When 26-year-old pro cyclist Erica Zaveta was in college, she won five national titles in five separate disciplines: short track, mountain bike cross-country, cyclocross, downhill and mountain bike overall. “I was second at road nationals. I was pretty upset that I didn't win all of them,” she says. Sitting across from me at my kitchen table, Zaveta, who is disarmingly laid back and convivial despite her obvious tenacity and competitive edge, lets out a laugh. A broad smile shows off a brand new set of braces, which were installed to help her teeth recover from a freak cyclocross accident.
In the fragments of time when this cycling whirlwind is not on the road, she makes her home in the biking mecca of Brevard, North Carolina. This January, she will be competing in the US Cyclocross Nationals at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. I spoke with Zaveta about life as a professional athlete, biking in Western Carolina, and, of course, the accident that knocked her teeth backwards.
Tell me what you do for a living.
I race bikes professionally. I’ve raced road, mountain biking and cyclocross at a World Cup level. So that’s a little bit odd—most people pick just one discipline and stick to that. I’ve been fortunate that, through collegiate cycling, I’ve been picked up by pro teams in all three disciplines.
I currently race cyclocross and road. It’s full-support—the team covers travel expenses, clothing, and equipment. This road season I’ll be making salary in addition to the prize money. That will be meeting a huge goal of mine. It’s hard to make any money—especially for a woman domestic road racer in the U.S. I also work as a coach for Sparks Systems.
How do you possibly have time for a second job?
I can work anywhere with a computer and a phone. There’s a lot of times when you’re in hotel rooms, just waiting...so I read a lot of articles. I was an exercise science major, and cycling is the thing in my life that I know the best. I write out training programs, explain how to race, how to breathe. It’s standard practice in cycling to work with a coach who is far away.
What’s a year look like for a dual-season athlete like yourself?
It’s nonstop. In 2015, I had a cross race in Belgium on January 1. Then I flew back to the states, got in on Friday and raced on Sunday in Dallas. Then we drove over to Austin, and had US Cross Nationals on the second weekend of January. It was not a good nationals for me—the jet lag finally caught up.
After nationals, I took a week off, then team camp for road started in February in Chico, California. After team camp, road races started in March, and they went all the way through the summer. You go wherever the team sends you—the races are multi-day races and you ride every day. September is the road world championships. Then cross starts the first weekend of September and lasts till January.
Do you ever get a break?
As an athlete, your body needs time off. Even if mentally you want to push through, if you don't get a break, you'll crack yourself. That is something I've finally started to learn. I’ve learned I need to ask for more of a break between seasons—more than a week. Having a supportive coach and a team that understands that as a dual-season athlete is key. There’s always racing, so you have to make your own break. This year, I’m asking for a bigger break. That’s the plan.
Are you currently injury free?
Yes, I'm so fortunate! I once had a knee injury where I couldn't ride for two weeks. That was super hard to deal with. People with major injuries...I couldn't even imagine.
You couldn’t imagine? But you are a professional at two dangerous sports!
Well...OK. You see I have braces right now. I was running with my bike this fall in Colorado at a race and I tripped over my own feet. My handlebars knocked my teeth in—they were solidly knocked back, and I couldn't even bite down. I went to the ER, but there wasn’t anyone to push them back into place for a few days. Some of the teeth are dying, and I have to get a root canal, but thank god I still have them.
You could definitely count that as an injury.
You see, sometimes you get hurt with cross, but this was a freak thing. Road racing is more dangerous. You’re in a pack of 70 women, all inches away from each other, going 30 down a road. You have to draft and be really close to people since it’s more efficient. They could make a mistake and take you down. I'm completely covered in road rashes.
Why do you choose to live in Brevard?
I've lived in Tucson, Banner Elk (NC), Pennsylvania, and England. I ended up moving to Brevard because I had friends here. The weather is great, it’s beautiful, and training is amazing! I can ride on flats, trails, roads, the Blue Ridge Parkway—and the mountain biking is amazing. It’s small; you’re not going to get run off the road every time you ride. And the people are great. There are a lot of big-time pros in the area.
What are your favorite local mountain-bike trails?