Meet Gwendalyn, one of the breakout Americans of 2022 and TFR's newest rider
Gwendalyn Gibson, Trek Factory Racing XC’s newest rider, tears up thinking about Snowshoe. Her breakout year was also one of her hardest. She broke her kneecap after taking her first elite World Cup top 10 in short track in Nové Město last May, shelving her racing season for two months. She was told she might not be able to return until World Championships in late August, but she made unexpectedly fast progress and returned for the World Cup round in Lenzerheide in early July.
Recovering so quickly from injury is impressive enough, but a week later she one-upped herself and secured a new career-best seventh in short track in Andorra. Then came Snowshoe, and a performance Gibson never saw coming: a barnstorming short track victory by two seconds over the fastest XC riders in the world on U.S. soil.
“I didn’t go into that race thinking, ‘Today is my day,'” Gibson says. “I was just going through the normal motions. And I had more of my focus on the XCO. We’re talking about it right now, and I tear up because it was really special.
“I’ve dealt with injuries and different things before, but it was this big weight off my shoulders.”
I was in disbelief. But it was also confirmation that I could accomplish my goals, and that I could get to that level.
The win marked Gibson, just 23, as one of the most promising young Americans to watch. She is joining a TFR squad that will return all of its riders for 2023, including fellow Americans Riley Amos and Maddie Munro, who is also Gibson’s roommate in Grand Junction, Colo. Gibson is really excited to get started, though she’s still processing an incredible closing stretch to the 2022 season that included a second-place short track finish in Mont-Sainte-Anne and a bronze medal in short track at World Championships in Les Gets.
“I had these goals of things I wanted to do, and every time I would actually do it, I was genuinely shocked,” Gibson says. “I remember in Andorra, it was the first time I ever started on the front row of a World Cup XCO, and I was so stoked. I was in disbelief. But it was also confirmation that I could accomplish my goals, and that I could get to that level.”
Gibson is taking the next step in her career with a tight-knit TFR squad that prizes camaraderie as well as success. She is looking forward to soaking up knowledge and advice from her new teammates. It’s hard to think of two better resources than Jolanda Neff and Evie Richards, who have won the biggest races in the sport.
“In my opinion, Trek is one of, if not the best World Cup team that you can be on,” Gibson says. “Even if you’re just looking at teammates, Jolanda Neff is an Olympic champion and a world champion. Evie is a world champion. Anton [Cooper] and Vlad [Dascalu], Maddie and Riley, everyone is so strong. And just being around in that environment where you’re surrounded by other people who are doing things that you want to do, I think it makes everyone stronger.”
Gibson should fit right in. She is already well-acquainted with at least one member of the squad. Gibson and Munro live together in Grand Junction, where Munro is a student at Colorado Mesa University and Gibson is a graduate. As two of the fastest women mountain bikers in the U.S., they have a lot in common. One of the biggest is that they both fell in love with racing through the National Interscholastic Cycling Association — a.k.a., NICA.
Gibson credits NICA with sparking her passion for cycling, and says Trek’s close relationship with the organization is one of the biggest reasons she’s excited to join the team.
In my opinion, Trek is one of, if not the best World Cup team that you can be on.
“If NICA wasn’t a thing, I would have never even learned to ride a mountain bike,” Gibson says. “So being a part of a company that supports something like that is also really important to me, and that’s something that I want to stay involved in. I have goals in the sport, and performance goals, but then I also want to be in a position where I can inspire the next generation too.”
Gibson is still new to the elite racing scene. She, as well as anyone, understands how hard it is to reach the top levels of her sport. The emotions of a long season are still raw, even two months after it ended. But she’s anxious to dive right back in and show herself and others how high her ceiling goes.
Read on to learn more about TFR’s newest rider. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
This past season was a breakout for you. At what point did you know or feel that, ‘Hey, I think I’m ready to compete at a higher level’?
Gwendalyn Gibson: I knew that I was going into the season stronger. Even in my interval workouts during the preseason, I was hitting all-time best numbers. And I did some early season races and I was finishing with riders like Kate [Courtney] and I was like, ‘OK, that’s a good benchmark, she’ll be up there.’ And so I went into the World Cups with a bit more confidence feeling like, ‘OK, I should be aiming to be up towards the front.’
And I think once the confidence came up to where my preparation was, and where I was physically, then that’s when everything started coming together.
What helped you find that mental edge?
Gibson: I think I took the injury as motivation. I was like, ‘OK, well, I’ll come back even stronger.’ I was chatting with Catherine Pendrel, and she was like, ‘Both times I won World Championships, I was injured earlier in the season.’ And so I think I used it sort of as fuel, and it flipped a switch in my mind and I was like, ‘All right, I’m going all in. I can make this work.’
I think I took the injury as motivation. I was like, 'OK, well, I'll come back even stronger.'
You seemed to manage the injury recovery process really well. How were you able to do that?
Gibson: When I first got my X-rays done, they told me my first race back probably wouldn’t be until Worlds. So I didn’t even think that I was gonna get to do Lenzerheide, Andorra, Snowshoe, and MSA. And then I was also dealing with the stress of knowing that the team I was on was ending. I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I didn’t know how I was going to come back from this injury. That was really tough.
It was harder in those first two weeks when I couldn’t even walk. My leg was in a straight leg brace. I felt like I couldn’t do anything to help my situation. But then once I was able to start doing PT and ride on a stationary bike, and my mom came out to stay with me in town for a little bit, then it got a lot easier.
