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The pits at a cyclo-cross race can be an overwhelming place. On screen, we often only see a highly efficient machine at work; a rider comes in with a mud-clogged bike, the mechanic receives the dirty bike, hands the rider a clean bike, and off they go… until the next lap.
In the midst of it all, however, is pure, organized chaos.
Up since dawn, the mechanics have staked out their little piece of land long before many of the athletes have even woken up. Dozens of men turn the infield into a workshop. There are tools and pressure washers, extra wheel sets, spare bikes and a carefully selected assortment of extra shoes, gloves and glasses — just in case.
As the race goes on, there's rarely a quiet moment. Like a beehive, mechanics buzz about. There's the clanking of bikes being worked on, the whirring of generators, and shouting. Whether it's time gaps, placings, or general encouragements, staff are constantly shouting things at their riders and the riders back at them. The muddier the race, the more chaotic.
The Telenet World Cup race in Namur in December was such a race, where mud tested the riders, their staff, and their equipment alike. In the midst of this chaos stood Brenna Wrye-Simpson, scanning the women's elite field for the riders under her care, including newly crowned US national champion, Clara Honsinger, who would ride herself into sixth place that day.
With all the staff hiding underneath wide-brimmed rain coats or large umbrellas, Wrye-Simpson was almost invisibly making history.
For the past three seasons now, Wrye-Simpson has been wrenching and managing operations for American cyclo-cross squad, Team S&M, which is home to Honsinger, Beth Ann Orton and Sophie Russenberger. As the riders have ridden themselves up onto the world stage, Wrye-Simpson has been right there with them, supporting them at home and on the road.
While most of the attention is on the women in between the tape, some started noticing the one woman outside of it, in the pits. As far as we know, there's no other employed or contracted female bike mechanic on the World Cup cyclo-cross circuit. Even at home, on the American cyclo-cross circuit, Wrye-Simpson stands out as the lone female among the mechanic staff.
"I'm always on the lookout for other women in the pits. I would love to not be the first and only," Wrye-Simpson tells Cyclingnews. "But in terms of my formal role, and this being my actual job, it is relatively unique."
Wrye-Simpson is currently in Europe finishing off the World Cup circuit with USA Cycling's Development Program, which hired her for a two-month block. In taking the position, she was told she'd likely be the first female hired to wrench a World Cup cyclo-cross race in Europe, but the incentive for her to take the position lay elsewhere.
"Sure, it's compelling, but mostly this job was a really great way for me to advance my career within cycling overall. I'm getting an opportunity to meet and work with upcoming development talent in a way that I otherwise might not," she says.
"And certainly anybody who's involved in cyclo-cross as an American will say that part of your learning curve and true understanding of the sport happens by going to Europe in some way or another. It's also special to me to be here alongside these athletes and help them pursue some pretty big goals on a big stage."
The balancing act of racing bikes and working on them
A professional cyclist herself, Wrye-Simpson never set out to reach the world stage, let alone on this side of the tape.
The year will mark the 32-year-old's fourth year in the American pro ranks, where she is currently racing for DNA Pro Cycling. As such, she makes every minute count, joining the cyclo-cross riders on their training rides when possible, and sneaking out for extra mileage once their bikes have been cleaned and put away.
"Despite the fact that I am a rabid cyclo-cross lover and consumer, I would never fancy myself as that high-performing a racer to have pursued a World Cup start spot myself. That has simply not been my focus or dream," Wrye-Simpson says.
"As a road racer, I already feel as though I have received a lot of support for my own pursuits for so many seasons now that being able to support others has been very rewarding. Being here at the World Cup and working this particular line of work, I don't have any feelings of dissatisfaction or as though I'm wearing the wrong hat in the wrong position."
Wrenching on bikes was never just a means to race her bike, she reasons.
"I think that it was its own passion all along. Having a bike shop job was my original identity."
As a liberal arts major with a music focus, mechanics were never Wrye-Simpson's interest growing up. When she stumbled her way into a Portland bike shop some 12 years ago, however, she found much more than a summer job. She found community, passion and an unlikely career.
"I got my first job in my sophomore year of college when a friend loaned me a road bike to spend time together for the summertime. I didn't have the budget to get my own, so I thought I would — in true Portland style — get 'a sweet recycle frame' and figure out how to put it together," Wrye-Simpson recounts.
"So I started visiting my neighborhood shop and they had a sales position that needed filling. I had no experience but learned and it always dovetailed really well with being in school. I just stayed on at the shop after I graduated and earned experience on the job as I went.
"All that preceded my identity as a racer, and that's always been important to me. Sure, it switches, and sometimes [one identity] is more important than the other, but being part of the shop is a big part of who I am."
That's not to say that she's ready to hang up her racing wheels in favor of full time wrenching, however.
"I'm not prepared to pick one over the other yet. I think I still have more to give [as a racer] for the next couple of years or so," she says.
"Part of being a cyclo-cross mechanic and manager actually dovetails kind of nicely with being a road racer. My season obviously is the opposite of the cyclo-cross season, and I think that part of my strengths as a manager and mechanic are certainly built up by the fact that I'm also a rider. That part of my identity is not dismissed during this part of the year, either."
Still, it's a challenge. Like the majority of female bike racers, Wrye-Simpson has to earn a living off the bike, and continuous travel throughout the off-season can make it hard to get training time.
"It's definitely a challenge. I don't log the kind of hours that many other road riding types do during the fall and winter, but I find creative ways to make it work. If I get down to brass tacks, the time constraints for me are the same as many other riders who work full time jobs. It's just a careful balance; you figure out how to wear a few hats artfully."
Inside the world of men
Unlike so many other women breaking gender barriers, Wrye-Simpson says her experiences have been overwhelmingly positive.
"I think that I had a lot of benefit within my total career of working in very supportive environments that like helping me to be my best," she says.
"It's never been pointed out to me by the Portland community at large that I'm less capable or that it's super notable that I am a woman. It helps that Sellwood has hired, and employed longterm, a relatively notable percentage of female or non-binary employees. I'm lucky that way.
"On a bigger stage, you can't help but point out that it's a little different. And it's definitely come up over and over again."
Still, Wrye-Simpson says she's pleased with how the sport has been progressing.
"The sport has made huge strides in demonstrating what women's cycling is capable of on a global level, both in terms of rider development and in terms of viewership, and fandom too. As far as situating me and this attention within all of that, I don't know how to do that, but I think it's part of continuing the conversation we have about women in sport in general.
"I definitely didn't mean to be specifically a female taking on this role within the male-dominated world. But now that I'm here, I hope that my career path shows liquid movement within the world for women. You are capable of being whoever and whatever you want to be. And that's how the world should operate, you know?"
Wrye-Simpson will be supporting Honsinger at the final round of the World Cup in Hoogerheide on Sunday as well as the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Switzerland in February. If you're tuning in, see if you can spot her in the pits.