Emily Kachorek grew up as a seriously good athlete and something of a tomboy – soccer, softball, roller hockey, horse jumping and pretty much anything the boys could do.
The San Diego native earned two college degrees, got married and had settled into a career as a scientist, focusing on environmental regulatory issues.
So what’s she doing these days?
Racing her bike, having a blast and getting paid.
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At 33, Kachorek, who holds an undergraduate degree in environmental biology and management from UC Davis and a master’s degree in conservation biology from California State University, Sacramento, has put her career on hold to live and train and race as a professional cyclist. These days, the Sacramento resident is focused more on cyclocross, a sport that bears some resemblance to steeplechase on a bike.
With a season that runs from the fall through midwinter, cyclocross is the fastest-growing discipline in cycling, and Kachorek, who has been singled out as a “cyclist you should know” by ESPN for her road racing, is poised to become a standout in the sport.
While not yet a household name, she’s had some impressive results as a pro, including a first and second in road races in National Race Calendar events. She finished seventh in the 2011 National Championship Road Race, was a U.S. National Team member for 2012-13 and in 2012 was the Sacramento Cyclocross Series overall winner.
Kachorek’s youth-athletics background helped prepare her for all that goes into this unique brand of racing that mixes road and mountain biking and requires riders to navigate steep hills and other obstacles.
“She’s really still finding her ‘cross legs,’” said Marty Woy, owner of the Bicycle Business, the well-known Land Park bike shop, and a longtime cyclocross advocate. “What she’s got going for her is she’s got a huge motor. Within this season, she’s going to see a couple of Top 10 in national races. I would like to see her get a Top 10 at nationals.”
To succeed in cyclocross, you have to be able to jump bumps and hurdles and handle your bike with the skill of a BMXer. You have to be able to run with your bike over your shoulder if a hill is too steep or muddy to ride. You have to be aggressive yet calculating, knowing when to take risks, when to put in a hard effort and when to hold back until the right moment.
Despite all that, cyclocross tends to be safer than road racing, where crashes are common and usually unforgiving. In road racing, cyclists often ride in a large packs, or pelotons, and drafting is a big part of the strategy. One wrong move, and there’s a crash, usually at high speeds and on unforgiving asphalt.
It’s different in cyclocross, where drafting is less of an issue and, as Kachorek notes, “if you crash, it’s usually your own mistake, whereas in road racing if there’s a crash in front of you, you’re going down.”
When Kachorek first got to UC Davis, the all-around athlete discovered road cycling, fell in love with the sport and was good at it. In 2001, Kachorek was a force on a team that won the collegiate national title in the women’s overall and the team time trial. But it was the crashing, it turns out, that eventually pushed her out of the saddle. Not long after that collegiate success, Kachorek’s close friend was badly injured in a bike crash.
“That put a damper on things, and I quit racing,” she said. “I figured I had this degree, I should probably put it to use. Shortly after that, we had a friend who was killed. That really put the kibosh on the bike for me. I basically quit riding.”
Kachorek’s last year of racing was 2003. She had made peace with the notion that now she was a scientist and was going to work for a living. By 2004, she was barely riding at all. In 2006, she got married to Peter Knudsen,who had gone from a stint as a pro cyclist to medical school.
That’s when the couple arrived in Sacramento, and it was here that Kachorek and her concerns about cycling safety met the American River bike trail – 32 miles of pavement off limits to automobiles. “The bike trail is what got me back on my bike,” she said.
In 2009, Kachorek enrolled at Sac State to pursue her graduate studies and soon learned the school’s cycling program had gone dormant.
“I had this fabulous experience at UC Davis and it got me hooked on the bike for life,” she said. “So I started the cycling team at Sac State. It had been started in the past, but it had been dead long enough that no one knew anything about it.”
Anybody who rides with Kachorek will notice a few things right away. Her pedaling style is exceptionally smooth, without any upper body swaying or bobbing. And she is exceptionally fit, with a physique that is long, lean and chiseled.
Kachorek doesn’t lift weights. She believes in training specificity, meaning that to get in shape for cyclocross, she trains as a cyclocross racer. That entails plenty of riding, a lot of running with the bike on her shoulder and sprinting up hills or stairs.
“Cyclocross is super different from road racing,” she explained. “With road racing, you sit on your bike and push the pedals. It takes a lot of skill riding in the pack, sprinting or descending, but it’s mostly tactics and it’s very nuanced. In cyclocross, I would say 50 percent of it is you against the course. The races are 45 minutes for women and 60 minutes for men. You’re basically flooring it the entire time. It’s brutal – absolutely brutal.”
The history of cyclocross is fraught with differing opinions about where and how it started, though it is clear its history goes back more than 100 years in Europe. The sport, which can involve racing in pouring rain or other inclement conditions, did not take root in the United States until the 1970s. French, Belgian and Dutch athletes have dominated the discipline for years. While races for men are still more common, women’s races are more popular and competitive than ever.
Kachorek may be riding as a pro, but that doesn’t mean she’s making big bucks and traveling first class.
“I ride my bike because I love doing it, and I’ve been lucky enough to pursue it at a high level,” she said, “but I only get to do that because I have sponsors I work with. My job is to promote them. Over the years, I’ve figured out ways to do it that are, hopefully, slightly different than most people.”
“You do everything for yourself. You don’t have much support. You don’t have much money,” said Woy of Kachorek’s pro lifestyle. “It’s a passion thing. Love of the sport is what keeps you going.”
Kachorek says she doesn’t worry that she’s not now putting her science degrees to use. She knows she won’t be racing forever. She may eventually pursue a doctorate, possibly with a focus on evolutionary biology.
Given her academic training, she’s also philosophical about the impact of what she does for a living.
“From an environmental standpoint, oftentimes it doesn’t sit well with me that I travel around to ride my bike,” she said. “It is very resource-heavy. I’ve flown across the world multiple times to race my bike. That’s pretty ridiculous. At the same time, I’ve only got one life to live and I’m going to take the opportunities that I have. Maybe along the way I’ve inspired some other people to ride their bikes.”