Shontell Gauthier arrives early one morning at downtown Austin cycling hub Mellow Johnny’s. At this hour on a weekday, most people are still at home getting ready for work or fighting traffic on MoPac. Gauthier’s been up long enough to bike here from her home in South Austin.
Donning full cycling garb, she rolls up, removes her helmet and says her hellos to the staff at the newly minted shop, all of whom know her as a regular. As unassuming as they come at 5 feet 3 inches with big brown eyes, Gauthier doesn’t immediately strike one as a major athlete. But just try to outdo her on a bike.
This year – her second on a pro cycling team – Gauthier joined the roster of Team Colavita/Sutter Home, one of the most dominant women’s teams around. At the age of 40, she’s placing in the top 10 in major cycling competitions all over the country. And she’s loving it.
“Biking is therapeutic for me,” says Gauthier. “I ride seven days a week. I always have. The bike is the first thing I turn to.” It was a life-changing childhood accident that led Gauthier to a cycling career. At the age of 11, she was nearly paralyzed when a 28- foot construction beam fell on her. The beam broke her pelvis in four places and left her unable to walk for months. When she was finally able to get around, walking remained difficult. Gauthier’s bicycle became a refuge of sorts, a way to get around that didn’t leave her in agonizing pain. And by the time she fully recovered, she was racing BMX bikes. “I was a mischievous kid, to say the least,” she offers. “Racing was the only thing that prevented me from getting in too much trouble.”
Gauthier clearly remembers her first BMX race, which pit her against a bunch of boys and represented a real opportunity to get more involved in the sport on a daily basis. “My uncle owned a bike shop and he told me, ‘If you win this race, you can work in my bike shop,’” she says.
Needless to say, Gauthier got the shop gig at the age of 12. Her bike career took off from there. In high school she won two American Bicycling Association national championships – just the taste of victory she needed to excel. It’s no accident that nearly three decades later, she’s still racing and riding.
“I need it,” Gauthier says emphatically. “I need the structure and the discipline. I love having a specific workout to do every day, love training for specific goals.”
Gauthier moved from BMX to road and mountain biking, continuing to race through college and in to her 20s before launching a social-services business near her home in Louisiana. Racing took a backseat to work for a while. But in 2004, at the age of 36, she placed 10th in a USA Cycling National Championship race. Determined to rededicate herself to the sport, Gauthier moved the following year to Austin – a city she viewed as a cycling mecca with a large and supportive riding community.
After a successful 2006 racing season, Gauthier’s partner Alexis pushed her to reach a little higher.
“She had faith in me and she said, ‘I’m sending your resume out to some pro teams,’” Gauthier says.
She was picked up by a Canadian women’s team in 2007 and got her big break this year when she was asked to join Team Colavita/Sutter Home. Last season Gauthier competed in 90 races, and it’s looking to be a packed schedule this season. “It’s full-blown,” says Gauthier. “Every weekend I travel to a different race. It can definitely wear you down.”
That’s when she turns to her partner, finding comfort in her encouragement.
“Alexis is very supportive, allowing me to be gone and maintaining our life here,” says Gauthier. “She’s also my sounding board because there’s a lot of emotion that comes with performing at this level.”
The cyclist also gets help from her employer, Family Eldercare. The local nonprofit that serves the elderly and those with disabilities allows Gauthier the flexibility to be gone for extended periods during racing season.
“Shontell is really dedicated. She always wants to do more,” says Kevin Livingston, Gauthier’s cycling coach. “Most important, as a professional she has the desire. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t have the desire, you’re not going to make it.”
Livingston says Gauthier’s biggest advantages are her fearlessness and expertise in handling the bike. In high-speed events – like the fast, urban races called “criteriums” – other cyclists slow down at big turns, where Gauthier has the technical ability to push forward full-throttle. In 2007, she placed second in the AT&T Austin Criterium.
“It takes me back to my BMX days,” Gauthier says of “crit” racing. “I totally enjoy the thrill of flying around 90-degree turns at high speeds, handlebar to handlebar, and not thinking about backing off but fighting for the lead. The endorphins are flying.”
Gauthier is passionate about getting more women involved in racing. She’s begun helping Livingston coach others and assisting with skills clinics at Pedal Hard Training Services, his training facility at Mellow Johnny’s.
“Maybe that is what the community thing is all about,” says Gauthier, “feeling like I am not in a vacuum, knowing that I can have a positive effect on others and vice versa.”