The Interview: Lucia Deng, CRCA's Incoming President
We grabbed some time with CRCA President-elect Lucia Deng to discuss her background in cycling and her thoughts on the New York City cycling community as she takes the reigns of one of the largest and oldest cycling clubs in the entire country. A quick observation: despite CRCA being predominantly male (80%+), Lucia will be the third woman to lead the club in the last 5 years after current President Gabrielle Fisher and former President Liz Marcello (who we interviewed a few years ago).
Lucia’s Background in Cycling
I believe you came into CRCA via NYCC? What was your introduction into cycling and then bike racing like?
A: In 2006, I lived in upstate NY and my then boyfriend did a charity ride to benefit the Southern Tier Aids Program. I supported by driving a SAG car and taking pictures, but I had FOMO. So I bought a $700 road bike with bar-top brakes, trained a bit, and completed the 100 mile ride the following year (in the rain & wearing sneakers).
When I moved back to NYC, I googled “bike clubs” to find people to ride with and found the New York Cycle Club and the SIG program. It’s the most amazing (and totally volunteer run) recreational cycling devo program ever. I started out in the C-SIG, where we learned basic bike maintenance, about traffic safety & group riding etiquette and how to fuel for longer rides. Eventually, I graduated through the B and A Classic SIGs, each progressively faster and longer in distance, with more nuanced technique. Through some A-Classic graduates, I was introduced to CRCA and joined an open group ride to meet Evelyn Stevens, organized by the then NY Velocity women’s racing team. Inspired by her story, and promised a supportive and judgment-free practice race experience, I signed up for the CRCA Intro-to-racing Clinic in Central Park. Even though I got dropped from the leaders, I finished the race, and was hooked. My current teammate, Shane, who I didn’t know at the time, won that race.
You’ve also branched out into multiple disciplines - as a rider and racer where are you focused these days?
A: Focusing is a weakness of mine, I guess. Next year will probably go more or less the same as this year: see where my fitness and motivation are at come springtime, and go from there. I always plan to do as many CRCA Club & Open races as I can. Concurrent with road season, I also race at least a handful of mountain bike events with my off-road team, No.22 Racing, and then transition to cyclocross after the last Club race. I may also head back to the track, or guest lead some SIG rides. The variety (both in discipline and community) is what keeps me motivated, and the skills/fitness you pick up in one discipline can really up your game in another.
You’re coming off winning the 2018 CRCA Club Championship and Most Improved CRCA Rider - where does that put your on the bike goals for 2019?
A: I just asked my coach this very question! We agreed it was too early to talk about 2019, but the idea is to probably pick a couple of target races & maybe an out of town crit series for results. I am very close to Cat 2 on the road, and have had early season success in the past, so a result at Grant’s Tomb would be nice. I’m also very motivated by team goals, so depending on what everyone’s plans are at our preseason planning huddle, I’m looking forward to launching some teammates onto the podium or to an upgrade.
What is your favorite cycling race/event and why?
A: I’m biased, but I think the CRCA Women’s Club race series is the best event. I wrote about it here. The fact that I can ride to Central Park, go push my limits for over an hour, and then go home and take a nap before going about my Saturday, is incredibly satisfying. I also really enjoy the tactical aspect of the sport. So learning my competitors’ strengths and weaknesses, and trying to exploit them week after week on the same course all year long in a dedicated women’s field, is a lot of fun and an experience that only the CRCA provides in our region. If I had to pick an out of town event, it would be Killington Stage Race. It’s a really well run event, drawing big competitive fields, and has elements that any type of racer (climber, sprinter, time trial specialist) can do well in. Plus, any event in Vermont is de facto great.
Why Run for the President of CRCA?
I believe you’re one of the longest standing CRCA board members still involved in the Board, when did you join the board and what roles have you filled for the Club over the years?
A: I believe Rod Millott (former CRCA Prez & founder of KruisCx) talked me into running for the 2013 Board, as Communications Director. It was a good role for a newcomer because my job was primarily researching and writing blog posts about Club races and members, so I got to know people and how the Club was run. I returned as Comms Director, and then served as Director of Teams this year.
How hard is it to balance racing with all of the leadership expectations, especially as you step up to CRCA President for 2019?
