King of the Ride: Ted King interviews Jessica Cerra

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Our new Best of Podcast series features full length edits of conversations previously only available in audio. In our first, we featured Mario Fraioli’s interview with Faith E. Briggs. Today, we spotlight an enlightening podcast between pro cyclists Ted King (host of King of the Ride) and Jess Cerra about becoming pro, entrepreneurship and overcoming enormous set-backs.

Ted’s Intro

Our guest today is Jess Cerra. Jess is a professional cyclist and a professional chef. She’s an entrepreneur, as the founder and owner of the energy bar company, JoJé. Jess is awesome. She is as friendly as she is thoughtful. She is as hard working as she is creative. In the world of professional cycling, especially the mandatorily-scrappy world of professional women’s cycling, you need to be crafty, and that is on display in her recent pivot to gravel. You also need to juggle many gigs, and we’re going to talk about that today. Jess has lots of stories of camaraderie, of her tremendous sense of teamwork, of recovery from some enormous setbacks. What I really enjoyed about this conversation was the refreshing feel of it, especially during these very weird times and the global pandemic. 

This summer, my wife Laura, baby daughter Hazel, and I were in Whitefish, Montana, visiting Jess and her boyfriend, Sam. We were masked up and socially distanced, but they still showed us around, and we had a great time. It’s a super cool town, that Whitefish. We explored the surrounding areas of Glacier National Park and shredded in, around, and on top of the Whitefish Ski Area. Jess and Sam have some very cool stuff up their sleeve.

A Whitefish Upbringing

Ted King: You were born and raised in Whitefish, Montana, but did not get into cycling until after you had left. Tell me about your upbringing – what’s it like growing up in Whitefish?

Jess Cerra: This is a cool story. My parents met at Colorado State in Fort Collins, and they got married and dropped out of school. My dad went to a log home building school in Canada. They saw pictures of 40 acres of land at the base of the mountains outside of Whitefish, and they bought the land based on the pictures. They drove their little hippie van over here, settled on that land, and recruited a bunch of their friends to come out to build a house. I was born in the trailer that was outside of that log house build.

It’s surprising that I didn’t find cycling sooner. I think most people who live in Whitefish come here because they want to be here. They love to ski, they love not seeing a lot of people, and they love being outside. I grew up with a spirit for adventure and being outdoors, but just didn’t specifically find the knack for cycling until I made my way to grad school.

Whitefish when your parents moved here is probably not Whitefish of today. What do you suppose the appeal was for your folks? What life was like then?

I think they were both drawn here because they grew up in cities. My dad grew up in Chicago.  He used to go to a lake with his dad every summer in the mountains, and he always wanted to live in the mountains. My mom grew up in different cities across the world because her father was involved in the oil industry. I think living in cities is what drew them to Colorado for school. They had some friends who had told them about Montana and Glacier National Park, and they were just sold on the land. It’s funny, because now that I come back once a year, it’s like seeing a person once a year, like, “Oh, your hair is long.” There are 100 new buildings and all of these things happening in town. I guess at some point in time someone told their friend, and they told their friend, then it was in a magazine, and now it’s really expanded.

Growing up, what were you into? 

I was mostly into outdoor stuff. I was on the Nordic ski team when I was little. My dad worked on the ski mountain, so I used to sleep in the Chair Three shack and ski during the day. I loved hiking. I pursued exercise physiology in school because I knew I wanted to be in that sort of environment, in a career sense. I didn’t want to be stuck in an office. 

Anal Thermometer: How Grad School led to Biking

How did you segue exercise physiology into professional cycling. Often, it’s the opposite where people are into cycling, but haven’t figured out a career.