As soon as I started PT, the swelling was going down, I wasn’t having as much pain, and then all of a sudden they’re like, ‘All right, we think you could be back a lot sooner than we thought.’ The biggest concern was that this piece of bone was going to move around, or if I fell on it again it would move and then affect the mechanics of my knee. But I was healing quickly.
It was a roller coaster of emotions but I think it helped to have a lot of good people in my corner, too, like my mom. And my coach was super supportive. His wife is a physical therapist, and so she did all of my physical therapy with me. I had a really good circle of people around me.
It was a roller coaster of emotions but I think it helped to have a lot of good people in my corner, too.
Short track seemed like a specialty of yours this season. What clicked with you in that discipline?
Gibson: Honestly, I’m still not sure. [Laughs]. A lot of times I ride into my race, and in short track there’s not always enough time to do that. But I spent a lot more time in the gym this year, so I definitely improved my power. And I definitely did better on courses that had more climbing in them.
I also just think I’ve improved my tactics in short track. I used to maybe have the speed to be in the group in the North American short tracks, but I would dangle off the back and be in the yo-yo where you’re working five times harder than everyone at the front. I just wasn’t racing them as smart.
I don’t know if everyone would agree with this, but I also think it’s easier to put things together in a 20-minute race than it is in an hour-and-a-half, where there’s so many things that can go wrong. You can flat, you can crash. I guess there’s also more time to make up for mistakes. But for me, sometimes it’s easier for nerves to take over during a longer race. You have to be so mentally in it, especially in a World Cup, for the whole hour-and-a-half. You can’t break your focus, and sometimes it’s easy if you crash or something happens.
I wanted to show the next generation of U.S. riders that they can get to this level.
What do you feel you need to do to have the same success in XCOs?
Gibson: I think some of it is just maturing as a racer and knowing myself more, like knowing how I need to pace a race to have the best outcome, and how to keep dialing in things like nutrition.
Also in the past, I’ve also worked another job and gone to school during base-building, so I probably don’t have as much depth as the other top racers. But this year, I’ll have the ability to be fully focused on my training. And I think having a stronger base will help me a lot in those longer races.
And little things like dialing in equipment. I just had my first bike fit in five years. Those little 1 percent things really make a difference. Adjusting suspension perfectly, all of those little things add up.
Why was Trek the place you wanted to go?
Gibson: I’m roommates with Maddie Monroe on the team, actually. And my coach had a connection. He’s actually who got me in contact with someone at Trek, and it just started out with little chats at first, and it honestly seemed like a long shot. It probably was honestly. [Laughs].
I also wanted to be on an American brand, because I think that’s good for an American rider, and I wanted to show the next generation of U.S. riders that they can get to this level, too. Another reason why I’ve always really liked Trek is they have really strong ties with NICA, and NICA is how I got into the sport.
And obviously, it’s cool to be teammates with my roommate, too. [Laughs].
I think that was an easy thing for me in terms of teammates. I was like, 'Oh, I'm going to be surrounded by really good people.'
You know Maddie very well, as well as Riley Amos. How cool is it to come into a team where there’s already a lot of familiarity?
Gibson: It’s nice when you’re on a team with people that you’re familiar with because the environment is super important to perform, so surrounding yourself with people that you know, who are positive and have similar goals, can help everyone get to the next level. So I know Riley and I know Maddie and I know that that’s what they’re about. I think that was an easy thing for me in terms of teammates. I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to be surrounded by really good people.’
You mentioned the NICA connection. What did that program do for you?
Gibson: My high school NICA coach was a family friend for a long time, and my freshman year he was like, ‘You gotta just try it out to see if you like it.’ And after the first year I really fell in love with the sport. It really changed the whole trajectory of my life, because not only did I have a space where I could develop my skills as a mountain biker and as a racer, but I also met some of my friends who are still my closest friends now, and I’ve been out of the NICA series for five years.
You go to a mountain bike race, and everyone is hanging out with each other and chatting, and everyone’s super friendly. The whole environment is what drew me to it. I knew if I could make a career out of it, that’s what I wanted to do.
So I still want to be a part of it in any way I can because I’m sure there’s plenty of people just like how I was when I was 15. And they’ll have this space to explore mountain biking as their passion, and maybe they’ll be able to take it to the World Cup level if they want to. Or if they just want to ride their bike, I can show them how fun it is to just get out and ride your bike. One of the cool things about NICA is that it supports all aspects of mountain biking.
I'm putting a huge focus on making all of my training more meaningful.
What do you want to focus on these next few months to keep growing as a rider?
Gibson: I’m putting a huge focus on making all of my training more meaningful. Like, making sure I’m doing proper warmups before my rides, and when I’m doing my training, I’m present and focused.
And I’m looking forward to spending more time with my new teammates. I’m sure they have loads of knowledge and advice that I can learn from. They’ve reached levels that I want to be at consistently. I’ve loved that I’ve done well on short track, but I want to be on XCO podiums.
From a technical standpoint, what are you looking forward to with Trek?
Gibson: I’m really excited to come and get fit on bikes, because I think there’s a lot of gains to be made on just having the right position. I’ve never gotten to really do those things before. And I think the Trek equipment is some of the best that you can be on, if not the best. It’s a race machine for sure. I still haven’t even actually ridden a Supercaliber, so I’m so excited just to get out and start riding it. I think it’s gonna be super fast. I can’t wait.