A: Can I let you know in March? But seriously, for better or worse, each position is what you make of it. You can fulfill Board duties while also being an active racer, but a crucial aspect of it is learning to delegate, set boundaries, and problem solve as situations arise without getting worked up. We juggle this to some degree in our daily lives - it’s no different here. That said, it’s important to be realistic about the amount of time you have to give, and choose a role that’s the right fit in terms of your skills and interests. I am the most efficient and happy when I’m the right level of busy. I also like being in the loop and being part of the decision making process, so serving on the Board is a labor of love for the most part.
Take the Communications and Teams roles: they can primarily be done remotely, and involve lots of reading/writing, e-mails, and lots of delegation. The Teams role is almost entirely based on the ability to organize mass delegation of Club tasks throughout the year and liaising between team captains and the Board. My role as NYC Region Rep for NYSBRA mostly involves looking at upgrade requests as they come in, spot checking & communicating with the rider if I need more information from them or if they need additional explanations from me. The CRCA Board meets once a month and NYSBRA once a quarter. Most of this day-to-day stuff and the Board meetings (typically conducted virtually), take up very little time in the grand scheme of things. Communicating via e-mail, explaining rules to people and advocating for my POV is what I do for work as a transactional attorney, so it’s second nature. Also, I really do enjoy talking to racers and seeing them and their teams progress. Beyond those basic role-specific tasks, a Board member can choose to take on special projects (e.g. Randy, our membership director, building & rolling out online Club race check-in), and pitch in when others need help.
The things that feel like the biggest time suck are things that consume the most emotional energy, such as when there is disagreement among Board members, or if there is some internal or external challenge that ends up being blown out of proportion. It can take several days for everyone to get their viewpoints across, reframe arguments, or retract/explain statements that were not communicated clearly or kindly. Sometimes, a solution you think is so obvious is the exact opposite to someone else, or something you think is so simple is just not a priority for someone else. It can be hard to keep emotion out of it, or avoid perceiving a challenge to your ideas as a personal attack. But, I think if you have a team of adults who appreciate the value of each individual, and how much we rely on one another to accomplish this common goal, you can problem solve more collaboratively, avoid escalation, and end up fairly unscathed. I think the President can help set the tone for this. I’m planning to lean on Clay Jones, an expert in organizational health and our incoming Comms Director, for advice next year. If the Board ends up hating each other by the end of 2019, we can all blame him, surely.
What has your tenure on the Board taught you and what motivated you to run for the President role in 2019?
A: To be completely frank, the fear of no one running at all was probably the biggest motivator. The second was the people: knowing who was returning, and seeing who was volunteering for the first time, I felt confident that it would be a good team. I might as well serve when there is a slate of highly competent and likable people on deck.
I’ve seen a variety of personalities who’ve served on and led the Board. My philosophy on this role is that they need to 1) empower each individual Board member to autonomously & effectively manage their tasks, while also helping to fill any gaps, 2) encourage collaboration, diffuse conflict and be capable in crisis management, and 3) serve as primary advocate & spokesperson for the club. Our Club has seen some really good years of Board leadership recently. A lot of structural, technological and relational improvements have been made, so while it still take a lot of hard work by a lot of people, including each one of our members and staff & not just the Board, the foundation is there for a successful season ahead.
Is it a concern that there was only one contested role for the 2019 board? How do you think about approaching the apparent limited interest in leadership roles on the Board?
A: Yes. The uncertainty surrounding transition/institutional knowledge transfer and succession is stressful for the Board every year. We feel a personal responsibility to make sure the Club is in good hands. As it relates to CRCA specifically, but also more broadly of other leadership roles, like NYSBRA or even local/national politics, I think there is a general lack of transparency as to what we actually do - the nitty gritty stuff. The first question we always get when someone considers a position is, what is expected of me and what is the time commitment? We could do a better job of demonstrating what each role entails throughout the year. Maybe we can use technology to open up parts of our Board meetings and other processes. The more accessible we make ourselves, perhaps the more members will take interest, and think about how they could do a better job themselves. We should also re-think the Board’s role in the Club’s operations and how we can lessen the burden on our volunteers. More on that later.
Looking ahead at CRCA for 2019
As a racer and a long-time board member what do you think CRCA does well and what are areas for improvement?
A: CRCA excels in developing new racers (huge shout out to Tara Parsons, VP of Rider Dev, our Club Coaches, and our 40 Subteams), offering separate racing opportunities for women, and providing its members with consistent and quality race opportunities for a ridiculously low membership fee. I think the Club sets an example in terms of what we already do for our members and the bike racing community, and also in how open we are to feedback and agile in making changes in response. Each year presents its own sets of challenges, so we just need to continually remain open to making process-level improvements as needed.