Right, and that’s interesting because there were points in my career where I was kicking myself for not having found cycling earlier. But I went to grad school because in undergrad I realized I wanted to pursue a PhD. When I started the program, there were already IRB-supported studies in place. That’s the internal review board that reviews all research, and it’s hard to get these protocols past them. This one study was already set up, and the money was there. They were looking at elite male cyclists, how they lost calcium through sweat, and how that contributed to bone density. It was my job to get male cyclists to come to a lab multiple times for $200 and ride a bike in an environmental chamber with all these patches on their skin so I could collect their sweat. Here’s the kicker. Back when I was in grad school, there was not a nice little tablet you swallowed to measure core temperature. You had to measure it with an anal thermometer that you inserted yourself. It’s not short. It’s got to measure your core temperature, not the surface, so you had to get it in there. Then you have to ride the bike with that hanging out of your butt. So clearly, every male cyclist was lining up outside the door.

The cyclists would ask me if I had tried it, so my mentor professor told me that I had better put myself through the study. To measure my baseline for the study, I did a VO2 max test in tennis shoes on a lab bike. I had a VO2 max of 74 milliliters per kilogram per minute. I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s a very high VO2 max for a female on a bike. My professor was on a mountain bike team, and she asked me to come out and ride with them. She gave me her aluminum Elsworth, which was the super old, funky bike company in San Diego, and I started riding with them. Everything about it was natural. It was like I found what I was supposed to be doing and why I was drawn to the outdoors. That’s how it all started.

So you finished your degree in 2007. You find you have a massive VO2, and you get into cycling. What was the trajectory from there? 

I don’t even think I really understood what road racing was at that point. In San Diego, I had seen the curved bar bikes out on the road, and that wasn’t a huge thing in Montana, but I thought it looked cool. However, my professor was a mountain biker, and she encouraged me to do a mountain bike race. Back then, the categories were beginner, sport, and elite. I did a sport level race and was on the podium, and it was fun. Then I was at the gym reading an outdoor magazine, and I read about the XTERRA Off-Road Triathlon. The World Championship in Hawaii descended down a volcano, and there was a story about this person who had crashed and got the nickname “Meatloaf Head.” For some reason, that sounded amazing to me. I really wanted to do that race. 

Were you immediately pursuing those races?

The problem was that I didn’t really know how to swim. I needed to add that element in. My professor, Simon Marshall, is married to Lesley Patterson, who is a three times XTERRA world champion. I had seen her picture in his office, and she looked really intense. So I timidly went in there one day and asked if she coached. He invited me to ride with them that weekend, and we hit it off right away. Then I met Lesley at a pool, and learned that I needed a cap and goggles and other things for swimming. You don’t just show up and swim. Lesley grew up in the sport in Scotland and had a really intense upbringing in it. She was looking for something a little more casual like XTERRA now that she was living in San Diego. 

We trained together and did our first race together. It was a race that was so hot that they called for a no wetsuit swim. I didn’t have a triathlon suit, so I swam in my bibs and a sports bra, full of water. It was horrible. I thought I was going to drown. But I changed into a different kit in the transition area, and because it was so hot, I had a cooler full of cold drinks.  Everyone else was gone, and I was wondering, “Where is everybody?” I found them all passed out on the side of the road while I had my ice cold water and my nice, comfortable kit. I ended up on the podium, and that race was a qualifier for Worlds. The deal was done. I was in. 

How a Rare Condition Led to Road Racing

How long does a person race a pro-XTERRA career? How did you segue that to road racing?

It’s a little bit like the gravel world. Everyone has their own private team sponsor model, very similar to regular triathlon. I think XTERRA is probably lower on the totem pole though. For me, it was a career on the side while I was creating my private chef company. That was where I was making my money, and XTERRA was my passion. 

I started having a lot of problems with my right leg. There was a day when I was running a hill repeat workout, and I ended up laying on the side of the trail. I thought I was going to need to call an ambulance. I couldn’t feel my right leg, but at the same time, it was really painful. We assumed that it was a running injury. I took 12 weeks off from running, but the same thing happened on the first run back. I started going to all of these doctors and had all of these tests done, compartment syndrome, MRIs, nerve studies, but they couldn’t figure it out. Then I found Dr. Richburg in San Diego. He said he had seen something similar in elite male cyclists called iliac artery endofibrosis, but that he’d be surprised if that was it because I was new to cycling, and I was young. He sent me to see this radiologist who could test for it on the bike. So I saw the radiologist. This, by the way, is the short version of about a year and a half of a lot of pain and suffering, and I raced through a lot of this. 

