Maria Larkin clears some air during a 2014 cyclocross race. Credit: Peggy Keiner

Maria Larkin is trying to nail this bunny hop. Not the easy kind, where you pull your whole bike off the ground in one swift jump. Larkin, an elite racer who came up through Chicago’s bike scene, mastered that one long ago. On a recent Wednesday night in Humboldt Park, Larkin was aiming for the harder kind, the kind that allows you to jump over even bigger hurdles.

“You’re limited in how high you can pull your feet up,” she explained, attempting to clear a temporary barrier made from PVC piping. 

With this kind of bunny hop you use your upper body to pull the front wheel off the ground. Then, while the front wheel is still suspended, you scoop up the rear wheel in an elegant swoosh. 

But Larkin couldn’t quite make it stick, despite the encouragement of a few Lycra-clad friends who’d gathered for their weekly skills practice. Larkin competes in cyclocross, an off-road cycling discipline where racers ride through a closed course of dirt, sand, and grass.They shoulder their bikes to jump over barriers and other obstacles midcourse, or to run up stairs or hills too steep to ride. (Cyclocross is often compared to the equally obscure equestrian discipline of steeplechase, if that helps.)

The bike-obsessed Belgians invented the sport to give them something to do during the harsh winter off-season; cyclocross racers are like mailmen, competing in rain, snow, sleet, and hail. Bike handling is especially crucial under these conditions; a racer can save precious seconds by bunny hopping an obstacle rather than dismounting her bike.  

And Larkin needs those precious seconds. That’s because Wednesday night she’ll compete in the biggest race of her life: the UCI World Cup race at Cross Vegas. The race is one of just eight on the prestigious cyclocross World Cup calendar this season, and the only one in the U.S. Timed to coincide with the annual industry gathering at Interbike, the race will draw spectators from all over bikedom, as well as the world’s top professional cyclocross racers. Larkin is the first Chicagoan reared on local racing to compete in a cyclocross World Cup race. And although she’s ranked 111th in the world, her competition at Cross Vegas includes number one world-ranked Belgian Sanne Cant, number two-ranked Czech Katerina Nash, number four-ranked British national champion Helen Wyman, and American Olympian Georgia Gould, among others.

No pressure.

Unlike most of her competition, Larkin isn’t a professional athlete. Think of women’s professional cycling like the WNBA; female athletes in the sport face skimpier paychecks, fewer opportunities, and less visibility than is available to their male counterparts. So like many of her peers, Larkin holds down a day job, in her case as an architect. (Her firm, Chicago-based Sheehan Partners, designs buildings that house high-security server farms.) She gets some discounts through her club team, the Chicago Cuttin Crew, and through her husband, Kyle Hagerman, who works as a professional bike mechanic. Otherwise she pays for equipment, travel, training, and other expenses out of pocket. That includes her new Kona bike, which she estimated cost close to $5,000. 

Larkin, left, came up through Chicago’s local racing scene.Credit: Luke Batten

“That’s not including tubular wheels,” she said, referring to wheels with glued-on tires favored by cross racers, “Which is another investment that for regular humans is $3,000 to $5,000 per set.” 

Racing solo at the international level means that Larkin also lacks the kind of entourage many pro racers have. Instead Larkin is traveling to Cross Vegas with her unofficial support network: teammates Daphne Karagianis, who will act as Larkin’s manager, and Mia Moore, who will serve as pit mechanic. (If Larkin blows a tire or suffers another mechanical problem, Moore can swap out her wheels or otherwise repair her bike midrace.) 

“It takes a village sometimes, it really does,” says Karagianis, who showed up at the park in full kit to cheer Larkin on and who recently returned from her own bout against the road pros at Vermont’s Green Mountain Stage Race. During the Vegas trip she’ll make sure Larkin is fed, watered, and well rested. But she’s also providing the hard travel case Larkin needs to ship her bike. 

“She’s even borrowing my compression tights and socks,” Karagianis says. “We all need to come together to make it seamless.” 

But Larkin’s biggest hurdle has at times been negotiating the reluctant support of her home country. Larkin is an Irish citizen and American green-card holder who first moved to the U.S. in 2009 and stayed for good after she and Hagerman married in 2013.

Because Larkin is an Irish citizen, the gatekeeper to all World Cup races is Cycling Ireland, the country’s governing body for the sport. Critics accuse Cycling Ireland of setting an unreasonably high bar for its athletes to enter international competition; for women, this means placing in the top eight at a top-tier international race while finishing within 12 percent of the winner’s time, or placing in the top six at a second-tier international race, finishing within 10 percent of the winner’s time. Technical specs aside, Cycling Ireland provoked anger in January after it elected not to send national champions Fran Meehan and David Montgomery on to Worlds, citing those athlete’s failure to meet the specified requirements. 

Larkin placed second at Irish nationals, fighting through a kind of deep mud unknown even to rainy Chicago summers. And although her podium finish—her highest-placing to date—put her on the radar, she feared it wouldn’t be enough to convince Cycling Ireland to grant her permission to race at Cross Vegas. She began petitioning them in June. 

“I’ve been working very hard to put my best foot forward with them and show them I’m a very committed, hopefully very talented racer that they should invest time in,” she says. “I’ve been trying to present myself as an ambassador for them in the U.S.”

Larkin says Cycling Ireland’s initial response was “no way.” The group has relented only within the past few weeks, and only because a loophole in the rules will allow Larkin to race in her leopard-print Cuttin Crew kit rather than in Irish national colors. Some will see that detail as a slight. But Cycling Ireland CEO Geoff Liffey says, to the contrary, he wants to help Larkin prove her mettle. 

“It’s useful for us to have more benchmarks,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “I hope she has a successful race she can be proud of. And then we will compare that to her international peers.” 

Although Liffey said the decision to keep Meehan and the other Irish national champs from the world’s championship was “absolutely” the right one, past criticism has not fallen on deaf ears. 

“There is a view that this criteria is too difficult,” Liffey said. “I’d accept that.” He says his group plans to revisit the selection criteria for world events as early as this winter. 

Larkin was in Las Vegas Tuesday, winding down from an elite practice session. The course was hard, she said, with deep grass. To her shock it was raining. They were hurdles that made her feel right at home.  

Larkin races at 10 PM CST Wednesday. Viewing party at the Rapha Pop Up, 2130 N. Halsted, starts at 8 PM.