What do you see as the biggest challenge for CRCA - not just for 2019 but in general?
A: I worry most about the sustainability of the almost entirely volunteer run structure of the Club, where the Board not only oversees the running of the Club, but where individual Board members are also expected to be in the weeds, executing events operations. This accelerates volunteer burnout, and makes for more difficult succession planning and continuity. Many not-for-profit organizations, for the size of our operations, would have a Board of Directors overseeing an executive director and other staff & volunteers, who execute event operations. When we expect a handful of people with full time jobs and a hobby which takes up most of their free time as it is, to then run an organization and all of its events at this scale on top of that - it’s too much.
That said, I also know that the community will not let the Club fail. So, while we are still looking for an Open Racing Director, I know we have people to lean on even if they are not officially serving on the Board. (HINT HINT: Anyone who is even remotely interested in growing into this position or getting involved in individual Open races, get in touch. You will have very knowledgeable and capable mentors who can guide you through the process).
What would you say are your major goals for CRCA in 2019 and how would you measure a successful year for the Club and the CRCA Board specifically?
A: After several years of growth-oriented goals, like expanding our Open Racing calendar and increasing the production value of our events, I’d like to focus more on sustainability. What can we do to spread out the labor? How can we better delegate and engage more of our members to get involved in ways that match member skill sets? What other processes can we outsource or streamline with technology?
Longer-term are there any changes that you think the Club should be considering? Introducing different racing formats (e.g. mass start/gran fondo), realigning how the Club is led and managed, etc?
A: While fondos, gravel grinders and other quasi-race events have become increasingly popular, CRCA is ultimately a club founded on a mission focused on bike racing. I also think what our members still want out of CRCA is the opportunity to race bikes in NYC in the traditional sense, where there is a winner of bragging rights (and maybe a large acrylic paperweight at the end of the year), and that should be our focus.
To try to address the sustainability problem, I think CRCA will need to seriously consider hiring a paid dedicated events operations manager(s) in the near future to manage the operations of running Open (and possibly club) races. CRCA has grown to the level of sophistication and has the ability to generate the financial means to shift race operations off of the backs of the volunteer Board members. If any member has connections or knows someone with experience running bike races or sports events operations generally, I’d love to speak to them to explore our options.
Thoughts on the NYC / NY / East Coast Cycling Scene
Between CRCA and NYSBRA you have been in leadership roles in some of the larger organizations in the sport. With that experience in mind what do you think NYC / NY racing does well and what does it do poorly?
A: With NYC having probably the highest concentrations of type-A personalities, we are constantly chasing the bigger better deal. We’re good at looking for ways to improve, maximizing efficiency and quickly adapting to change. However, this Club-, team- and self-centeredness may make us, as individuals and as a community especially in the road racing scene, seem unapproachable. We should reflect on how we were made to feel welcome or unwelcome when we first entered the sport, and how we can each be better ambassadors for the sport and our community. NYCC requires each SIG graduate to commit to leading at least one group ride for the club as a way to give back. Each CRCA member should also commit to being a mentor to a new racer, or at the very least, saying hello and being kind to new faces who show up to the start line or to spectators who may be future bike racers.
You have witnessed and spoken out about topics ranging from gender bias to race schedules and upgrade procedures. Which of those topics do you see as most pressing and how can they be addressed?
A: All of it. All of these issues need to be constantly looked at and tweaked. Our sport and racer demographics are constantly changing and so should any rule, tradition, process, or incumbent in a leadership role, that is no longer keeping up. I think the crux of addressing these issues is the recruitment of new voices and new leaders throughout the sport, from sub-team leadership all the way up to USAC leadership. I recently wrote about this need for fresh and diverse perspectives, and ways to get involved. If you can’t be a leader, at least make your voice heard. We’ve seen that change can happen if enough people openly push for it.
If you could change any one thing about the local cycling community/scene, what would it be?
A: A big disadvantage unique to NYC is means of transportation outside of the city. I wish we had more inexpensive & farther reaching bike friendly public transportation infrastructure that could allow folks in NYC to explore more and travel to races outside our region. It would likely draw more people into our sport, and more participation could lead to changing attitudes about the value of cycling more broadly.
What is your favorite aspect of the NYC cycling community and local racing scene?
A: Our diversity. We have every type of cyclist in NYC. Everyone can find or create their tribe. We have such a tremendous wealth of humans to draw from, so we should take full advantage of that.