So the radiologist had me go as hard as I could on the bike until I couldn’t feel my leg. Then I got on a table, and they tried to take the systolic blood pressure at my ankle. I didn’t even have one. It didn’t even exist. Then we did some CAT scans with my legs crunched up in a cycling position. The radiologist said he estimated that my artery on that side had kinked over to the point where I had about 10 to 12% of blood flow in that leg. It was so bad that I probably would have had to have the surgery even if I didn’t continue in the sport. But at that point, I was so laser focused on what was going to happen after the surgery that I just got it done. It was an invasive surgery, and I took a really slow comeback. I stayed off the trails for a while and started riding more on the road. I started to really like it and was encouraged by a bunch of the local guys to try doing some road racing. That’s pretty much how I got into it.

That is your atypical entry into pro cycling. I am sympathetic to iliac artery endofibrosis. My brother had the surgery. In the sport of cycling, people either know it or don’t know it. It’s pretty  frightening, and you have had two of these surgeries, correct?

Yep, I had my left leg done in 2015.

Are you predisposed to it? Have they decided what causes it?

I’ve been trying to figure that out, and my vascular surgeon has tried to piece it together. A lot of people know that I’ve had the surgery. I’ve talked to a lot of cyclists about it. Jacob Rathe and Emma Grant both saw my surgeon. I think it has something to do with autoimmune disorders. Both of them have Raynaud’s and I have Hashimoto’s, which is a thyroid disorder, so there’s something going on with our circulation to begin with. Your psoas muscle gets big and pushes on that artery. If you have an inflammatory response, like an autoimmune disease would cause, the artery thickens to protect itself. When it starts to thicken too much, it closes and sometimes will kink over. I have no scientific evidence to back up that theory, but I feel like it has to have something to do with it.

The Moonshine of Encinitas: Gigs to Pay the Bills

I’m going to switch topics. I would call professional female cycling as a gig economy, like you have many gigs to make it work. You talked about your catering career. At what point did that enter the picture?

It was yet another accident that wasn’t planned. Once I decided that I wasn’t doing a PhD, I applied for a full-time job managing a large health study at UCSD. We worked closely with a part-time nutritionist who was a private chef. She and I gravitated towards each other because we would often bring elaborate lunches to work while other people were eating out. She asked me if I wanted to be an assistant at the private parties she catered in her clients’ homes, so I started doing that with her. She ended up getting married and moving away, and I inherited her clients. 

Specifically, I inherited two incredible clients who I worked for in their homes for the next nine years. Through them, I met other clients until I had five to six consistent clients that I managed. I would cook all of their meals Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and then dart off to stage races. My rest days were always 14-hour cooking days on my feet. I would come home from Redlands and be in the kitchen all day. I thought if I could just get out of that cycle and not be so tired all the time, I would do better. I got my first pro contract with Twenty Sixteen, which is now Twenty20, and that’s when I had my other artery surgery. 

So the path didn’t go the way that I thought. But through this experience, I learned a lot about applying the nutrition that I had studied to sport. Those are two really different things. You can be very knowledgeable and know everything in the books, but once you actually have to apply it, you learn so much. I felt like there was something missing in that market for nutrition. I’m into real food. I’ll actually pay a little more money for real food. I also like things that taste good. I’m not the type of person that just wants to shove gels down my throat. I really think that when you’re putting better things in your body, it’s easier to absorb, and you’re a better machine. 

I created JoJé bar, which is my energy bar company, and that ended up being a segue into other markets. Before I knew it, I became the go-to chef for Triathlete Magazine and Women’s Running magazine. That led to catering camps and catering for Cervélo, a big bike company, for a long time. That’s just how it happened.

When was JoJé founded?

In my kitchen in 2010, but that was just a project to make cookies for the bike. That was my plan. 

