Take 5: An interview with Anne Galyean, enduro pro and PhD grad
There aren’t too many pro enduro riders who know the true chemical name for adrenaline, and there are even fewer who know the chemical structure by heart. Chances are, there’s only one who has that structure tattooed big and bold and bad*** on her forearm.
“Epinephrine is the official name, if you want to know,” Anne Galyean tells me on a sunny, calm, pitch-perfect day at the base of the Keystone Bike Park. Then the 29-year-old with a PhD in biochemical engineering recites the structure itself — “C9-H13-NO3,” she says, which is also her profile name on the bike forum PinkBike.com — before laughing at her self-proclaimed nerdiness.
I mention that her tattoo reminds me of a friend who did something just as nerdy: When he bought a new car, he got the Millennium Falcon serial number as his license plate number. Only people in the know will get the reference and appreciate it, he reasoned, and that was enough for him.
“You mean like this?” Galyean says, pulling the sleeve on her riding jersey past the elbow to show a small, unmistakable Millennium Falcon. It sits right above a much larger tattoo of Darth Vader playing with a chemistry set and, next to that, just past the epinephrine structure, is Jango Fett, another Star Wars baddie.
“That’s kind of how I figure out the real Star Wars fans,” she says. “Some people say, ‘Oh, that’s Boba Fett,’ or, ‘I like your stormtrooper.’ But sorry, if you don’t know it’s Jango, we can’t be friends.”
Galyean’s left arm might as well be her life in a nutshell. For the past decade, the Idaho native has juggled school, work and Star Wars, all while riding downhill at the World Cup level. She’s a self-described competition junkie, the sort who started with gymnastics and swimming in high school before switching to water polo and rock climbing during her undergrad at University of Virginia-Richmond. As a senior in 2009, she entered her first downhill race with the now-defunct Snowshoe series in West Virginia. It was love at first ride.
“I won the beginner division and moved to amateur, then I starting winning the amateur division and moved to pro,” she says. “I couldn’t stay away from competing.”
Galyean also couldn’t stay away from school. After graduating, she went immediately into a PhD engineering program at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill while continuing to ride at the pro level, eventually winning USA Cycling’s Pro Mountain Bike Gravity Tour series in 2013 — just a year after a nasty injury laid her up.
“You don’t hear about people who are sitting at a desk 40 hours a week and still racing,” she says, rolling her sleeve back down to cover the nerd art. “I personally like hearing about stuff like that. Usually, you’re always hearing about the guys living in a van, or the guy who does this with a part-time job and all he does is bike.”
Six years, countless hours and one massive dissertation later, Galyean passed her PhD defense last year and moved to Golden, where she’s now “one of the dreaded transplants to Colorado” and researching biomedical nanosensors for the Colorado School of Mines. She also switched from downhill to enduro racing at the same time, in part because she’s getting older, in part because the downhill scene is shrinking.
This weekend marks Galyean’s first trip to Summit for the Keystone Big Mountain Enduro, the second stop in the summer-long open series. It’s a change of pace from the East Coast mountains she rallied as a grad student, but for only the second time — she won the BME stop in Santa Fe this May — she won’t have to balance school with racing. She simply gets to ride.
Between practice laps and Star Wars geek-outs, I had the chance to talk with Galyean about her doctorate, the enduro scene and the name of her dissertation — if she can remember.
Summit Daily News: Before we get to biking, talk about the balance between a PhD program and pro riding. How’d you find a happy medium?
Anne Galyean: I think there are good days and bad days. Sometimes you’re nailing the balance, other times you’re tripping over cracks in the sidewalk. I think it’s about prioritizing: I’d sacrifice a social life for training or work or school, but I think they balanced each other out more often than not. I’d go crazy without one or the other. If youre going crazy in the school, you can ride a bike. If you’re burnt out on the bike, you can go to the lab.
SDN: You recently graduated. What are you doing for work now?
AG: I work in the chemical and biological engineering department with biomedical engineering at the School of Mines. I’m developing nanosensors for imaging. If you’ve heard of medical biofilms, they’re what people with an implant will get. They get a biofilm implant in something like their lungs, and then we’re taking pictures of those nanosensors to get a 3D map of what’s happening chemically inside of this structure. If you think 30 or 40 years down the road there are huge possibilities.
SDN: When did you decide to go all-in with the PhD, instead of stopping at a master’s degree?
AG: I actually didn’t do a master’s. I went straight to a PhD — it’s becoming more and more common to do that in scientific fields — and it’s advantageous to do that because you can get funding for your research. I love the research, I love being in the lab, and I love being able to get on the creative side of the work required for a PhD. What I’m doing now is fun. It’s new, it’s different, it’s cutting edge, and it takes a lot of time. I don’t get to ride as much as I like, but it’s worth it.
SDN: How much time were you getting to bike out east, like during the end of your program?
