interview with: nicola cranmer
photos courtesy of: Virginia’s Blue Ridge TWENTY24
The Roanoke Valley’s challenging terrain and lofty mountains have become the training center for Virginia’s Blue Ridge TWENTY24 cycling team, formerly of Idaho. The professional cycling development squad changes its name to match every Olympic cycle and includes a roster of female junior teen cyclists and women professional cyclists.
The team has earned fourteen Olympic and Paralympic medals since its inception in 2005 and counts Tokyo Olympic gold and bronze medalist Jennifer Valente, two-time Olympian and current Pan American Time Trial champion Marlies Mejias of Cuba, former Afghan national team captain and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Rukhsar Habibzai, and junior award-winning cyclist Maize Wimbush among its members. Several of its cyclists are preparing for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games or subsequent Olympics, and the squad includes riders in various disciplines like road, track, mountain biking, gravel, and e-sports.
Founder and general manager Nicola Cranmer discusses her unique team and her passion for women’s cycling.
You were a cyclist yourself?
I was, but horses were my background. Then I moved from England to California in 1986, and I met a bunch of people who were riding mountain bikes, so I got swept up in it and found my love for cycling. I never thought it would become my job, but when I formed the team, I was getting busy and had to make a choice. It might not have been the most lucrative decision, but it was passion driven. I have no regrets; I love what I do. It’s challenging and a lot of work, but when you love something and enjoy
it, it doesn’t feel like work most of the time.
Besides the challenge, what else drew you to cycling?
Riding is my mental break. I love being out in nature. That’s my meditation: going out on the roads or in the woods. Riding a bike is great for mental wellness and is something you could do all your life because it’s super low impact. Cycling is also my social time. I would rather go on a bike ride to a beautiful place with my friends so we can chat instead of going out to dinner.
What factors were behind your decision to form the team in 2005?
It grew out of necessity. I was racing on a coed team, and the women were doing really well. The men were doing OK but were getting all the support, which made me mad. So I decided to start a women’s team. I didn’t intend for it to become my career, but it did.
Is qualifying for the Olympics a major goal for many of your athletes?
Yes. It’s in the team name, and it’s always our goal to inspire athletes to go to the Olympics. Jennifer Valente, as a reigning Olympic champion, could be selected for Team USA for the Paris 2024 Olympics. The chances are really high. Sofía Arreola, the Mexican champion, may also go to the Olympics. We may recruit additional athletes who could make the Olympic team as well. Our juniors will look toward the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics. Very few athletes make it on Team USA since there are so few spots available. Jennifer Valente is a natural mentor and is always sharing and engaging
with our junior athletes. And, of course, Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong, although not an athlete anymore, has a wealth of knowledge to share with the young girls.
How does your new Southwest Virginia training ground help your cyclists?
It is a gem of a place, and the riding is phenomenal. It is all hills—there is nothing flat here—so you become a very strong rider. For every ten miles, you climb 1,000 feet on average. You go out on an easy ride, and you climb almost 2,000 feet. It’s a great training ground.
How do you recruit cyclists?
Athletes will occasionally reach out via social media or email to connect with me. I look for somebody who has determination and really wants to be a part of what we are doing. There are different ways of recruiting, and sometimes I have a feeling about somebody. It’s not always obvious. I think that growing up in England around racehorses, who are athletes, too, helped me with that process. There are a lot of similarities, believe it or not.
How did you help bring Rukhsar Habibzai, who was forced to flee Afghanistan, to the US to join the team?
I met Rukhsar a few years ago, and we kept in touch. Then the Taliban invaded Afghanistan, and it became important to see what I could do to help her. I was a communication pipeline for her, and there were a lot of people involved to get her on a list to leave the country—she would have been a person of interest to the Taliban because she was outspoken about women’s rights. Rukhsar eventually made it to Virginia. She came to our junior cycling camps, and we had a GoFundMe fundraiser to help her get an apartment and clothing.
Is it unique to have an all-women team that includes professional and junior cyclists?
Very much so. I think we are the only professional team to have an integrated junior program. It’s especially rewarding working with these young girls. They are really grateful, and they grow as athletes and people quickly. We’ve had junior girls on the team from the inception; supporting the next generation is something I have always wanted to do. Our junior team usually hovers somewhere between eight and twelve members, but since COVID-19 there have been more requests from young girls to be a part of what we are doing. It’s such a critical part of their life, between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. My goal isn’t to encourage these young girls to become professional cyclists. It’s a tough career and not very sustainable, except for a few. But they get a lot out of being part of a professional program. They get to live a healthy lifestyle and be outside, and they are good candidates for college scholarships—a lot of good schools offer cycling scholarships. They also learn how to be part of a team and pick up other skills that are transferable to school and the workplace, such as how to manage their time and set goals.
Do all your cyclists train together?
It’s not a traditional team sport where we practice together all the time. Cycling is different in that way, and the team lives all over the country. They train individually, but we do camps in Roanoke, Virginia, where we train together for a week.
The camps prove to be very successful because everyone feeds off each other and inspires each other to push more than they would if they were just training by themselves. We also use the indoor Zwift e-sports platform to connect our athletes, which is great, because the girls can get together to build self-esteem and connect with their teammates.
For more info, visit teamtwenty24.com