It’s no small feat to go from that to SKUs, UPCs, and getting product into shops. When did you become a legitimate, nationwide business?

People were bootlegging the bars under the counter at bike shops. It was like the moonshine of Encinitas. I realized that I could not bake bars till two o’clock in the morning anymore. My idea was to find a commercial kitchen, because that was what I thought would be the next step. I talked to some of my clients who own part of Sun Foods. They told me I needed to find a co-packing facility instead. 

We found a co-packing facility in San Diego which was way easier than I thought it would be. We shared equipment and ingredients with another bar manufacturer. We just started at a low level, using clear packages, labels slapped on. It grew to the point where we needed a legitimate business plan, and JoJé was born. It was going to be called Harmony Bar, but we lost that name in trademarking. There are no words left. Every word is trademarked, so the name was made up. 

Then it just became like my chef work. I already had contacts in magazines and with races and athletes. The company started growing. The big jump for us was when we got REI. I actually went on to LinkedIn and found the buyer. He went to Montana State, which was our huge football rivalry. I messaged him, but you get so much spam on LinkedIn, I didn’t think he would respond. I told him who I was, that I made this product, and that I wanted to get in his hands. Then I added, “I’m really sorry that you’re a Bobcat. I don’t know if I can trust you with it.” Turns out, he thought that was great. He said that he did get so much spam, but it was cool that I was from Montana. So it was luck that we got into that store. We’re growing slowly, and I’m proud of the progress so far.

Wins and Crashes: On Going Pro

Let’s now talk about cycling. You said 2016 was your first pro year. Give me the arc of your cycling career from 2016 through 2020.

I came into the scene really hot. I was getting real good results before I was on pro teams. I think I beat every pro team at San Dimas. I walked over to some of the team tents and asked if I could send my resume. Everyone said to me, “You’re already on our list.” I got offers from every team, but what Nicola and Mari offered me was a chance to go to Europe with the national team in the beginning of 2015. 

I don’t really consider myself as someone who has an ego. I’m usually the type of person who is worrying about other people, but I really thought that I was good. I really thought that I wanted to go to the Olympics. I wanted to be the next Evie Stevens, and I think I had the capability to do it, but it didn’t work out like that. I’m actually glad now because the experiences that I’ve had have led me to where I am. 

I started racing for that team and had the iliac artery surgery off the gun. I missed team camp and was completely devastated. I came back from the second surgery way too fast. I ended up racing Redlands about 10 weeks after the surgery. Well, I raced three stages of it, and then I was out. That whole year led me into a downward spiral of being overtrained, injured and not knowing what I was doing. I didn’t have the maturity as an athlete yet to understand that it’s okay to take a break and come back strong rather than pushing it. I ended up getting sick and finding out I had the thyroid disorder. It was just a really, really hard year. 

But the team supported me, and they understood that the talent was still there. They brought me back on the team the next season, and we ended up going to Europe. I got the experience of racing all of the spring classics and Flanders. I hated it in the moment because it was so terrifying, so different, and so hard during an Olympic year, especially.

European racing is such a different sport.  It’s longer, harder, faster, and different.

That’s 100% accurate. It makes you so much better when you come back to America and you’re a huge road with only 80 people. We came back two days before Redlands. Flanders was on a Sunday, I think, and then Redlands started on Wednesday. There were five of us who came in to support Kristen Armstrong. She was going back for her bid for another gold medal in the time trial that year. I hadn’t really raced with her that much. I’d raced with her a little bit the prior year, but I sucked, so I don’t think she really knew who I was. 

We instantly clicked, like a “yellow jersey domestique” situation. I don’t know how I fell into that role. I think she really trusted me, and I had let go of wanting to be on the top. My body just wasn’t there. Kristen had told Nicola at one point that she wanted me to come to all the races, that she trusted me and felt safe around me. That meant a lot to me. At the next race, we headed over to the Tour of Gila, and there was a horrendous crash an hour into the first stage that completely demolished me. It was almost a career-ending crash.

That crash led to another surgery, correct?

