Emily Ehrlich: A Star is Born
Who’s that rider? Should I know her? Those where thoughts going through my head during the Intelligentsia Cup as I watched first-year racer Emily Ehrlich win a race and capture podiums. I wasn’t the only one that was surprised by this rider’s performance; the Dearborn, Michigan-based rider entered the Intelligentsia Cup as an unknown having spent the first half of her rookie season racing around Metro Detroit. A mid-season signing by Papa John’s Racing p/b Trek changed all of that. Emily already has a powerful engine – despite her recent introduction to bike racing – and is already pulling off performances that many pro riders would dream of. Papa John’s Racing p/b Trek’s talent scouts got it right again by signing yet another star in the making.
After being blown away by Emily’s 10 days at the Intelligentsia Cup, I knew that she’d be a perfect interviewee for A Cyclist in a Strange Land. I called her up a couple weeks later to talk about the Intelligentsia Cup, her rapid development as a rider, and her time with the Papa John’s team.
Nathan (N): Pretty amazing week for you at Intelligentsia Cup. The race announcer, Brad Sohner, kept singing your praises and saying that the whole city of Chicago was getting introduced to Emily Ehrlich that week. Pretty cool stuff. I hope you were able to hear some of those praises as you whizzed by on your bike.
Emily Ehrlich (EE): Yeah, I sure did! All of this has come on so quickly.
N: If I’m not mistaken, this is your first year racing a bike. What’s your athletic background before this? Making such a big splash so early isn’t the traditional start to a cycling career.
EE: I’ve been seriously riding a bike for a year and a half now, but before that, I was non-competitively athletic. I was just doing sports to stay fit and in shape. I ran a bit and I rollerbladed almost every day. Rollerblading was kind of my thing. When I got a bike, it really took off because I got involved with more social things like cycling groups. With all of the group rides that I was going on, I started to become competitive with my bike. Then, I wanted to do races from there.
N: How did you end up getting a bike? What was the motivation?
EE: I was living in Florida at the time and my work was five or six miles away so I was rollerblading there every day because I don’t like driving a car. The rollerblading was fine, but I wanted to change it up a little, so I got a bike.
N: I’ve never heard of doing that much rollerblading every day, that’s pretty serious! No wonder you were so strong when you started cycling!
EE: It wasn’t so bad, they were really nice rollerblades; they were speed skates so it only took me a half hour to get to work. I do think doing that much rollerblading helped me with making a smooth transition to the bike; as soon as I started riding, I was flying past people.
N: You’re based in Michigan now. Is that where you started racing or were you part of the Florida cycling scene?
EE: Where I lived in Florida, there weren’t many racing opportunities, it was primarily group rides. I moved to Michigan last Spring and, coincidentally, I lived pretty close to where there were races in Ann Arbor so I started racing and really loved it.
N: Then, how did Tish Kelly and her team, Papa John’s Racing p/b Trek, find you?
EE: Frankie Andreu lives near me, he’s a good friend of mine. [Ed. Frankie is a former World Tour and Tour de France rider that raced for big teams like US Postal and Motorola in the 1990s; today, Frankie is an in-demand race announcer, speaker, and anti-doping advocate] He’s a big part of the cycling community here in Michigan. He’d been trying to market me around because he was impressed with my ability. I guess Frankie reached out to Tish at some point. When the Papa John’s team came to the Detroit Cycling Championship – which was the first time that I raced as a Category 2 rider and in a strong field of pro athletes – I had a chance to meet her. Tish was impressed with me and the next day, at the Corktown Criterium, she wanted me to race with the team. I ended up finishing fourth that day. Then I went to Chicago for the Intelligentsia Cup and Tish invited me to race with the team again. I wasn’t planning to race with them at first, but Tish wanted me to and I'm really happy that she did!
N: So, you basically signed up to go to these races thinking that you were going to be racing solo and gain experience, but then Tish Kelly brings you onboard and you end up getting wins and podiums? That’s unbelievable! EE: It’s really awesome how it all worked out; especially with it happening with a great team like Papa John’s Racing p/b Trek.
N: And to have Frankie Andreau and his family as friends and mentors; I can’t imagine you could have a better network guiding you and watching your back.
EE: Yeah, I’ve been pretty lucky. Doing all these races, especially going to races like the River Gorge Omnium in Chatanooga, Tennessee was a goal that I was targeting for next year, so I’m already racing where I had hoped to be racing by the end of 2019.
