The American cyclist who’s speed skating at the Beijing Winter Olympics

Skills honed on a road bike are helping Mia Manganello Kilburg in her speed skating career.

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While the men’s peloton races around Oman, France, Portugal, and Spain, and the women prepare for the season ahead with training camps and long miles, another little sporting event is going on in Beijing. The Winter Olympics, packed with a variety of cold-weather sports, is not actually that far removed from the world of cycling, especially for speed skaters, who use cycling as a critical training tool.

The USA’s Mia Manganello Kilburg, who races for the UCI Continental team DNA Pro Cycling when she’s not skating in circles, is one of many athletes who brought a bike with her to China this February. Cycling isn’t just useful for fitness, Manganello Kilburg says – her criterium experience also comes in handy when racing the mass start skating event.

“Cycling does such a great job of just building your endurance without putting a lot of strain on your joints,” Manganello Kilburg told the Freewheeling Podcast. “I feel like it’s an easy way for a lot of sports to cross-train and I think it creates a well-balanced athlete.”

It seems a wild concept to be in the top tier of multiple sports, but there are quite a few athletes who have managed the feat, attending both Summer and Winter Olympic Games. This list of cyclists/speed skaters includes athletes like the legendary American Connie Carpenter-Phinney who won the first-ever women’s Olympic road race in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles after competing at the Winter Games in speed skating in 1972 when she was only 14.

Japan’s Seiko Hashimoto competed in three Summer Games in 1988, 1992, and 1996 for track cycling and four Winter Games in 1984, 1988, 1992, and 1994.

Clara Hughes of Canada celebrates winning Gold in the 5,000 meters women’s speed skating final during the Turin 2006 Winter Olympic Games.

One of the most famous dual-season athletes is Canada’s Clara Hughes. As a cyclist, Hughes won bronze medals in the road race and time trial at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games. She then took gold in the 5,000 m and silver in the team pursuit on the ice in the Winter Games in 2006, before taking bronze in the 5,000 m in Salt Lake City in 2002 and Vancouver in 2010. In the years between scooping up medals in the winter, she competed at both the 2000 and 2012 Summer Games.

Recently Laurine van Riessen switched from competing in the 2010 and 2014 Winter Games to race on the track at the 2016 and 2020 Summer Games.

When asked whether she could see herself racing on the velodrome, Manganello Kilburg said she was happy sticking to skating in circles. “I thought about it after the 2018 Games,” Manganello Kilburg said. “I was actually contacted about the [USA Cycling] development camp they were doing for the team pursuit, but it interfered with the training of some sort.”

This photo is really only here to show off the absolute banger that was the 1996 Canadian Olympic kit.

Her racecraft gained from years of skating and taking part in road races and criteriums has honed Manganello Kilburg’s ability to predict races and sense where the other big players are. Even if she doesn’t have the highest power numbers, Manganello Kilburg said her senses and her drafting prowess lend herself to the team pursuit, in speed skating and on the track.

“Just like in speed skating, they told me, you don’t have to have the highest numbers. It’s not the best three athletes out there, it’s the best three that can skate together or ride together. So that was a little uplifting. But, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it out there [to the development camp], and I still just can’t get over no brakes [on track bikes],” Manganello Kilburg joked.

If you cruise around the Instagrams of other athletes in Beijing, Manganello Kilburg’s isn’t the only one scattered with cycling pictures. Scroll down the feed of the Norwegian cross country skier Johannes Klæbo and once you’ve passed multiple Olympic medal photos you’ll find him decked head to toe in Uno-X cycling gear. The Dutch bronze medalist Antoinette de Jong, who is sponsored by Jumbo-Visma for speed skating, could easily pass as a teammate of Marianne Vos.

Double gold medalist Nils van der Poel (no relation to Mathieu, apparently) from Sweden does a good bit of ultra-cycling and has logged a few weeks with over 30 hours of riding. He’s laid out his full training plan online if you’re keen to feel inadequate.

For athletes like Manganello Kilburg who are in Beijing for the entirety of the Olympics – with some events at the very beginning and some at the very end – the work doesn’t stop. Unlike when they’re at home, however, they are limited when it comes to access to the rink. Enter the bike.