That one led to three or four different surgeries. I also had surgeries in 2014, the year going into being pro. I was at the National Championship in the lead group of eight ladies. I was actually with Alison Powers, and we got dropped on the last 200 meters of the climb. At that point in time, I felt like I could descend as well as her, and we were around each other a lot in the peloton. We were taking pulls on the descent, and I rolled a tubular in the corner. Thankfully I did not crash her out. She went on to win the National Championship that day. 

I was really hurt from that crash. I had two surgeries on my collarbone. During the original one, the nerve Plexus was sewn into the sutures. Nothing is easy with me, Ted. If I’m going to have a collarbone surgery, I’m going to do it right. I’m going to get really messed up. The crash at the Tour of Gila was so painful, I did not know that I would race again. I didn’t ever want to be in pain like that again. But it got better, and my tenacity crept back in.

Cyclist Jess Cerra after surgery
Jess post clavicle repair surgery home resting and looking fabulous in May 2014   

Hagens Berman–Supermint had called me that summer and said they would match my salary, which was appealing. It seemed like an environment with a different sort of vibe and different teammates. I was ready for a change, so I moved over there. The team was in their sophomore year, and they were kind of underdogs. The second year I raced for them, I ended up winning the crit at Redlands. That was the first big win for that team, and I feel like we deserved it. After that, we were winning, winning, winning. We won Winston Salem that year, and it was just an amazing team to be a part of.

Switching from Road to Gravel

You have pivoted going into 2020. Welcome to gravel.

Thank you.

I should point out that you had some success at Rooted Vermont last year. Was that your first gravel event?

I won Belgian Waffle Ride (BWR) in 2013 on a road bike. But I don’t know if you can call that a pure gravel race. It was its second year, and we didn’t do Black Canyon back then. We did some other stuff. But yes, last year I snuck off to Rooted before the Colorado Classic. @laura texted me, “We’re doing this race. I don’t know if it fits in your schedule.” I’m so glad I said yes. It was the best event, and everybody should go to it. It’s amazing. 

Talk about the decision to leave road racing in 2020, from an emotional standpoint, but also the objective stuff.

When I was deciding, I didn’t know we were going to lose our title sponsor on Hagens Berman. It was just becoming too stressful to have someone else creating a schedule of when I was going to be gone. You’re on the road so much when you’re racing. I pretty much knew after Rooted that I wasn’t going to go back to road racing. Gravel felt like the right thing for me. It just fits my lifestyle and vibe more. I really want to be able to give back to the sport, and I know there’s a lot of women that are attracted to gravel and the inclusiveness of it. So that appealed to me, too. 

I approached Canyon Bicycles, because they’re in Carlsbad, local to Encinitas. They support a lot of our local teams. I pitched them some of my ideas, and they were on board. It’s nice to know that you have a big sponsor on board that can help you. In road racing, you’re always clinging to survive. You’re living month to month, and it’s really hard. You don’t ever really feel like you’re getting ahead, and I felt like with gravel, I had more of that opportunity. There’s also an opportunity to be part of a community that’s a little more close knit, and we work together in a different way. In road cycling, we each work independently. 

When you race for a professional, female cycling team, you’re at the behest of the team, you’re not earning much money, and you’re not really in any way moving ahead in life. With gravel, you’re creating camps, and it allows you to thrive with JoJé. Do you look at the decision to move to gravel as the right thing for your life, in general? 

You’re hitting the nail on the head, exactly. I think the one thing that was hard for me to turn off was the training that I used to do on the road. I came into the season way too hot, and it’s so easy to do in Southern California because everyone is flying by February. You get sucked in. But I think the pandemic has helped me let that go a little bit. 

Like I mentioned earlier, I want to give back in a real way, not just with an Instagram post. Hosting a female gravel camp was the first thing we did, as well as work within a group in Encinitas to expand on a woman’s ride. We were going to offer an in-person speaker series, but we turned it into a webinar series. I find that it’s very natural right now to be approachable and welcoming, and I’m able to balance my time. I think it’ll be different next year when we all go back to traveling again, but this year was a nice intro to how to manage my time. 

