Jennifer Picciolo used to “just ride her bike,” but through her neighborhood shop in Milwaukee, WI, she was able to dabble in organized group rides, ultimately discovering she had a real knack for racing. Here she shares the story of how a bike-commuting mom became a podium-finishing racer.
Right Place, Right People, Right Time
Up until about five years ago, Jennifer Picciolo, 45, had a pretty casual relationship with her bike. She says, “I did sort of ‘fitness rides’ on my own, but I also tried to run most errands by bike too. I was the mom who pulled the kids around with a Trail-a-Bike, with a Burley trailer attached to that. At the time I had a pretty inexpensive hybrid bike, but the crank broke, so I upgraded to a second-hand steel touring bike. It’s a great bike I still ride around town.” Jesse Kuester, Store Manager at Wheel & Sprocket in Fox Point, Wisconsin remembers meeting Picciolo: “Jennifer came into the shop with two little boys, one in a baby sling, to shop for a saddle and figure out which tubes go with which vehicle—bike, Burley, and Trail-a-Bike. She was overwhelmed but excited to be out of the house with the freedom that the bike provided.”
When her children got a bit older, Picciolo was able to find more time to exercise. “That’s when I joined a group ride for women through the shop. From there, I met a woman who coached a beginners’ group to train for a sprint triathlon. I was intimidated, but decided to give it a shot.” She switched out the mustache handlebars for drop bars, took the fenders off, and trained for the event. Picciolo went into it with an open mind. “Though I had fun, I did not feel like triathlons were really my sport. So I continued the shop’s group rides and increased my miles, my average speeds, and my circle of cycling friends.”
The stage was set for more serious riding as a result of these group rides. “A year later, I got my first carbon fiber road bike. I was immediately, unexpectedly, and noticeably faster. I loved how I felt on this bike. My friends at the bike shop recommended I check out some of the racing group recovery rides.” Kuester says, “We have various levels of rides, but I felt it was important to offer some that are welcoming to all levels of cyclists and provide a sense of community. In Jennifer’s case, our recovery ride was a good fit.” Picciolo continues, “There usually weren’t many women on them, but one night two women who were teammates on the same team joined us. After riding and chatting and then riding together again the following week, they convinced me to try my first bike race. I was 42 years old, but these fast ladies were two years older than me, and that helped me immediately reject any claims that I might be too old to start competing.”
Wheel & Sprocket is a shop where you’ll find many racing cyclists hanging out before or after training rides. On one visit to the shop, Picciolo happened to meet her bike coach. “As if on cue, she was there one evening talking to some women about her coaching services. The timing was perfect.”
Picciolo admits she knew absolutely nothing about the sport. Luckily, the team she joined, ISCorp, was very supportive, and super generous with their time and knowledge. “I was learning enough to feel confident about jumping in.” She also adds, “I feel like my bike shop supported me from the beginning. Seriously, at first I didn’t even know how to pump my own tires. I went to many of the Saturday morning flat-changing demos and took a class on bike maintenance at the shop, etc. The shop is the hub of my experience as a cyclist.” Kuester says, “Some of our most rewarding experiences have been watching and teaching customers to become better cyclists; it’s one of the best aspects of our job. Jennifer has really become a great cyclist and bike racer; she’s now a staple in the cycling community. We are so fortunate to have her as an ambassador of the shop.”
Trials, Tribulations, Victories…
Picciolo’s first crit race was “thrilling; slow, fast, then slow, then a prime, then eventually it was time to just pedal all-out for the finish.” In that race, she won the prime and took second overall. She was hooked.
Over the last few years, Picciolo has learned much about how to train and race. “I’m fascinated by the mobility, performance, the optimal capacity that our bodies are designed to reach. Especially as an ‘older’ athlete, I’m interested in my potential. I’m still new to this, and curious to know how much improvement there can be.”
Rolling With the Punches
Picciolo is now beginning her third full year of racing, entering the Category 3 field. “I’ve been able to meet some of my race and athletic goals, while still fitting in the rest of life and raising two boys. I don’t train enough though (about 7 hours a week), so that’s one of my big goals this upcoming year.”
The combination of having recently been blindsided by divorce and catting up has not been a recipe for increased performance. “Racing with much faster women has been extremely humbling. And thrilling. This is also the first year that our bike team has a professional women’s squad—the first women’s pro team in Wisconsin. These young women are so inspiring, and they are supportive of our development too.” This kind of environment keeps the fires stoked for race weekends. “The community itself is great. We all know one another from the various teams…there’s good camaraderie. I look forward to Tour of America’s Dairyland and to the Intelligentsia Cup for even bigger fields of women at my level.”
Even with the assistance of a professional team, and the access to everything a racer needs to perform at a high level, Wheel & Sprocket still plays a pivotal role in her development. She says, “My bike team, ISCorp, has a unique relationship with our bike shop. We are a Wisconsin-based team supporting Wisconsin business. Although our professional women’s team receives some direct sponsorship, our 118-member development team supports our local shop and vice versa.” Kuester says about the team, “ISCorp has a huge commitment to the community, and to junior and women’s development. It’s hard to think of it as a sponsorship. It’s more of a relationship with a greater goal of getting more people on bikes enjoying cycling.”
The Neighborhood Team Staff
Picciolo points out, “The shop can be an important entry point to women in racing, especially if those women (like myself) don’t come from a bike racing family, or husband, or brothers, whatever.” She adds, “I think we all agree though that women can do without the girly pink marketing stuff, but that’s not the bike shop’s fault.” What would make the service, support, and atmosphere better for Picciolo? “I’ve always thought it would be great if they had an espresso bar in there somewhere. But since I’m at the shop every other day as it is, with Wi-Fi and coffee that could be a problem…”
The potential exists for similar stories to Picciolo’s in any shop willing to offer the same kinds of riding opportunities, community, connections, and the kind of support someone new to racing needs to have fun and grow. In an industry and sport largely dominated by men, it’s even more important to go the extra mile for the women customers that come in. Kuester says, “The way women shop is different than how men shop. More and more women are getting into cycling, so it’s really important that we ask the right questions to address their specific needs, and create an environment where they’re comfortable asking questions too. Part of that experience is having a clean, organized, well-merchandized store; having women on staff; and offering women’s-only group rides.”
After all, you never know who might end up on a podium when they unhitch their Trail-a–Bike.