At 16, Claire Van Ekdom has it all figured out. The Chevy Chase resident maintains a near-perfect grade point average, hoping to attend Stanford University or the U.S. Naval Academy, where she’ll work toward becoming a doctor.
In Van Ekdom’s mind, only her other passion — cycling — might delay those plans. Spending up to 18 hours a week on a bike, she has ample time to mull the future. The possibilities keep her motivated as she breezes along her favorite bike paths through the summer heat.
Last month, Van Ekdom, a rising junior at Georgetown Day, won two of three races in her age group at the USA Cycling Junior Road National Championships in Augusta, Ga. Last week, she was in Quebec for her first race outside of the United States. Despite bike troubles on the first day, she rebounded to win two stages in her age group at the Tour of Rimouski, which featured an international field of top junior riders.
“I really want to be an orthopedic surgeon,” Van Ekdom said before an afternoon training ride in Bethesda this month, “but you know, there’s a lot of time for that.”
Van Ekdom’s cycling career began five years ago when a neighbor, Frank Loversky, suggested she try a spinning class at a local gym. Loversky had recently started a junior cycling group and with just a handful of riders, he was eager to recruit.
Within a year, Van Ekdom was racing regularly and already established as the group’s most promising female rider.
“She had the heaviest, clunkiest bikes as a 12-year-old, and she was keeping up with the 13- and 14-year-old boys,” said Loversky, whose Rock Creek Velo club has grown to about 60 members ages 10 to 18. “She’s always worked hard and had some talent. . . . She just outgrinds everybody.”
Van Ekdom won’t be eligible to get her driver’s license until November, but she’s already made her mark on cycling at the national level. A member of the Olympic development pool, she’s rated by USA Cycling as a category 3 rider (Category 1’s are the professionals) and has hopes of moving up in the coming year.
Even though Van Ekdom doesn’t log her miles, Loversky estimates she does 200 to 300 miles in five or six sessions a week, which vary in distance and pace to promote different skills. With Rock Creek Velo, she trains alongside the boys to maximize her competition, and she’s also had help from D.C. Velo, an all-male team that has produced several national champions.
“It feels great,” Van Ekdom said of trying to keep up with the D.C. Velo pack. “I mean, physically it’s terrible, but emotionally you feel like you accomplished a lot.”
A year ago, Van Ekdom headed to the national championships hoping to contend for the time trial title.
As she warmed up for the race, a white Jeep going at least 55 mph clipped her from behind and sped away. She flew into the mud by the roadside, and a husband and wife passing by in their car prayed over her until help arrived.
Van Ekdom spent the night in the hospital but escaped without any broken bones or long-term injuries. On the car ride home, she told her father, Barry Ekdom, that she would be back to claim two of the Stars-and-Stripes jerseys presented to race winners.
On June 20, she took the first step, edging friend Laurel Rathbun of Colorado at the line of the road race. She finished the 55-kilometer course in 1 hour 43 minutes 6 seconds. A day later, she completed the 19-kilometer time trial in 30:01, a remarkable 55 seconds better than anyone else in the field.
“Guess what? She came home with two shirts,” Barry Ekdom said, chuckling at his daughter’s bold promise. “She earned them because she worked her tail off.”
Van Ekdom has plenty of time to figure out how far she can go in cycling. The sport’s top riders usually don’t begin to peak until their mid-20s, but boosted by the strong start, she has added racing in the collegiate national championship and competing on the pro circuit to her list of goals.
A mention of the Olympics brings an easy smile that reveals her braces. She’d rather just have fun and take it one step at a time.
“It can get so competitive” at the top levels, Van Ekdom said. “I just love going fast and pushing myself, physically. This is the sport that combines it the best.”