Nicole Clamann could feel herself slipping back.
After starting the first portion of her race at the Tennessee National, the premier mountain bike festival in the southeast, in fifth place, the Northwood freshman exited a wooded portion of the course and started on the more open portion of the race. She was passed once. Twice. Three times. And then a fourth.
By the time Clamann realized what was happening, she fell back to ninth. But rather than let the stretch define her race, she rallied to take back every spot she lost.
As the course began to undulate and introduce more hills, the 15-year-old found new energy that propelled her back into fifth at the end of the first lap. She maintained a similar pace on her last two, ending the race in fifth with a time of 1:18:12.2.
“It was my first really big mountain bike race I’ve ever done,” Clamann said. I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into, because I didn’t know the community super well. So I just kind of went out there and had a goal of getting fifth. I went in there not putting too much pressure on myself.”
While her trip to Tennessee this past weekend was the first major mountain biking race of her career, it certainly won’t be the last for the Northwood freshman.
Biking is in her blood, after all.
While most toddlers explore their surroundings by walking, Clamann’s main mode of transportation from the early age of 3 years old was a Strider bike. Her dad, Michael, said Nicole would scoot around the house for hours at a time with the bike straddled between her legs. While not necessarily “riding,” it wouldn’t take long for her to make the jump.
Over the next few years, Nicole began taking her bike outside the house and riding around the neighborhood. Eventually, her parents, Michael and Karin, had to make sure one of them was present each time she stepped outside.
“She would go around the neighborhood with it to the point where we had to have one of the two of us parents had to be stationed at different parts of the big hill,” Michael joked. “(Biking) has always been a presence in her life. She took to it pretty young and then became pretty passionate about it.”
As the years progressed, Michael introduced her to a bike with 10-inch wheels, and then he had her start riding trails. By the time Nicole was 9 years old, she started participating in her first organized events.
And in 2020 at just 13 years old, Nicole began riding with the Chatham County Chaos, a local mountain biking team that is part of the North Carolina Interscholastic Cycling League (NCICL), a branch of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA).
Clamann’s first organized race with the team took place on March 8. One week later, the season was canceled following the initial outbreak of COVID-19. While things ended rather abruptly in her first season with the team, Clamann admitted she wasn’t too upset with the news.
“Honestly, I wasn’t loving it that much,” Nicole said. “My first season, I wasn’t that great, so I wasn’t that super bummed out (when the season was canceled). Honestly, I don’t remember it hitting me that hard.”
While the initial news of the canceled season didn’t have much of an effect on Nicole, she started to realize the extended break brought on by the pandemic was the perfect situation for her to kick her training into another gear.
After a few months, Nicole began working with a personal trainer to improve her fitness and technique. She returned for her first event on Sep. 18, 2021, and placed first in her skill group at Virginia’s Blue Ridge GO Cross event sponsored by Deshutes Brewery. Over the course of that first year, she claimed eight podium spots (top-three finishes) and finished second in four straight races from Oct. 31 to November 20.
During 2022, Nicole raced in 14 events while moving up to a higher skill level of CAT 3. Mountain biking events are often broken up by skill level, with CAT 1 being the most competitive and so on. In her final race of the year on Dec. 4, she claimed a third-place finish in the CAT 1/2/3 race (which includes riders from all three CATs) at the 2022 NCCX Race No. 12 in Salisbury.
Nicole also competes in Cyclocross, which is a form of racing that takes place on a variety of surfaces (asphalt, grass, dirt tails, etc.) and features quick, punchier sections. Races last around 45 minutes compared to longer mountain bike races, which can sometimes take an hour and a half.
This past winter, Nicole earned a bid to the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships as a member of the Blue Ridge Cross Cyclocross team. She finished 19th out of 31 competitors in what was her first national event of that type.
“I think during mountain-bike season I want to get right back to Cyclocross, and when I’m doing Cyclocross I want to get right into mountain-biking. But this year has been different. I’ve really taken to mountain-biking, and it’s something I’ve really found a passion for.”
But beyond racing, one thing Nicole is grateful cycling introduced her to is the GRiT (Girls Riding Together) program. According to NICA, GRiT is designed to recruit and retain more girls and female coaches inside the association.
Since joining GRiT back in 2020, Nicole said she has seen the group’s numbers explode. As a senior ambassador for the program, she helps run the North Carolina GRiT social media pages. She’s also the host of the NC GRiT Podcast, which posts new episodes monthly.
“I love it so much. It’s honestly one of my favorite things,” Nicole said. “I’ve met so many amazing people through it, and I love being part of that community that’s getting more girls on bikes. I also like seeing how much it has changed.”
Sporting a new bike — an orange and black Santa Cruz Blur — Nicole began her 2023 season with the Chatham Chaos on March 5 in Brown’s Creek.
Competing in the JV2 Girls race, Nicole completed the course in 1:09:50.36, over three minutes faster than the second-place finisher. Her time would have also placed her second in the varsity girls race behind Stella Slingsby of Asheville High.
Nicole’s performance helped the Chaos finish 14th of the 49 participating teams. The Chaos’ next event — the Dark Mountain Dash — takes place this Sunday in Wilkesboro.
But beyond this mountain biking season, Nicole already has her sights set on some larger personal goals. Among the first things on her agenda is earning an invite to race for a national development team. Beyond that, she also would love to ride for a World Cup team one day. The world cup circuit runs year round and features races across Europe and Australia.
And there’s one more goal she has her eye on. One she’s almost hesitant to mention.
“I mean, this is a total dream, but the Olympics would be amazing,” she said.
It might seem like a dream now, but then again, these past few years haven’t turned out exactly how Nicole planned, either.
Sports Editor Jeremy Vernon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jbo_vernon.
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