Pondering “What if?”

Do you ever think back to what if you had stayed in academia? Or what if you had gone headlong into catering? Where do you suppose your life would be if you decided to not take your temperature that day and do the VO2 test?

I feel like, somehow, I would have found bikes. I’d be really sad without bikes. I wasn’t before I found them, but now that I know what they are, I just can’t imagine. I think we all get lost in that daydream scenario of “what if.” What if I had moved to this town instead of this town? Or what if I didn’t go to that group ride and meet my boyfriend, Sam? 

I think I probably would have done the same thing that my research mate did. She started to pursue her PhD, but she was so burnt out from her Master’s that she abandoned it after a semester. She ended up becoming a wonderful mom, and she shows Bernese Mountain Dogs. That’s what she got into. I feel like I would have found something else. 

I also do the scenarios of what if I had never broken my collarbone? What if I was a completely different human without crap arteries? I can’t help but think that way, but I feel really grateful and really, really happy to be where I am right now. It sounds like such an arbitrary thing to say, but I actually feel like it wasn’t just about luck. There was definitely a lot of thought and hard work, and a huge community of support and really wonderful people who believed in me for a long time, even when I had a lot of crappy things happen to me. I’m grateful.

Thoughts on the Future

So let’s go full circle. Home for you now is Southern California. Where is Whitefish on your radar?

I think that Sam and I are ready to make a switch. Part of it is affordability in California. It’s crazy. And it’s just a crazy place to be during in the pandemic. The pandemic causes the worst or the best to come out in people, and the reason why everyone’s visiting small towns is because they’re a nicer place to be. That said, the winters in Whitefish are going to be an adjustment. I know there are people to get out with. You always have that buddy who’ll ride with you in -10 degrees, or whatever stupid thing you have on tap. The other nice thing is Sam’s family will be retiring in Encinitas. They are building a retirement home with a guest house, which could be a December-January house for Sam and Jess. 

We’ll go to our final three questions. One, where is your favorite place to ride a bicycle? Two, what is the number one place that you would like to ride a bike that you’ve never ridden. Three, favorite person you would like to go ride your bicycle with, living or otherwise?

My favorite place to ride truly is Whitefish. I always look forward to coming here. It’s hard to find a better “road” road than Going-to-the-Sun Road.

I have always wanted to ride in Switzerland the most. I’ve read some pretty cool articles about cycling tours there and some roads, but I would take some of the iconic routes in France, too. 

My favorite person to ride a bike with is Sam, however, Laura is creeping up in the competition. It’s hard to find people who are just easy to ride with. You’re not waiting for them, and they’re not waiting for you. You have a similar style and capabilities. It turns out that Laura and I are really good riding buddies, so I’m going to be sad when you guys leave.

Huckleberry Expert

What else is going on this fine evening?

Well, you guys wanted heat so I made sure it was blazing this week. Maybe we should take a dip in the lake and get huckleberry ice cream. 

Let’s talk huckleberries real quick. I’ve never had a huckleberry until I had faux huckleberry ice cream, which had aquaberry flavoring and blueberries as the faux huckleberries. Describe a huckleberry to me.

I need to redeem this ice cream situation. It’s really bothering me, actually. Huckleberries grow in the mountains. They look like a blueberry but smaller, and they have a tartness to them like a raspberry. They’re really unique, and they’re delicious. You can pick them on the trails here. We’ve seen a few people picking huckleberries with the buckets, and I used to do that when I was little. My mom said she just sat me under a bush all day, and I would have a purple mouth and purple fingers. 

I’m completely picturing a blackberry.

I put that in your head when I said, “If a blueberry and raspberry had a baby,” and you thought Blackberry. 

Well, they are the unofficial fruit of Montana. You see huckleberry signs everywhere, huckleberry beer, huckleberry ice cream, huckleberry shakes. Maybe our next product will be a huckleberry Untapped waffle. Well, I appreciate your tour-guiding throughout the past five days. 

Thank you. You guys should come back every year.

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