N: Will you be racing with Papa John’s Racing p/b Trek in the future?
EE: Yeah, you should be seeing me in the Papa John’s jersey in the future. We all get along really well, I’m sure that I’ll be staying with them next year too.
N: That’s wonderful news. That team is pulling in more and more talent! What’s the culture like at the Papa John’s team? It seems like there is a nice, family-type environment. You all show up to the races early and hang out together; there seems to be a lot of laughter and friendship.
EE: Yeah, it’s definitely like that. Most of the team has been together for a few years so they’re very close, but at the same time, very welcoming to me even though we’ve only done a couple races together. I feel very blessed to be able to join in on that.
N: How do you stay so calm competing in these races? For example, you were racing side-by-side with Lily Williams and going for the win during the Elmhurst Cycling Classic [Ed. part of Intelligentsia Cup]; how do you keep focused instead of getting lost in all of that excitement?
EE: I never really get nervous; I just think it’s really cool. In Michigan, we have a really small racing scene and I had always wanted to race with some stronger women. Being able to race in these pro fields makes every race joyous.
N: Let’s talk a little bit about the Intelligentsia Cup. In the fourth round of the series, at the Autobahn Country Club Road Race, you handily won in a solo break away. Tell me about that race.
EE: It all began because I was bored. We were 15 minutes into the race and no one was doing anything, we were kind of going at a slow pace. I was already on the front and decided to attack to spice things up. Some of the girls went after me, but only halfheartedly. I didn’t really hit the throttle to go away, but I did keep a nice pace that was good enough to have a gap. There were two hours left at that point and I didn’t really know what that meant; we didn’t have radios on so I couldn’t get any advice from Andrew Crater, our team director. I decided to keep ahead of them to see what would happen, hoping someone would gap and join me. 30 minutes later, I had built up a minute gap and the fans on the sideline lines were yelling, “Keep going! You can do it!” Then, I was surprised to see that my housemates were passing through and decided to come to the race to cheer me on from the side of the race track. With them there, I really decided to put on a show. I hit the throttle a bit and the gap grew, then the chase really began. I was lucky enough to stay away at the end and get the win.
N: Wow, it was almost an accident! What did you think of the race track? I’ve always wanted to go to the Autobahn Speedway and see the cars – or bikes! – racing. It’s a pretty flat course, so I imagine it was pretty fast.
EE: Oh yeah. We actually have a bi-weekly criterium in Michigan at the Waterford Hills race track which is kind of in the same spirit as the Autobahn course. They both have sweeping corners which means that you can be full throttle all the time. Almost like a time trial course.
N: Let’s also talk about the Elmhurst Cycling classic where you, once again, broke away and stayed away, and ended up getting second behind Lily Williams. What happened there? Are you the break away queen? EE: I broke away right before a preem lap. It was incidental that I was coming across the line when they announced the preem so I already had a small gap; I thought that if I kept on the throttle that I’d be able to get the preem. After I got the preem, I started to back off a little bit because I had been going full throttle. Then, I saw Lily Williams coming up and she came past me and said, “Come on, let’s go.” I stayed behind her for a minute, recovered, and then we both went full throttle. She made a great break away partner.
N: Walking the course during that race, everyone was super excited about the performance that you two were putting on. Especially that backstretch filled with hardcore fans that were calling out your names and cheering for you two.
EE: It was a pretty special introduction to the top level of the domestic racing scene.
N: Now, are you looking to do some time trialing too? Based on the solo efforts that I’ve seen you do at Intelligentsia Cup, it seems like it would be a perfect fit for you.
EE: If there is one thing that I’ve learned, it’s that my niche in cycling is to sustain high power for an extended period of time. I don’t necessarily have the best sprint, but I think that I’ll fit time trialing pretty well. [Ed. Emily got her first taste of pro time trialing last weekend at the River Gorge Omnium in Chattanooga, Tennessee where she finished seventh despite riding on her road bike instead of a time trial frame; I can’t wait to see what her time trial results will look like next year!]
N: Well Emily, I’m sure that this isn’t the last time that I’ll be interviewing you for A Cyclist in a Strange Land. I’ll look forward to seeing how you develop as a rider over the next couple of years. Best of luck for the rest of the season and going into next year!