AG: Less than I am now, that’s for sure. It wasn’t as easy to access trails out there. Now, when I’m in Golden, I can get out for evening rides after work, or I don’t have to work every single weekend — worrying about a paper that’s due or something else for school. I’ve been here less than a year now and I’ve barely scratched the surface with trails, and that’s just in the Golden area. I’m excited to see what else this state has.
The whole downside to the science thing is that I’m relegated to living in urban places. I can’t go to a tiny mountain town and find a job, so the Front Range is a good mix of work and play.
SDN: Any favorite trails out here yet?
AG: My favorite anywhere is Lenawee. It’s just amazing. That’s right over there, right? (Points east to Lenawee Trail on the Continental Divide.)
AG: Yeah, I love that trail. I’m also looking forward to more alpine stuff. I like Keystone a lot. This is the park I choose to spend my time in — I got a pass and everything. It’s a little blown out and loose and rough right now, but that makes it fun.
SDN: This is your first time racing at Keystone. How’s the competition look?
AG: There are a lot of locals who are really fast, so it should be some good competition. I’d never ridden in Colorado much before moving here. I came out for one race in Winter Park about a year and a half ago — not last season, but the season before — and I had taken that season off to finish up with school. It was more of a break than a race, just because I had been away from it.
SDN: How does Colorado riding compare to other places you’ve been?
AG: I really haven’t been to that many other places (laughs). The East Coast scene is huge though, like 20 downhill races any weekend, anywhere you go. Out there, it’s mud, rocks and root. Out here, it’s dusty, loose and open. That was the biggest thing for me, making the adjustment. Out east you also don’t have the long uphills or downhills. The races are punchier. But, this makes you a better rider to handle anything. I’m looking forward to it.
SDN: And the Big Mountain series? How does it compare to what’s out east?
AG: It’s an awesome series to follow. You have to have so many skills to compete for the overall. Like, in Santa Fe (this May), we had 7,500 vertical feet of climbing in two days. That’s a ton. The overall will reward someone who does everything, and having the variety in the events is key. A lot of other series don’t do that. A lot of people b**** about it, but people will b*** about everything
SDN: And you’re not one to back away from a challenge.
AG: I guess. I’ll find the hardest thing I can possibly do. There might be an Einstein quote about that…something like, “The object is not to find something easy, but to find something you can barely do well and do it at your best effort.” Or something like that.
SDN: What’s your most polished skill right now?
AG: I raced downhill for six years before coming to enduro and the technical handling is my big strength. The endurance has been my weak point, but living here has helped. The Santa Fe race was really rough for me. I survived, but I didn’t want to get on a bike after that for like a week. I’ve been doing a few centuries this summer, one by Pikes Peak and another right out of Denver, just to work on cardio. They were flat, they were hot, but they’re good for me, right? I don’t mind riding. I’m just learning the area, and in 100 miles you get to see a lot of cool stuff.
SDN: Any big goals for your first Keystone race?
AG: They have a lot of very technical features here, so I’d like to be satisfied with nailing the big jumps and the rock gardens. The biggest difference between downhill and enduro is that you practice on one track with downhill. You ride that track for three days straight and get it memorized. Here, you have different routes. You can’t just practice it to death.
SDN: You switched over from downhill to enduro last year. Why change?
AG: The sport of downhill is dwindling. It sucks to say that, but it’s true. I also had to compromise. With downhill, I was pushing 110 percent every single race, and I just couldn’t fit that in with school and everything.
The opportunities for downhilling in the states just aren’t there anymore. Winter Park has a small downhill series, but there are no big series. You have to travel. Unless you have fulltime sponsor support or you aren’t working fulltime, you can’t make it happen. The U.S. is a big place and it’s hard to travel chasing a series.
SDN: What comes after Keystone? Will you stick with the series?
AG: Yes, I’m doing the whole BME series. The next one is in Aspen, and that’s the big international race. My other half, Matt Delorme, he’s in the international side of things, covering the World Cup XE and other series as a photographer, and that’s the one time of the year we get to see each other. From my downhill days, I know a lot more of the bike industry, and at a big event like that you get to see a ton of people.
SDN: Is school still on your mind when you bike these days? Like, what’s the name of your dissertation?
AG: Oh god, I put that out of my head. “The environmental considerations of…” Wait, that’s not it. It’s, “Instrumental and environmental considerations for the…” (continues).
SDN: I lost you.
AG: It was long and boring, really (laughs). I have the long, boring title, but the subtitle was, “How to Find a Needle in a Stack of Needles.” I feel like when you get to the end of a PhD, you’re so burnt out and so over it that you never want to see it again. I have a printed copy at home and I’ve never looked at it. Maybe I’ll open it up again in 10 years.
SDN: Between the job and biking, do you think you’ll stay in Colorado?
AG: I’d love to stay here. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. Right now the Golden job is kind a post-grad job, so it’s temporary, to get experience in the field after school. When I was in school I felt like half a person, now I feel like three-fourths of a person. Maybe one of these days I’ll be a full person (laughs).
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