When Rachel Anders started her freshman year at Stanford last fall, she didn’t know a soul. But pretty soon, her fellow classmates began to know her.
"It wasn't long before people started to know me as 'The Mountain Biker,'" admits Anders, now 19. "Sometimes I'd show up with some pretty bad scrapes from a crash, and they were shocked I kept getting back on my bike."
Palo Alto, the home of the Stanford campus, isn't known for its mountain biking. For one thing, many of the local trails prohibit cycling. Secondly, it isn't easy to keep both a road bike and a mountain bike in your dorm room.
"My roommate wasn't too happy about my bikes," said Anders, "But that's a story for another time."
To get around these issues, Anders drove down to Santa Cruz on the weekends and rode the trails there. She turned her bed into a loft, took the front wheels off her road and mountain bikes, and stored them underneath the bed. Anders also joined the Stanford Cycling Team, which is part of the university's Club Sports program.
"I'm lucky because most of my classes don't start until eleven, so I can go for a morning ride on the roads and then spend the rest of the day going to classes and studying."
Anders competed in her first road race with the Stanford team this spring.
"It was super strategic," she said. "Road racing in general is all about strategy and pacing and drafting. It's much more of a team sport than mountain biking is. All of the road bikers think I'm crazy for mountain biking, but I think it's much more scary to be on the roads, just one inch away from the cyclist ahead of you. Mountain sports are more my thing."
This isn't surprising for a girl who grew up at 5,000 feet, in the mountains of Sandy, Utah, near Salt Lake City. She began swimming competitively in fifth grade, specializing in the 100 butterfly and 200 individual medley (IM). Her father used to take her mountain biking in the summers, and when she was 14, Anders joined The Utah High School Cycling League, which is part of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA).
"That's what really got me hooked on mountain biking," she said of NICA. "It was great to ride with friends my age, and in the beginning, I improved quickly. It was really exciting to see that."
Her family encouraged her to try her first XTERRA at 15 because she already had the swimming and biking down. She entered the 2013 XTERRA Nationals in Snowbasin Utah, which is a challenging course, even for the pros.
"It was the longest race I'd ever done and it was really hard," she remembers. "I had a 2007 Enduro bike with a downhill fork, so that thing was really heavy. I didn't know anything about transitions and I had no idea how to eat on the course."
It took Anders over four hours to complete her first XTERRA. Fast-forward to 2016, and Anders improved her time by almost an hour on a muddy course that added time to many athletes' personal bests. Anders finished 101 overall, was the 10th female, and was first in her 15-19 age group. Her time of 3:15:50 was fast enough to beat eight of the pro women.
Anders is already a pro on the cross-country mountain biking circuit, having aged out of the junior division, and is thinking about becoming a pro in XTERRA races this year as well.
But, that too is a story for another time. Not even a college sophomore, Anders has her whole life ahead of her. School just ended for the summer, and she is living and training with some friends in Park City, Utah. Anders is thinking about declaring a major in human biology next year, and like most teenagers, she is looking for a summer job and planning road trips.
"I'm going to USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships in Showshoe, West Virginia in July, and we are thinking of a road trip in August to Whistler, Canada for Crankworx," said Anders. "And for sure I'm going to XTERRA Nationals in September, which will be my last race before I head back to school."
Anders still swims and appreciates that it keeps her fit when the trails aren't rideable or runnable, but admits that she would rather be on her bike.
"My brother calls me a grandma swimmer, because I swim at my own pace and barely stay in the pool for an hour," said Anders. "It's much easier to get on my bike, because even if I'm alone on the trails, I know I'll have tons of fun. I can see myself racing for the rest of my life."