Shifting Gears: Pro MTB Racer Kelli Emmett’s Transition to Managing Athletes at Juliana Bicycles

Kelli Emmett was a regular winner on the Super-D scene, which suited her later career shift into the Enduro World Series. Today, she's managing athletes and helping develop product at Juliana Bicycles.
2016 EWS Snowmass, Aspen Colorado. All photos courtesy of Sven Martin.

Bring back the beloved Super-D! Who wants to enter a long downhill race with some heinously tough climbing along the way? That’s Super-D, and it was a blast. It looked akin to one long stage of a modern enduro, dropping over 4,000 feet on some courses. Super-D was popular in the US in the years before enduro racing hopped the Atlantic, and there were national series and championship events where XC and gravity athletes came together to battle it out. Lycra combined with kneepads was the hottest look, similar to that of DH racers before skinsuits were banned in 2008.

Giant Factory Offroad Team athlete Kelli Emmett was a regular winner on the Super-D scene, which suited her later career shift into the Enduro World Series. Prior to sliding down Super-D and EWS tracks for top results Emmett raced more elite cross-country events than she might care to recall, and also put in a strong bid on the road before realizing that asphalt didn’t offer her brand of fun.

Unlike a lot of athletes, Emmett didn’t start off life as an athlete. Her family wasn’t much into sports as a kid. Her early days were filled with partying and smoking cigarettes with classmates in her small northern Michigan farming community. Emmett remembers this time as if she’s looking at another person’s life. “I was the person that got kicked out of gym class for not working out. It was a crazy start. I think about the people in high school. If I told them I was an athlete, they’d be like, ‘what’?” Once she did pick up a bike the bond came quickly and Emmett realized that it was time to leave the cold north for someplace she could ride year-round. She packed up and headed down the interstate to Tuscon, Arizona, to train with a bunch of fellow mountain bike athletes. That better-weather train stopped in Colorado Springs not long after, and she has lived there for 21 years now.

Emmett was surprised with a cracking first season, earning a top ten finish in her first World Cup race. Everything continued to go well through that initial season, earning her a spot on the GT cross-country team. The following seasons proved a little more challenging, as Emmett had to learn how to properly manage the job of being a professional athlete. “I just got really lucky. I tried really hard and it worked out. And then after that, it was like years of going back and kind of developing as an athlete and learning all the ins and outs and the ups and downs and all that sort of stuff. So that took me a while to come back around and feel comfortable racing and having fun with it.”

There was some team and tire swapping between Emmett’s GT and Giant contracts when she raced road bikes in Europe with T-Mobile and tried to race mountain bikes in that same season with the Luna squad. That short-lived gig with Luna in 2001 was the first time she raced on a Santa Cruz frame. She had raced some fifty days by the spring of that year and had little energy left to give. She decided to quit racing and headed back to Michigan to work on the family farm. Fortunately, one of the women working on the farm asked, “are you really going to give up traveling and come work here? What are you thinking?” That’s all it took. Emmett moved back to Colorado to pedal and prep for another season of cross-country racing.

2016 Whistler Crankworx

The next between-team Emmett signed with was owned by the wealthy founder of a company that makes hospital beds and coffins. While a somewhat odd business combination, she remembers the team fondly and was happy to have the job. The following season she signed with the Giant Factory Offroad Team, where she would stay all the way through the 2014 race calendar. The list of times when Emmett’s carbon-soled shoes stomped up the podium steps is far too long to type out, though some of her impressive achievements include winning the Super-D at Sea Otter in 2010 and the 2012 Downieville Classic XC and DH, finishing second behind Anka Martin in the six-day Trans Provence enduro in 2013, and notching countless other top titles.

Racing bikes was always the focus, but a lot of Emmett’s favorite memories on Giant were made while goofing off with her teammates Adam Craig and Carl Decker. She says that with Carl around you always knew things would work out, recalling a time when the trio had run out of gas on an east-coast freeway and Carl rode his bike down the shoulder to fetch some gas. Of course, the cops stopped him, adding to the shenanigans, but in the end they managed to get rolling again and made it to the race on time.

When it came time for contract negotiations at the end of 2014 Giant asked Emmett to ride for their Liv brand, taking on a larger role with the brand and only racing domestically. She was 38 years of age at that point, and wasn’t quite ready to stop racing at the top level. Given her enduro success over the years, Emmett had lingering hopes of EWS domination abroad, and needed a team to back her.

Emmett’s partner, Danny Pate, had a place in Spain, and her plan was to live there and fully immerse herself in the European enduro scene. She had met a Santa Cruz employee while racing Trans Provence and called her up to inquire about a frame sponsorship for the year. To her elation, the folks at Juliana were planning to put together the first all-women’s EWS team with SRAM, and they invited her to join. Fellow racer Anka Martin was on the squad, and all of the women were stoked to race together and support one another.

2018 Whister Crankworx

The 2015 season rolled through sunlight and shadows for the veteran athlete, with several first place finishes and some great momentum ending with a broken clavicle. Having been bested by a fifteen-year-old racer at an EWS event in Scotland, Emmett thought “Okay, I see the writing on the wall. Now it’s my time to to be done. And I said, Okay, this will be my last year.”

She didn’t fill up the 2016 calendar, and instead only raced enduro and XC events when she wanted to while otherwise shopping herself around for a new career path. Taking it easy means something different to Emmett than it does to the average athlete, as she still earned third place at the Sea Otter Enduro, won a few other races, and took gold at the US Enduro National Championships race in her final twist of the MTB throttle.

From there Emmett was fortunate to follow the path of many other athletes, moving into a new position with her former sponsors. “I knew I couldn’t just be done with racing and then take a break. Financially, there’s just not a lot of money to set yourself up as a female racer. I did okay in my career. I was able to land a lot of sponsorship jobs. I had solid results, but you know, nothing that was worthy of a big contract. So I just always kind of made enough to get by, have fun, and enjoy it.

“So I went to Juliana several times. There was just one person managing it. I thought ‘there’s a lot of opportunities here that I could get involved with to work with the race team and so that we can continue to still have people out there racing on our bikes.’ So it kind of just evolved to doing more of a domestic US team. So then I was able to manage that. And the ambassador program. I started that here and just continued to evolve with the brand and it’s growing like crazy.”

Today Emmett is working hard with a wide variety of Juliana-sponsored riders and ambassadors across the full mountain bike spectrum. She’s consistently looking into which new bike models women want to see in the lineup, watching for talented ladies to grow the roster, and developing the suspension tunes that the brand is known for on her local tracks in Colorado Springs.

After work Emmett attends MBA courses at a nearby college. She says that while she’s done racing, there are plenty of new challenges to focus on in life. We didn’t want to let her go without any bike specific questions, so here they are.

Do you remember what year and which bike you first used a dropper on?  

Oh wow! I have a terrible memory. Yeah, lots of Super-D races with the post up. Like most XC racers, I was hesitant to try one and I didn’t like the feeling of not having a saddle underneath me. I think it took me a year to warm up to the idea of a seat dropper. 

Are there some elements of modern bikes and gear that you wish you had then? 

The suspension has gotten SO much better these days. It’s unbelievable! The VPP lower link design came out the year after I finished racing and I wish it was around back then.   

What was the most important MTB innovation for your racing career? 

The seat dropper! I was hesitant to use one at first but now I don’t think I could ride without it. 

 Which Juliana bikes are currently in your stable? 

I have a Maverick and a Furtado in my stable. I really enjoy riding the Maverick and it’s my go-to daily driver. I’ve been selling off most of my bikes these days but I do have an old single-speed steel Sycip from Single Speed World Championships in Aviemore 2007.