Lauren De Crescenzo x Factor
Nobody wants to have a single moment define them for the rest of their lives. But there are moments or incidents that often act as turning points. For gravel and mountain bike professional Lauren De Crescenzo one major turning point in her life came on April 2, 2016, when in the final meters of stage 2 of the San Dimas Stage Race, Lauren was caught up in a huge crash which sent her to intensive care where she was initially in a coma, and then spent months in rehab.
“I’m lucky that I have no memory of the crash or of the month following the crash. Waking up in a hospital room all messed up, being in a rehab center for 2 months, relearning how to walk and talk, were all very traumatic events.”
Up until that point, Lauren had been a rising star in the USA Cycling development program. Born in New York but brought up in Colorado, Lauren got into cycling after having been a competitive runner. “I was once a runner and got hurt a little bit too much because I ran a little bit too much, like a lot of people do,” she said. “Then I started cycling. My first ride ever was up Flagstaff in Boulder. I definitely had to walk a bit toward the top. There was a lot of walking on that first ride. But I thought this was really cool and that maybe I would get to the point where I could make it without walking – and I’ve definitely done that!”
“My first race was in 2010 in college while a student at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. It was a local road race. It was a “huge” field of 12 people and I broke my collarbone. I had no idea what I was doing. I had never ridden in a group as big as 12. But I was determined that that would not be the end of my bike racing. So I kept training, and then 3 weeks later I won the next local road race.”
Clearly a determined individual, Lauren hardly looked back after that first win. She was even invited to join the USA Cycling squad racing in Europe from 2013 till 2015. “The time I spent in Europe, I was doing a few racing blocks with USA cycling. I was on their U25 development team. My first race over there was Het Nieuwsblad and I was like, oh my god, what have you signed me up for here? Trial by fire.”
Her road racing ambitions came to an abrupt end in that 2016 crash. “When I woke up from the coma, I had no interest in racing ever again. I was like, that’s not a good idea. My doctors told me basically never to ride outside again. But that was in the hospital. I didn’t race for two years.”
Refocusing then moving forward
Once on the road to recovery, Lauren had some choices to make. A very resilient and naturally curious person, she refocused and bounced back. “Upon hospital discharge, I applied for graduate school. I reinvented and reshifted my focus. Throughout my recovery, I was always focusing on the next step,” she explained.
“Next step was graduating from school, moving out on my own again and getting my master’s degree. I got a job at CDC (ed: Center for Disease Control). Throughout this period, I was always riding because I thought it was good for my recovery, for being fit, and overall brain health.”
It’s a Cinch
Once you catch the cycling bug, it’s hard to cut it out of your life. It might initially start just as a chance to get out and clear the head after a hard day of work. But for someone as driven as Lauren De Crescenzo, it’s only natural that she’d have the desire to optimize her training, test her fitness, and eventually get back to racing.
“I did a podcast with Cinch in 2020, during the height of the pandemic, and we discussed race course safety after a devastating crash at the Tour of Poland. It was very similar to my own crash in 2016, resulting in my TBI. Following the pod, they asked if I was still interested in racing gravel and some road, as they were starting a development team for men and women. I said, yes for sure! That’s when I started being coached by Cinch.”
Once back to racing this time on gravel, Lauren found success quickly. “I won races, due to my new unique ability to hurt on the bike. Since the crash, I have an entirely new relationship with pain,” she explained. “Pain on the bike is temporary and a privilege. My TBI (ed: Traumatic Brain Injury) was suffering, with an indefinite timeline and not knowing if I would fully recover. That’s how I knew when I did my first gravel race in 2018, I had stumbled upon something I might end up being pretty good at. I have a new ability to manage pain.”
Growing and developing
Joining the Cinch Cycling team has given Lauren the structure and support she needs to continue to improve. It also gives her the chance to help other riders coming up. “Cinch Cycling is a unique program, as it’s a coaching platform first and foremost with a professional women’s gravel team,” Lauren said. “We’re like a gravel development team in a way. The team is sort of the real-time research and development for the coaching program. Because they will test workouts on me, and if it’s good they’ll give it to other people and if it sucks they’re like, sorry Lauren.”
