Paige is transitioning from a career in medicine to become a full-time racer
Paige Onweller made two big decisions before she entered Big Sugar in October last year.
First, she changed her mindset. The season had been stressful for her, but she finally felt in good shape after undergoing knee surgery in the spring. She had become more comfortable racing as a relative newbie in an unpredictable sport. She felt she was due for a big performance. So she brought a newfound determination to Arkansas.
“I said, ‘I know I’m strong, and I’m maybe stronger than a lot of these women at certain things,'” Onweller says. “I recognized my strengths, and then had confidence in who I was as a rider to say, ‘I’m not going to be the one reacting; I’m going to be the one dictating the moves.'”
I want people to see my story and say, 'Well, if she can do that, I can try to ride bikes.'
Second, she decided to change careers. The timeline is important to note here. Onweller had been working as a physician’s assistant for nearly eight years. And though she was clearly an incredibly gifted athlete, she wasn’t a particularly savvy elite-level cyclist. Her season saw a wide range of results and fortune. But despite her tribulations, she decided to leave her steady job in medicine and become a full-time gravel racer.
That was before Onweller won Big Sugar, before she went solo to win by well over six minutes on the 100-mile course and demonstrated why she is one of the strongest cyclists in the sport, and why, at 33, she has only scratched the surface of her potential.
“It’s exciting for me to think about what I can accomplish if I dedicate a little bit more time and energy to this,” Onweller says. “And in quitting my job, I didn’t make that decision so I can train more. I’ve always been ambitious and I can fit things in, but I made this decision so I can have more balance in regards to things off the bike.”
This offseason, Onweller signed on as the newest member of Trek’s all-surface “Driftless” program, joining former Trek-Segafredo pros Kiel Reijnen and Ruth Winder, and former Unbound Gravel winner Amity Rockwell. Compared to those riders, Onweller is new to cycling. She has only been racing gravel for a little over two years. But she’s ready to make a major impact, with a mission to not only climb podiums, but to be a unique role model in an immensely difficult sport.
“I want people to see my story and say, ‘Well, if she can do that, I can try to ride bikes,'” Onweller says. “And so for me that’s most exciting. I have these sponsors that believe in me, and that can get me the support that I need, but then also showcase what I’m capable of, so that other women who are new to this can see me as an example.”
Trek from the beginning has been very clear on who they represent, what they represent, and what they want to accomplish.
Onweller found a like-minded company in Trek.
“Trek from the beginning has been very clear on who they represent, what they represent, and what they want to accomplish,” Onweller says. “I see the amount of work that Trek is doing to equalize women and men, and what they are doing for the World Tour riders. I see Trek is making these changes before they’re required, because the company believes in that and they believe in those athletes.”
Onweller spoke with the Trek Race Shop in depth about her career change, her plans for a big 2023, and dog sledding in Michigan. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
What was your process in making the decision to become a full time gravel racer?
Paige Onweller: It’s been difficult just because I am so new, and then I had this rapid trajectory to racing at the professional level. And I was doing all of that while funding and juggling so many other things in life. I’ve always known that I’m strong and I knew that I was capable of performing really well, but I didn’t have the longevity in the sport. I also had to be really intentional about what races I could go to because I work a lot of weekends.
What I realized was that, A) I love this and I’m having fun and it’s rewarding to me, and B) I see a future in it not only with results, but in how I can impact other women in this sport. And so before I won Big Sugar, I already knew I wanted to quit my job and go 100% at this next year. There was a fear component of, ‘What am I doing quitting my day job and riding bikes?’ But after I won Big Sugar, it just validated that decision even more.
I also recognize that my days being a PA are not over. There’s no timestamp on when you can practice medicine, but there is a timestamp for how competitive I can be at a professional level. And so for me, I’m not choosing bikes over my career; I’m just pausing my career and making bikes a priority for now. And that’s because I believe in what I can do, and now I have sponsors that also are seeing that and believing that too, which is even more empowering.
There's no timestamp on when you can practice medicine, but there is a timestamp for how competitive I can be at a professional level. And so for me, I'm not choosing bikes over my career; I'm just pausing my career and making bikes a priority for now.
