'We want to push the limits' – Inside STF Racing: the American team shaking up cyclocross
As well as being PanAm Cyclocross Champion, Raylyn Nuss is the founder of the Steve Tilford Foundation team. She tells Rouleur how she is opening doors for American riders to race in Europe and striving to make a difference
This article was produced in association with Pas Normal Studios
There aren’t many cycling teams who launch their new bikes and kit from a laundromat in southwest Virginia, just a few days before their first race of the season. But as Raylyn Nuss, founder of the Steve Tilford Foundation Racing (STF Racing) cyclocross team tells Rouleur: “I hate doing what everybody else is doing.”
It’s pretty clear that Nuss isn’t like most people. The 32-year-old’s journey into cycling is far from the usual tale many professional cyclists reel off about doing their first race as soon as they could get off stabilisers. In fact, Nuss didn’t compete in cyclocross until she was 26 years old after an impressive career playing collegiate basketball and then triathlon.
“Everyone told me I should do cyclocross in my off-season to get better on the bike, I did one race and was instantly hooked,” she says. “I was like, I'm done with triathlon, I'm going to go all in with this and see where ‘cross takes me. I quit my job as a full time employee at Pfizer where I’d worked for six years as a scientist, and just wanted to dive in.”
Nuss is too modest to mention it, but her talent for cyclocross was clear from the offset. In just her first few years riding on the American ‘cross scene, she was securing podiums at domestic races and top-10 positions at the US National Championships.
“It's like this chaotic, weird discipline, but you have to have finesse for it,” Nuss explains. “You're hopping off and on the bike, you’ve got to be athletic, you’ve got to have agility. I think it translated better coming from a ball sport. You have to have power to race cross, but there's more technical skills that go into it. It wasn't a boring sport. Some of the few big races that I went to I was like, wow, there's a party going on around this event too, it's rad.”
In the last two seasons, Nuss has secured some of her most impressive results yet, including becoming PanAmerican Cyclocross Champion, finishing 15th in the 2022 World Championships in Fayetteville and coming second in the US National Championships a few months ago. For someone so new to the sport, her rapid progression has been impressive. But racing has always been about more than just results for the American, and she explains she isn’t fulfilled by only focusing on her own performance. It’s for this very reason that she launched her own team, STF Racing, in 2020.
“In America, there's not many teams. I felt like giving a space for some riders whose teams had folded could really be a powerful thing,” Nuss explains. “The sport was evolving, especially in America with the privateer model becoming the main model. I thought that I could do a privateer model, but carry it to a team, like the best of both worlds. I also wanted to do something differently with the way we do our marketing or photography. We do fun art projects around what we're doing. I really like to try and push the limits and push the cycling industry in general, because it can be pretty stale at times.”
With the support of the Steve Tilford Foundation, a charity which honours the legacy of Steve Tiford – a pioneer in the American off-road racing scene who was tragically killed in a car accident – and some big name sponsors, Nuss’s team has steadily made a name for itself as one of the most exciting and coolest squads on the international ‘cross racing scene. For 2023, one of the team’s main supporters is Danish cycling apparel brand Pas Normal Studios.
Nuss explains that it has always been important for her to work with sponsors who align with her and the team’s values, which is why Pas Normal Studios was a natural fit. “Their clothing is amazing and they're really good to work with,” Nuss says. “They have the same mindset that I do in terms of doing things a little bit differently. It's been like a match made in heaven.”
This year, STF Racing is made up of three riders: Nuss, Curtis White and Lizzy Gunsalus. Due to the equipment intensive nature of cyclocross racing (Nuss explains that each rider requires four bikes and eight sets of wheels), the team remains small in number, for now, but Nuss explains that this size team has allowed the three riders to create a special bond. “It's pretty rare to find a group of individuals that can gel so well together instantly. It’s been a blast and with the way the sponsorships fell in line with the athletes, I feel like, truly, I have such a rockstar team right now.”
Nuss prioritises creating the right environment for her and her teammates to feel relaxed around each other and at races, without putting too much pressure on performance. She explains that each athlete’s mental wellbeing is as important as results, especially when all of them are racing in Europe for the season, living in a different continent to their family and friends.