It's a structure and level of sharing that De Crescenzo finds appealing and empowering. “It’s cool because we’re able to share our knowledge and then get to have access to the knowledge of other people who are coached by Cinch. We have team camps, and there’s an app where we can communicate with everyone who is coached by Cinch. It’s filled with athletes from all abilities, all backgrounds. But we all have the common goal of getting better.”
Unlike many athletes racing gravel in the US, Lauren enjoys the team structure since she likes the organization and support the team can provide. “I think there can be barriers for athletes who do use the privateer structure. Because I feel like unless you already have big results or you are an influencer on social media, the privateer model isn’t really conducive to helping younger riders,” she explained.
“The two younger riders on my team now, I feel if I am able to bring on sponsors because of my race results, then I can create opportunities for them and share the sponsorship with them, share my knowledge and put them in a better position to succeed because they can’t approach a sponsor and say like “hi, I’m just starting out in gravel can I have some money, some bikes…” I think it’s nice to have both models – teams and privateers – so people can do whatever they want.”
Gravel and self-sufficiency
Coming from the road, where there typically are team mechanics to maintain and fix the bikes, gravel and mountain bike racing can be a bit of a shock in terms of self-supported requirements. Lauren learned quickly she would need to take care of herself if she wanted to have the chance to make full use of her on-the-bike power. “At Unbound in 2021, the year I won, I actually had two big flats and I lost 20+ minutes repairing them. I was in first place and was just watching people pass me,” she admitted.
“That was a major wakeup call that I need to sharpen these skills. I spend a lot of time with our team mechanic and my mechanic back here in Atlanta. I don’t just drop off my bike for him to fix, I do it with him. And he shows me what to do. My team mechanic as well.” Becoming a competent self-mechanic has been part of the journey of discovery and expanding her limits that has defined Lauren all her life. “All these things I didn’t really know how to do on the road because I didn’t have to, I can do now because gravel forces you to be very self-sufficient. If you are out in the wilderness for 10 hours in the middle of nowhere, you need to know how to get home.”
Her passion for pushing and improving herself has extended to taking up mountain biking at a professional level as well. “I have a Factor LANDO XC. My first actual mountain bike with suspension,” Lauren said. “Up until about 6 months ago I would have had a hard time finishing Sea Otter. I didn’t sign up for the Grand Prix last year because I just didn’t know what I was doing on a mountain bike. We’ve been putting in a ton of work just learning the fundamentals of mountain biking. But it’s been hard to compress what I see as an entire childhood into four months of the off season!”
In her first mountain bike race this season at The Gobbler in January she won. “Where I’ve come from a year ago, afraid to go over roots and whatever, to now, it's a significant improvement. But it’s still difficult since I wasn’t able to keep up with the Olympic mountain bikers at Sea Otter. But maybe four months from now…”
Gravel and the UCI
Lauren was one of the few top ranking American pros who made the trip to Italy in 2022 to race the UCI Gravel Worlds. She took top-20 but had hoped for more. “It wasn’t a great race for me. But it was what inspired me and the team to apply for the Grand Prix because the race was so different from the US gravel,” Lauren said.
“What we’re used to are these wide-open roads, long and straight whereas in Italy, it was turn, turn, small paths, turn, turn...I think that improving my mountain biking and taking part in the Life Time Grand Prix will make me more competitive at UCI Gravel Worlds. The whole inspiration for becoming a mountain biker was racing at UCI Gravel Worlds.”
There still seems to be a bit of a push and pull between the spirit of gravel, whatever that is, and more organized, professionalized gravel racing. But it’s hard to deny that gravel racing in the US is evolving. “I feel like gravel originated here in the US, so why wouldn’t we want to win the rainbow jersey?” Lauren believes. “Everyone is saying it’s not real gravel, but I really liked it. I liked the infrastructure and the organization the UCI offered. I did like the safety aspect. They closed the roads, whereas in the US it is a free-for-all safety-wise.”