It’s exciting to think about what I can accomplish if I dedicate a little bit more time and energy to this. And in quitting my job, I didn’t make that decision so I can train more. For me I’ve always been ambitious and I can fit things in, but I made this decision so I can have a little bit more balance in regards to things off the bike. So prepping, race routes, working on skill development. I am so new that I still need a lot of cornering and single track skills, and I just didn’t have the time to dedicate to that.
You wrote on your blog that part of the reason you made this decision is that recovery is part of the job. It gives you permission to rest, too, and for someone who is very ambitious, that sounds like something that can be hard for you. Is that right?
Onweller: 100%. I’m the type of person who gets up at five in the morning and I don’t sit down until 10 p.m., and when you’re a professional athlete, that’s not good.
A perfect example is yesterday. It was really rainy here, and so I had a day off. And so I just cooked and baked. I took a nap and used my recovery boots. And I was like, ‘This is my job. I’m recovering. This is part of what I need to do in order to get the gains from all the work that I’m putting in.’ So yeah, it’s different. But it feels really nice, and I think I can get used to this [laughs].
You mentioned that you really want to promote community and equality in sports. Was having a mission beyond racing important to your decision?
Onweller: I didn’t necessarily feel like I needed it to justify the career change, but I’m very intentional about what I do, and what I do has to have a purpose. So if I want to have a career that’s sustainable long term and brings value to me and what I believe in, then it has to be greater than just winning. I want to win because I’m competitive, but I also want to win because I see that there’s a platform that could be developed that could impact other people. And for me that impact on other people is far greater reward than an individual win.
The other thing is, when I was racing this year, I would notice that I had this desire to spend more time with the community and engage with sponsors and expos, but I was constantly stressed and juggling so much that I really didn’t have the time. Or if I did spend the time, other parts of my life would sacrifice. So a big thing is that I’m now also able to bring more of myself to those events, so that the community can see that and I can build more relationships. That part excites me a lot.
I want to win because I'm competitive, but I also want to win because I see that there's a platform that could be developed that could impact other people.
You are very intentional about your sponsors. What about coming to Trek enticed you?
Onweller: I had a lot of offers and opportunities after the season, and especially after Big Sugar. But there were two things right away that really appealed to me about Trek. First was that it had very clear values and mission statements. I read through Trek’s branding guidebook, which laid it all out. I very much respected that, and they made that a part of their pitch by saying, ‘This is who we are, and this is what we represent.’
And I also see the amount of work that Trek is doing to equalize women and men, and what they are doing for the World Tour riders. I see Trek is making these changes before they’re required, because the company believes in that and they believe in those athletes. It’s not because the UCI is making it standard.
And then the other thing was it honestly just felt like a family. It’s just been great. It didn’t feel like a company or a contract. Joining Trek was more of a family discussion. So when you are a gravel privateer and a gravel racer, you’re on the road a lot. You may not have a home base for a lot of the year. And you quickly realize that your sponsors are kind of like your family and your community that you’re building around. Everyone at the race shop who I met when I was in Waterloo, I was just blown away by how family-oriented it felt. It just felt right.
Big Sugar was obviously a standout race. Did that result surprise you? Or did it sort of feel like something you were building up to?
Onweller: I wasn’t surprised. Like, I knew I wanted to podium, and I was going for the win from the beginning.
I’ve mentioned this a few other times, in posts and blogs, that gravel is very unpredictable. There’s so many factors: How loose the road is, is there rain, is there going to be mud, and then the pack dynamic with the men. I think I’ve always been right there. I’d execute a few things right, and I’d be close, but then my lack of technical skills would hold me back, or my knowledge, or maybe my fitness just wasn’t there because I was out of shape a lot this season after surgery and a few other setbacks.
I knew that at Big Sugar I was in good shape, and I was ready to perform well, but I also raced much differently. Because I am a new rider, a lot of times I think I’m more reactive to moves instead of being the one that’s playing the cards. So I said, ‘I know I’m strong, and I’m maybe stronger than a lot of these women at certain things.’ I recognized my strengths, and then had confidence in who I was as a rider to say, ‘I’m not going to be the one reacting; I’m going to be the one dictating the moves.’
