Standout Avanell Scales shines in cylocross

On Sunday, Williamsburg BikeBeat manager Avanell Scales will sit-in on piano at KirkWood Presbyterian Church of Yorktown.

Scales serves as the church's backup pianist, but on most Sundays, the reigning Cyclocross National Championship winner for her 30-34 age group is mastering her cycling craft on race day or in training.

Avanell's husband, Chris Scales, once heard a race promoter exclaim that she rides like a man, a sincere compliment, and one so seemingly unlikely for a former Longwood University music major. Except Avanell approaches music, cycling and anything else she tackles the same way: She wants to be the best and will not quit until she is satisfied with her performance.

A standout athlete and musician at Denbigh High, the former Avanell Schmitz initially declined to play field hockey because she didn't want to wear a skirt. The 5-foot-3-inch softball catcher settled on goalkeeper and ultimately played in net for Longwood.

"The tenacity and ferocity that she has on the bike," Chris said, "and then you sit and listen to her play piano. They are so diametrically opposed. One is just flowing and graceful; I guess maybe they are the same. Both are flowing and graceful. Of course in cycling, you are trying to rip the legs off the opponent."

Avanell and Chris say their lives revolve around cycling, but not their relationship, although their first date was a mountain bike ride. Then Chris proposed at the Tidewater Mountain Bike Challenge in Williamsburg, and they even raced together near Jamestown the day before their wedding in September 2014.

Chris said Avanell moves almost organically with the bike, but as graceful as she makes it look, Cyclocross can be a brutal endeavor.

Cyclocross Magazine refers to the growing discipline as not only a form of bike racing, but a lifestyle that involves "grabbing any bike and navigating any type of terrain or obstacle in the fastest and most efficient way possible."

Courses are usually off-road, but sometimes include pavement and often feature obstacles like mud, gravel and barriers that can require the rider getting off the bike and back on again. Races are based on a set time and measured by laps and not distance. There are lighter cyclocross-specific bikes, but novices can test the waters with hybrid, touring, mountain or road bikes.

"Cyclocross is all about getting out of your own head," Avanell said, "and hurting yourself as much as you can to finish."

"It's really painful while you're doing it," Chris said, "but it's just something that you want to do again, because it's so challenging."

Avanell's comfortable 54-second win Jan. 5 in the masters women 30-34 division at nationals in Hartford, Conn. was more challenging than the results indicate. Logging a winning mark of 40:46 and representing her Mermaid Winery road racing team, she overcame a second-lap crash on a steep hill. After stopping to untangle the bike's handlebars from race tape and re-buckle her shoes, she recorded consistent third and fourth laps to pull away on a frigid day.

The frozen ground helped Avanell ride a course levee that competitors in previous days' races had not been able to because of mud.

Waiting in the pit area after Avanell whizzed by and built a sizeable lead, Chris watched others in the pit pop up to peer over barriers wondering when the second-place rider was coming. It was that kind of dominating performance for Avanell, who was competing in nationals for the third time.

Chris, a Hampton native who won the Virginia Cyclocross Series title in 2014, heard an onlooker at a Richmond race describe Avanell as a "smooth" rider. A Cyclocross Magazine article used the same description.

Avanell's instinctive, fluid nature on her bike may be somewhat attributed to tagging along with older sister, Beneline, to races on more challenging terrain up and down the East Coast.

Their dad, Frank, rides too, and some of his competitiveness rubbed off on Avanell, according to her mother, Lynn.

Lynn said Avanell was always the adventurous type, climbing anything she could even as a toddler.

"She always is fully involved in whatever she does," Lynn said. "She takes it very seriously. She puts everything into it whether it was softball or swimming or cross country. Band, she always took it very seriously."

Natural ability only gets you so far. Avanell's training, often with personal coach, Mike Stoop, sets her apart.

"For a lot of people, that is the stumbling block," Chris said. "That means you're not drinking to excess, you're not eating to excess or partying. You're getting up and riding your bike and doing drills to hone that tip of the spear."

Cyclocross season gears back up in September and next year's nationals are in Reno, Nev. The dream for any serious Cyclocross rider, including Avanell, is to compete for an elite series national title. Delaware native Katie Compton secured her 13th consecutive women's elite title a few days after Avanell's win.

Avanell encourages anyone seeking to learn more about Cyclocross to talk to someone about the sport, amid what she called a welcoming community. She has worked at the Williamsburg BikeBeat on Monticello Avenue for the last year-and-a-half after moving from the Yorktown location at Kiln Creek Shoppes.

"You can be last or you can be first and everybody is out there encouraging you," Avanell said. "… The more people out there the better. That means there's more races and opportunities for growth."

Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.

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