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Few people can spot talent like Linda Jackson.
Jackson, a former racer herself, has been running her women’s cycling team for two decades and has helped start and progress the careers of some of North America’s top racing talent.
Well-known alumni of the team — which is now called EF Education-TIBCO-SVB — include Megan Guarnier, Alison Tetrick, Carmen Small, Kendall Ryan, Brodie Chapman, Alison Jackson, Kristen Faulkner, and Sarah Gigante, to name just a few. It has previously been named the top team in North America.
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There is no exact science to finding so-called “diamonds in the rough” but Jackson, who is based in California, has her tried and tested methods. For her, it’s about keeping an open mind, moving quickly, and following her instincts when someone comes up.
“I always keep my ears open. People are always telling me ‘oh, you’ve got to look at so and so she’s incredibly strong,’ Jackson told VeloNews. “Maybe one out of 20 of those riders is somebody that that is incredibly strong, but I always look so I’ve always got my ear to the ground. California is a great place to hear about up-and-coming riders.
“I usually hear about them, and I jump really fast because we’re nimble, we’ve always been nimble. I take a chance, I don’t put them through rigorous protocols. I go with my gut a lot and you know, talk to people, and do some due diligence. Most of the time it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I’m not going to miss that opportunity. When you’ve got a promising talent you’ve got to move and you’ve got to grab it.”
Jackson’s team has operated at Continental level, or its equivalent, for much of its existence but this year it stepped up to WorldTour level. Despite focusing on a more European-based schedule that the new status demands, Jackson hasn’t left her focus on bringing up promising talent.
Soon after the team announced its intentions to go WorldTour, it revealed that it would support the Seattle-based team Fount Cycling Guild. It has already proved a good relationship with Veronica Ewers moving from the team to Jackson’s squad midway through the 2021 season following some impressive performances, such as her third place in the US national road race and second overall at the Joe Martin Stage Race.
“That’s a source of potential new riders, too. Jennifer Wheeler [a former team rider -ed] is the owner of that team, Fount Cycling. And that’s where we found Veronica Ewers. She’s an amazing source of up-and-coming riders for us,” Jackson said. “That’s more of an official source of potential riders, but it’s also things like listening, keeping my ear to the ground, you know, looking at results.”
Looking at the results on paper is only one part of the puzzle. Finding out the how is also a key component in finding out what a rider is like.
“When someone has an incredible result, I usually try and find out what happened in the race, how did they win that race. And then we start talking right away. We’re always on the early side,” she said. “It means longer-term development. They might be strong in the US, but then you got to go to Europe and it’s a huge jump.
“You have to take a leap of faith that they’re going to be able to get the technical skills to do it. But that’s definitely a development process. So we’ll bring on a rider, she’s super talented, but she’s super new and doesn’t have the skills.
Even though the team has stepped up a level for 2022, there is still an element of development embedded into the team’s targets. The team’s roster, with riders such as Lauren Stephens, Lizzy Banks, and Letizia Borghesi, is strong but there’s room for growth.
For Jackson, this year is about digging into the potential that is there without piling on the stress.
“I have hired a lot of athletes with potential,” she said. “Some of them are definitely the future of the sport but I don’t have any real results expectations for this year. In other words, I don’t want to put pressure on the riders to get results this year. We’ve always done a good job of finding the diamonds in the rough and that’s our strength.
“We’ll continue to do that but now we have the infrastructure and the budget to hold on to those riders. We’ve lost so many talented women over the years as they’ve grown up and out of our team. That doesn’t need to happen anymore. People will always be attracted to the top team in the world and you’re not going to be able to prevent that. We now have the support that we can provide these girls not only to get started but to achieve the top of the sport on our team.”
Over the years, Jackson and her team have operated on a relatively small budget and her ability to spot potential talent has meant the squad has punched above its weight on a regular basis. However, the restricted finances mean that many of her top talents quickly move on to larger teams and she hasn’t had the money stop it.
With the team’s step up to the Women’s WorldTour for 2022 and the added budget brought in by EF Education, Jackson hopes that it will no longer be inevitable that her star riders will move on to bigger teams. It’s not just the better salaries that she’s able to offer, but the more comfortable environment that goes with being in a top-tier team.
“It’s such an important piece. What I’ve learned over the decades is that what’s important to the riders is the infrastructure and environment that you provide them with,” Jackson said. “I lost some top talent last year. If I had able to say to them last January, here’s our performance director that we’re bringing on board, here are our directors, here’s the setup we’re going to have, and this is where our services courses going to be, that would have made a difference.
“With the infrastructure, we have now, and it’s not just physical, I think we have a home for riders for as long as they want it. My goal is to build this team to have a cohesive environment where riders feel like it’s a place that they want to be. I think it’s going to make a big difference to us in terms of retention for riders, for sure.”