At the high level of professionalization and competitiveness that gravel racing in the US now sees, it’s important to make sure the infrastructure keeps pace. “I like the drug testing that the UCI imposes,” Lauren said. “I like the organization, safety, drug testing, I like that it’s brought gravel to a global audience. People can do whatever they want, but I think that a world championship is good for any sport.”
OSTRO Gravel and Lauren: a love story
As much commitment and dedication Lauren has put into becoming a better mountain biker, gravel racing is still her happy place. Now that she and the entire Cinch team are all racing aboard Factor, she can race her gravel events on what feels like a capable, fast road bike. “I love the OSTRO Gravel. That bike is fast.” So fast that early in 2023 she took the Strava QOM on Mt. Lemmon in Arizona.
“I am super comfortable on the OG. It feels like a road bike. We wanted to use it on the Mt. Lemmon attempt as a test to see how fast the OG would climb compared to a road bike, and it passed the test,” she said. “It handles really well on gravel for being so fast and lightweight. Really stiff. It tracks super well around the corners. It’s great for something that feels like a road bike. It’s also very comfortable for racing and training. Comfort is so important and to be able to have a comfortable and aero bike is a double plus. Of course comfort is very important to me for races like Unbound where I’m going to be riding for 10+ hours.”
Lauren proved to be at one with her OSTRO Gravel when she won The Rad gravel race in Trinidad, Colorado in late September. It was a dominant performance that saw her winning by over two minutes. With nearly 3000 meters climbing, Lauren was really able not only to show her strength at going uphill, but also her skill at descending. “I’m incredibly proud of my performance given the technical aspects of this race, areas where I’ve previously struggled,” Lauren explained. “It was a hard fought battle, but I was able to come away with the win, which is my first in the Life Time Grand Prix.”
What about Unbound?
“Winning Unbound 2021 is one of my proudest achievements. It allowed me to pursue pro cycling full time, which has always been a dream. At the race, I flatted twice, but was able to take care of it myself. I was in first, but then 10 women passed me while I repaired my flats. I just put my head down and got back into first place.”
Regarding this year’s race, Lauren said, “This year’s Unbound provided a whole new set of challenges. One thing I’ve learned over the course of my cycling career is no matter how much work you put in, how ready you feel or how hard you try, sometimes things just don’t work out the way you’d like.”
“My race was essentially over in the first hour in the 4 mile hike-a-bike mud section when I ran over barbed wire, shredding my tires. That made for a long day of stop and go, ultimately putting me out of the race for good. I won’t lose sleep over my bad luck at Unbound 2023 knowing the hard work my team and I put in to prepare for this race. I won’t lose sleep over Unbound 2023 knowing how far I’ve come since 2016; I’ve had worse luck. At the end of the day, it’s just a bike race. I’m viewing Unbound 2023 as another opportunity to overcome and come back even stronger.”
Finding her LANDO way
Since she is so new to professional mountain biking, her ambitions there are less well-defined. “Feeling confident and being able to go fast on the mountain bike by the end of the year will be a win in my book. Given where I’ve come from.” But then that introduces the question of what her overall goal for the Life Time Grand Prix will be.
“I still want to put it all out there for the Grand Prix. That hasn't changed even though I'm coming from behind. The field is stacked but that's what makes the series interesting. There is no clear front runner because every race is different so it's about mitigating your losses and capitalizing on your strengths,” she explained. “The points are not top-heavy so the series rewards consistency more than anything. I will show up to the gravel races ready to rock and try to take as many points as I can. You can drop two races so I will really aim to perform well in the remaining gravel races (Crusher, The Rad, Big Sugar) and then see how it goes with either Leadville or Chequamegon. But I am at a point now where I am really focusing on the small details to deliver my best personal performance and hopefully that translates into results.”
Lauren will be racing the OSTRO Gravel and the LANDO XC throughout 2023 and we can’t wait to see what success she finds on our bikes.
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