Adventurer of the Week: State cyclocross champion Juliann Vander Haegen of Tumwater

Juliann Vander Haegen, 13, of Tumwater races toward a state championship on Nov. 7 at Tumwater’s Pioneer Park.
Juliann Vander Haegen, 13, of Tumwater races toward a state championship on Nov. 7 at Tumwater’s Pioneer Park. Courtesy

The first time she tried cyclocross, Tumwater’s Juliann Vander Haegen wore rubber boots and used a bike she bought on Craigslist.

Two years later, the 13-year-old is a two-time state champion, consistently finishes ahead of adults and is heading to January’s national championships in North Carolina.

Last weekend, Juliann won her age group both days at the International Cycling Union-sanctioned Subaru Cyclo Cup at Lakewood’s Fort Steilacoom Park. On the first day, she also entered the women’s Category 4 race, where she was the youngest racer in the 35-person field. She finished fifth.

The Tumwater Middle School eighth-grader pulled a similar double at the state championships Nov. 7 at Tumwater’s Pioneer Park. She followed up her championship performance by finishing second in the women’s Category 4 race.

Juliann discovered cyclocross, a cycling discipline that combines elements of road and mountain biking, thanks to her mom, Geraldine.

Geraldine purchased a cyclocross bike for herself in 2013 so “I could ride anywhere.” When some friends encouraged her to try a race at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the younger Vander Haegen thought it sounded like too much fun to pass up. “I fell in love with it right away,” she said.

Geraldine joined the Olympia Orthopaedic Associates race team, and Juliann joined Rad Racing, a Washington youth cycling program that has produced eight cyclocross national champions and 11 world champions.

Now Geraldine and Juliann spend fall weekends racing together. This, of course, brings up an important question: Who would win a mother-daughter showdown?

Last season, Juliann couldn’t quite keep up with her mom. This season, Geraldine hasn’t been racing because she’s recovering from injuries sustained when she was hit by car.

So maybe next year? “I think I might be toast,” Geraldine said.

That question might be too complicated to answer right now, but Juliann did have answers for a few other questions:

Q: What do people at school say when you tell them about your sport?

A: It’s a different sport, and not many people know about it. ... They say, ‘You do what? Lacrosse?’ So I have to explain to everybody.

Q: What sort of things have you done to improve so quickly?

A: I train with my mom’s team, and I’ve entered more races (at least 19 this season by her mom’s count). … I race road a bit and I might race mountain bike. (But she says cyclocross is her favorite discipline.)

Q: It was nice and muddy at Fort Steilacoom. Do you prefer conditions like that or a little drier?

A: I like the mud. It’s more fun and it’s more difficult.

Q: How exciting is it to be going to nationals?

A: I’ve been planning on it since last year. Some of my friends from the team went last year and had a lot of fun. So, I’m really exciting to be going.

Q: So, some of the junior race fields are pretty small, would you like to see more kids trying your sport?

A: Yes. It’s more fun with more people.