I recognized my strengths, and then had confidence in who I was as a rider to say, 'I'm not going to be the one reacting; I'm going to be the one dictating the moves.'
That was a different way for me to see myself as a cyclist. And honestly, it made me really excited. I remember after Big Sugar everyone was tired, it was the end of the season and they wanted to be done, and I was like, ‘I’m just figuring this out, let’s go race again.’ It lit a fire to learn that I am even more capable than I thought.
You’re a great endurance athlete overall, and you could have pursued other disciplines in cycling. Why did gravel appeal to you?
Onweller: After my first gravel race, the community was very friendly and accepting, and I just felt more at home. I also grew up in the woods. I did dog sled races. I had a log cabin. I just love being in the woods. And in gravel, you’re just more in the outdoors, and it reminds me of my childhood growing up.
I’m not closing the door to something like road racing. I will actually be racing some road events this year, mostly to gain experience in the pack because that’s something that I struggle with in mass start gravel races. And I also think I can do quite well on some time trials. But gravel is definitely more of the passion, and definitely where I see my career long term.
Dog sled racing??? Tell us more about that!
Onweller: [Laughs] Yeah, so we used to have like 14 huskies and we were dog sled racing during the winters in Michigan. I had a really interesting childhood. I grew up on a sawmill, and I used to shred bark off the trees. It was kind of a wild time. We were always outside, which I think is why I like cycling, because relative to running, you have a lot more hours that you’re training. So I’m just outside more and I love it.
Still being relatively new to the sport, I’m curious how you go about setting goals for yourself. Do you set specific targets — podium at X number of races, for example?
Onweller: I set a lot of goals and some of them are performance, and some of them are skill based. For reference, I have a Google Doc that has three pages of 2023 goals, if that tells you anything. [Laughs.] But I also recognize that if you only set performance goals, then you likely will be disappointed, and you may be hard on yourself. As an off road cyclist that’s racing frequently throughout the year, you need to have balance.
We used to have like 14 huskies and we were dog sled racing during the winters in Michigan. I had a really interesting childhood. I grew up on a sawmill, and I used to shred bark off the trees.
I sat down with my coach and thought through what a lot of my weaknesses are. For example, I have never lived in a mountainous area. When I’m descending in a gravel race or an MTB race like Leadville, I can count on two hands how many times I’ve gone down a mountain on a non-paved road. And so I’m making decisions to spend time living in California because I can train more on mountains and trails compared to Michigan, where you can’t even ride single track for five months of the year.
I am so new, and like I always say, comparison is the thief of joy. I love that quote, because, for example, at Sea Otter last year, I was demoralized after that event. I was so sad and like, ‘What am I doing? Why am I trying to be a professional cyclist?’ When the reality is, I have come so far in just one year. So part of my goals for 2023 is frequent reflection on where I was and where I am now, and recognizing I may not be where I want to be in the long term, but that I’ve still come a long, long way.
Being someone who likes to set a lot of goals, how will you judge whether 2023 was an overall success?
Onweller: That’s a hard one to answer. I want to podium as much as possible, right? But I also want to recognize that when I don’t win, or if I don’t podium, that I can identify the reason for why that occurred.
I don’t want to be a passive participant of my performance. What I mean by that is, if I’m not winning, or even if I am winning, I am most happy when I recognize what I did to get there, and then continue to build those strengths. And then if I didn’t get there, recognizing what went wrong so that I can also work on it. So it might not be a successful season based on results alone, but it might be if I understand where I was and why.
Last question: What are you most looking forward to in your first year with Trek?
Onweller: I’m most excited to have more time to interact with the community. I want to have an impact on other people. I want people to see my story and say, ‘Well, if she can do that, I can try to ride bikes.’ And so for me that’s most exciting. I have these sponsors that believe in me, and that can get me the support that I need, but then also showcase what I’m capable of, so that other women who are new to this can see me as an example.