“If we can be in a relaxed environment, I feel like those results are going to just come naturally. Like Curtis, for the last few years, he was never able to have his fiancée come and travel with him to some of the races in Europe. I asked him if she wanted to come to Europe with us this season and he was like, wait, are you serious? That way he can be more relaxed, and be a little bit happier. I think that is just going to help naturally with the results.”
White has become one of the most famous faces in American cyclocross over the last decade, gaining results in the UCI World Cup series and becoming US National Cyclocross Champion earlier this season. “Curtis is one of those guys who we call the mayor of cyclocross, because he's always shaking everybody's hands, kissing babies, saying hi to everyone. He's such a good face for the sport, and cares a lot about the sport of cyclocross,” Nuss says. “I didn't win nationals that day when he did, but to see Curtis win, I was in tears, we all want each other to do well. I think that says a lot about the personalities on the team. It's not a selfish environment, it’s like a family environment.”
Having a rider with the experience of White alongside Nuss and Gunsalus on the team has been useful for both female riders who are newer to the European race scene. Gunsalus is only 19 years old and is currently racing alongside studying both chemistry and engineering, and Nuss explains Gunsalus was the perfect rider to take under her wing. “She has a go-getter attitude, I also saw a lot of myself and her too, with her being a science major and the way she carried herself. I was like, that’s how I was when I was 19 years old, so it was fitting for her to join us,” Nuss says.
Learning the craft of racing ‘cross in Europe is a big challenge for American riders who generally cross the pond midway through the cyclocross season. This is why race experience is so valuable to riders like White, Nuss and Gunsalus. “It's pretty drastically different to the US,” Nuss says. “You don't have to start as fast and there's almost 100 women in the field here in Europe, so every aspect of it is different. The soil is different. The courses are more technical, the fields are deeper, they're faster. In general, it's like a totally different sport.
“I'm still trying to figure it out,” Nuss continues with a smile. “It's my second season coming over to Europe and each time I’m making steps in the right direction, but it's maybe not as drastic of a leap as I'd like to be making yet. It's such a different ballgame but I love that we come over and we kind of get a taste of this. If I have two or three more years of racing at a high level, how far can I make it in the next three years? You’ve got to go full steam ahead and just dive into the deep end and immerse yourself in the culture around here and the racing, I feel like that's just the best way to get good at it.”
Looking ahead to the rest of her 2023 cyclocross campaign, both Nuss and White are focussing on the World Championships at the start of February. It will be the American woman’s first Championships on European soil, but she’s hoping to match her impressive performance last year where she finished 15th on the technical course in Fayetteville.
“A top-20 in Europe would be a really strong result for me. I'd love to match what I did at the past World Championships, because if I can match that in Europe, it's like I’m really stepping up my game. I've never raced the course, but from what I've seen and what I've heard, Hoogerheide will be a nice course for me personally,” Nuss says with a smile.
The STF Racing team will spend a few weeks in Spain to build base miles before the UCI World Cup in Benidorm will serve as one of the final preparations for the World Championships. Although Nuss is focussed on her personal ambitions in Hoogerheide, she has still an impressively level-headed approach. “I don't have a good race weekend, honestly, even if none of us have a good race weekend, the fact that we have the Foundation, there's more depth to what we're doing in general, we try to look at the bigger picture,” she explains.
Longer term, Nuss is hopeful for a fruitful and exciting future for STF Racing and one that she hopes will help make a real difference for young American cyclocross racers looking to come over to Europe. “My first first goal is really to keep it sustainable. I want this to be a five to 10 year program, I don't want it to fizzle out after a couple of years. I would like to add a U23 male rider to the team, do engaging marketing activities and push the sport into kind of a new direction a little bit.”
Importantly, Nuss and the entire STF Racing team hope they won’t have to conform to cycling’s pressures, and want to keep doing things on their own terms. It’s not all about results, or high-performance, but it’s about racing ‘cross for the love of it, and never being afraid to innovate. “I'm sure some people would not agree,” smiles Nuss, “But I think it's fun to shake it up a little bit.”