Happier than a tornado in a trailer park, is a colloquial expression that could easily be applied to Lauren Hall (Optum Procycling), winner of the 3rd edition of Gent-Wevelgem. For the Mississippi native; however, being so happy that you want to pick things up and throw them around speaks less to what she has achieved on the road, or for that matter on the pines, in her young and upstart professional cycling career, but more so to the fact that she has accomplished what most people spend a lifetime doing; finding (or having the courage to pursue) what makes them happy.
A stellar soccer player at Mississippi State University, Lauren’s future seemed preordained for a lifetime of slide tackles, yellow cards, and nutmegs. But after toiling around in the semi-professional ranks, she decided to go down a different albeit wide path, which eventually narrowed straight into her local bicycle shop.
Eager to learn and blessed with speed to burn, Lauren quickly rose up through cycling’s ranks. In a span of five years, she has garnered two US National Track Championships, placed second in both the US National Road and Criterium Championships, guided Mara Abbott to her second Giro Rosa victory, and taken home the trophy from one of cycling’s most storied cobbled venues.
In Part I of my conversation with Lauren Hall, we discuss her Mississippi roots, where she sees herself among other great Mississippi athletes, and her Gent-Wevelgem victory.
Lenny B (LB): What is the best thing about being from Mississippi?
Lauren Hall (LH): I love my southern roots; I love the food, the culture, the family ties, and the outdoors. My dad enjoys listening to blues music and I like the fact that music originated from the Delta. I also like to entertain folks by letting them know that some of the best athletes that the NFL had were from MS (Jerry Rice, Brett Favre, my grandfather) 😉 and hopefully myself 🙂 I’m a proud Southerner; I love my accent and love my family that still calls MS home.
LB: Wait, did you just include yourself in that elite group of athletes of Favre, Rice and your grandfather? HA. What sport did your grandfather play?
LH: I sure did! I had to go back and look, there are a couple others to mention – Walter Payton, Archie Manning, Steve McNair, Eli Manning. My grandfather played in the NFL in the late 1930’s for the St. Louis Rams and for the first 49ers team.
LB: That is some serious name dropping. Where in that pantheon of greats will the name Lauren Hall go when it is all said and done?
LH: Well I guess that’s because I don’t know many women athletes from MS that have made it a profession, maybe that’s my fault for not doing more research. But since I didn’t name any ladies, I’m sure all those wonderful southern gentlemen wouldn’t mind my name being first.
LB: What are some of the more popular misconceptions that you have heard or read about being from the South/MS…what is your favorite…what is the worst?
LH: That we are all obese, lazy, sweaty rednecks who shop at Walmart. My favorite has to be the southern hospitality and they are all right, we are friendly, inviting, inquisitive and we say, ‘bless your heart’ when something is wrong.
LB: Now that you live/train in Colorado, what are some of the things that you miss about MS…some of the things that you don’t miss?
LH: I miss my family most of all. My mom and dad are still in Vicksburg, MS, my oldest brother, his wife and my nephew are in northern MS and my middle brother and his wife and my niece are in Asheville, N.C. My aunts and uncles that are still there… I don’t miss the mosquitoes, the humidity and heat. I don’t miss the critters, bugs and snakes!
LB: Where does the smile come from, after all isn’t the sport of cycling supposed to be about how much you can suffer? How would your parents, friends and/or teammates describe you?
LH: I grew up thinking I would be a professional soccer player, I played at Mississippi State University on a full scholarship and played semi-professional for a year and just assumed I would be given an opportunity to play professionally. I really didn’t have a plan B. I finished my undergrad degree but didn’t think much past it and when the opportunity never arrived, I was a bit lost. I continued to exercise and then continued my education; I’ve got my culinary arts degree from Le Cordon Bleu and my Masters of Science in Management and ran a marathon with my brother. But I missed the team aspect of life. I wasn’t getting it in the work environment and the marathon was mostly solo training, so when I found cycling and was asked to be a part of a team again, I think it made me really happy. Then I realized I was pretty good and pursued the professional athlete lifestyle again. So all that to say that I’m so happy all the time because I now know this small slice of my life won’t last forever and I’m loving every minute of it. I’m happier now more than ever. My family loves coming to the races, mom and dad enjoy the travel, enjoy watching my career progress and it is an opportunity to get the family together across the US and they get to see new towns and cities, so it’s a bit of a journey together.
I would say that my family, friends and teammates would describe me as a laid back, happy, hard headed, driven person. Off the bike I’m laid back and enjoying life at a relaxed pace but once on the bike I’m out for blood and would die for a teammate.
LB: Favorite memory, if any, from the Egg Bowl?
LH: Egg Bowl memories will always revolve around a Thanksgiving meal, both my brothers and my dad (he went to Ole Miss as well) heckling me when U of M is winning and me giving it right back when MSU is winning. No one particular game sticks out though, it will always be the rivalry that is freshest in my mind.
LB: What position did you play in soccer? How, if any, did your exploits on the pitch translate over to cycling?
LH: I was left footed and fast, so left midfield or defense. I think a lot of soccer translates into cycling, being calm when others are basically crawling all over you, sharing the wins and losses as a team even though one person scores the goals and one person is the last line in defense and being able to see what will happen next. Also, dealing with a change of plans on the fly, all these things translate extremely well to cycling.
LB: Do you still follow the sport? Who is your choice for the World Cup?
LH: Not really actually but I love watching the game when it’s on TV. As far as the World Cup, how ‘bout the US?
LB: Do you still have time to employ your culinary arts degree when you are not racing? What is your favorite thing to make…to eat? Is there any hope for a tasty (-ier) energy bar?
LH: I love to cook but now it’s not near as rich and creamy as we learned in school or what you see in a restaurant… I still have to watch my weight! I love baking honestly, so Thanksgiving and Christmas are wonderful times. My brother (another chef) and I make most of all the meals for the family during our time at home, which I absolutely love.
I’m sure there are plenty enough energy bars out there that I don’t need to throw my two cents in.
LB: Where does Gent-Wevelgem win rank on your palmares?
LH: Gent is at the top right now…being a member of the winning Giro Rosa team is second and being a National Champion on the track and on the Nationals podium numerous times is probably third. Gent-Wevelgem was massive!
LB: What was it like being in the final selection at G-W? Had you raced enough against those in the lead group to feel confident about your chances of a victory? When did it finally sink in that you won one of the great cobbled Belgian Spring Classics?
LH: The break went out pretty easily but Kirsten Wild wasn’t happy about it at all and from what I’m told, she was trying to bring it back for a while, keeping us at 20-30 seconds but as soon as she went back to the car or to get more riders, the break time blew out to over a minute. Once there was 20k to go, I knew this was the selection. We were working well together until 5k to go and just from pulling through in the group, I could determine who was going to be the stronger girls. I only knew Leisbet De Vocht so I knew she was gunning for the win here on her home soil but I could also tell Vera Koedooder was one to watch, she was riding really strong as well.
It didn’t sink in until the 2 other girls that were on the podium were putting on make-up and said that this was going to be on national TV. I wasn’t too worried; it wasn’t going to be on US national TV, my hair looked good, I was okay.
In Part II of my conversation with Lauren Hall, we discuss racing in the Stars and Stripes, the future of women’s cycling, and why Tim Reynolds should be looking over his shoulder.
Photos: Sam Weibe (top); © Marck Van Hecke (bottom)