“We get a 40-minute session [on ice] a day if needed,” Manganello Kilburg explained. “Today we were on the ice in the morning and then we had a ride this afternoon.”

Manganello Kilburg kicked off her Olympics in Beijing with the 3,000 m and 1,500 m long track events in the first week of the Games but her favourite event, and the one she’s targeting, is one of the final events: the mass start on February 19. For the mass start, you first race the semi-finals before advancing to the finals to fight for a gold medal.

“It’s the weirdest thing with the Olympics going two weeks for some of us,” Manganello Kilburg said. “We have the first days of racing, my 3 k was the first day and then the mass start is the last day or the second to last day.”

“I’m here for the whole thing, but it is super difficult because you can’t peak for two weeks, you kind of have to pick and choose your battles.”

Manganello Kilburg opted not to peak for the first two events, so she’s actually training heavily while in Beijing to prepare for the mass start semi-finals. She does lactate threshold intervals on the bike and usually spends anywhere from an hour to three hours riding around the Olympic village.

Relatively “new” to the Olympics, the mass start event was introduced to the Games for the second time in 2018, after its first, one-time appearance in 1932 in Lake Placid, New York.

Unlike the distance events which Manganello Kilburg competed in earlier in the Games, the mass start event is much more chaotic and exciting with tactics, teamwork, and drafting.

The race puts around 25 skaters against each other at the same time for 16 laps. Think of a mass start track cycling event on ice. Within the 16 laps, there are three sprint laps, on laps 4, 8, 12 and 16, that offer up a prime. The first three skaters to cross the line on these sprint laps get points, however, points are heavily weighted for the top three racers to cross the line at the end of the race.

Basically to excel at the mass start event you need to be able to read the race, stay upright in the bunch, have enough endurance to skate 6,400 meters and sprint for points. Since the event is relatively new, only introduced to the World Cup circuit in 2011, the real potential of this event hasn’t quite registered yet.

“It’s a lot like a criterium race where you can feel the pack slowing down,” Manganello Kilburg explained. “You can feel that moment and when it’s a good time to jump for a break. How to fit in a draft. Who’s looking weaker? It’s definitely something that I’m finding is hard to teach and more of an instinct that people have. But it’s something I don’t want to say I’ve mastered, but I definitely have a great sense of the race.”

Manganello Kilburg’s cycling experience gives her a certain edge in the mass start, even if she’s not the only one with that trick up her sleeve. The Dutch, in particular, grow up racing on bikes in the summer and skates in the winter.

Mia Manganello Kilburg (second from right) and Team USA at the medal ceremony of the Team Pursuit in Pyeongchang 2018.

Unlike in the individual events, Manganello Kilburg will line up for the mass start with a teammate, assuming they can both make it through the semi-finals. For the two semis they will start in separate heats. “It’s up to us to get to the final, then we could skate as a team,” Manganello Kilburg said.

It will come as no surprise that the Dutch are the ones who have perfected the art of tactics and teamwork in the mass start event, but according to Manganello Kilburg, other nations are catching on. With the mass start event attracting more attention to long track speed skating, Manganello Kilburg hopes the sport will introduce some more events like it.

With a few days to go before Manganello Kilburg lines up in the semi-finals, the American is feeling confident. “I just need to get my fitness and my ability up to where my mind is,” she says.

Beijing isn’t Manganello Kilburg’s first Olympic experience. She won bronze in the team pursuit in Pyeongchang in 2018. This time around, as you’d expect, it’s a very different experience. With COVID-19 restrictions in place, there are no spectators, and athletes spend their days within “bubbles”. The speed skaters are allowed to attend other ice events like hockey and figure skating but can’t venture up to the mountains to watch cross country skiing.

“In the end, we try to keep the mindset that we’re here for a job and to get the job done, but it’s kind of a bummer and especially for those again that are here for the first time,” Manganello Kilburg said.

Catch Mia racing in the semi-finals of the mass start event on February 19th at 8:45 AM CET.

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