Do you have specific goals and races you are targeting?
JJ: I’m still sizing the ’cross scene up, so I don’t think I can take clear aim at anything yet. It’d be nice to win something—getting a jersey is a big career goal—but even if I can just shake things up near the front sometimes I’d be psyched.
More than anything, I want to race and have awesome battles and stories to share.
CXM: Awesome. Looking forward to see you in Rochester and what your season brings.
JJ: Thank you. I am excited.