Belgium-based Corey Coogan Cisek is no stranger to being tested. Whether it’s by Europe’s hardest courses, the world’s fastest racers or foreign language barriers, she’s passed them all with flying colors. But now, with ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions, the tests have reached a new level. 

Catch up on her latest adventures in today’s Cyclocross Apprenticeship column.

First, the Good News

I think I have found my form. That form I left in Belgium shortly after the calendar flipped to 2020? I think I have relocated it.

When I did my first UCI race here on October 24, I had not started a high-level race since February. Likewise, I had not done a single group ride per COVID. The average Belgian had four UCI CX races, a couple B-races and several road or mountain bike races in her. In Belgium, group rides were legal and relatively safe all summer. In my first race in Ruddervoorde, I asked my legs to go, and they said, “WHAT?!”

With every race, with every ride with my teammate Michelle Geoghegan, I’ve felt stronger, more aggressive and more comfortable following wheels. It takes racing to find race legs.

Corey Coogan Cisek tests herself on Europe's hardest courses and now for COVID-19 before each race. © Alain Vandepontseele

Corey Coogan Cisek tests herself on Europe’s hardest courses and now for COVID-19 before each race. © Alain Vandepontseele

Now, other U.S. and Canadian riders have arrived and they are in an even tougher spot. Given the 90-day visa-free limit for North Americans, a rider who plans to do Worlds could not land here until mid-November. She started her season when the locals were nine to ten UCI races in. If your favorite North American isn’t flying now, no worries. There’s plenty of time until Worlds and they are on a different trajectory.

And then the Stress

Belgium has become particularly difficult for foreigner cyclocrosser and privateers of late.

Our challenges are many, but the one currently burning the biggest and brightest is COVID testing.

When I arrived here, I had two COVID tests related to quarantine measures and arrival from a COVID red zone. To race, I did not need further tests once I had established myself as living in the country for a sufficiently long time. Likewise, the government banned asymptomatic testing for sport, hobby or work due to slow processing times during Belgium’s COVID peak.

COVID-19 testing

Then, on November 16, in time for the first World Cup, but nearly two months after the start of the season, the UCI released the “Protocol for the organisation of cyclo-cross events in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.” On the same day, Belgian Cycling followed suit, publishing its own updated guidelines.

The biggest change is that all staff and athletes must be tested within 72 hours of the start of each race. In Belgium, the rule goes into effect on November 28, shortly after Belgium eases its restriction on asymptomatic testing.

No one can argue this safety measure, but logistics are proving difficult. At the moment, races are not providing any testing services, so it’s up to us to find testing with local doctors midweek. (There are very few COVID testing centers in Belgium and they are mostly in Brussels and Antwerp.)

The foreigners in Oudenaarde have banned together! We have two Americans, one Irish, one Canadian and a Japanese rider testing en masse at a local doctor and friend-of-cycling, Dr. Piet.

Likewise, our Cyclocross Custom mechanics need to ensure midweek testing. This is a bit difficult since they live in different towns and have “day jobs” midweek. Like many Belgian cycling staff, they are professional but not full-time mechanics. Their support of us has much to do with “love of the sport” and sadly little to do with, um, “getting rich.”

How much is this going to cost? TBD, but a lot. With relatively few athletes/staff, we lack the buying power of a Belgian Professional Team and cannot order tests in bulk. (Sven Nys and Telenet Baloise Lions are investing 15,000 euros in their testing program.)

On the bright side, I now know significantly more regarding the difference between antigen tests and PCR tests.

Tackling Tabor

We are excitedly preparing to represent VeloRevolution – Cyclocross Custom at the Tabor World Cup.

The Elite Women get underway. 2019 World Cup Tabor, Czech Republic. © B. Hazen / Cyclocross Magazine

In 2020, Tabor will host the first World Cup of the season, and it is bound to look a lot different than last year. photo: The Elite Women get underway at the 2019 World Cup Tabor, Czech Republic. © B. Hazen / Cyclocross Magazine

This is our first trip out of Belgium this season and the logistical details are overwhelming. As a resident of a third-country (non-European) red zone, I have a travel exemption to enter the Czech Republic. As EU residents, Michelle and our mechanics need only PCR tests and business reasons to enter the Czech Republic. Finally, we seem to need only paperwork to transit through Germany—I think.

We are driving, rather than taking the jet, either of the jets…

A charter plane is scheduled to transport a select few Belgian men from Saturday’s X2O Badkamers race in Kortrijk to Tabor.

X2O Badkamers promoter, Golazo also tried to charter a second, larger plane from Kortrijk to Tabor. Unfortunately, too few riders were able to commit to make the split cost feasible.

Yes, I laughed when I first heard of the Golazo charter, but the quoted cost was reasonable. It would have been a service to riders who aim to compete two days in a row, in two countries, 12 hours drive apart.

Unfortunately, logistics remain. Making the charter work would require staff to drive overnight with bikes, foodstuffs, fresh kit, etc.

Because of this, even Sanne will drive to Tabor!

For our part, Michelle and I are reluctantly skipping Kortrijk and throwing all our matches at the World Cup!

Just the Select Few

At least, we get to race, hopefully, usually, probably….

Other November 16 Belgian Cycling rule changes include changes to entries and changes to the pit.

Because of lockdown, only professional competitions are allowed. Cyclocross field sizes are limited to 75 based on an 8-step selection guidance.

The 75-person limit has been in place since just before the Koppenberg, but the rules for selection changed on the 16th. This is good, because the first version strongly favored Belgian license holders. Now, UCI points are weighed more heavily, encouraging internationalism.

Unfortunately, in Merksplas, these new regulations were interpreted so that they did not fill the women’s field. Only those with UCI points could be selected. This selection captures most of the strong riders, but a few familiar faces are missing. With no up-in-comers permitted and nearly every top Euro-based rider racing in Belgium (due to cancellations in most other countries), every single race feels like a World Cup.

Corey Coogan Cisek tests herself on Europe's hardest courses and now for COVID-19 before each race. © Alain Vandepontseele

Each race feels like a World Cup these days, thanks to new restrictions. Corey Coogan Cisek tests herself on Europe’s hardest courses and now for COVID-19 before each race. © Alain Vandepontseele

The pit rule changes are to minimize contact. The top-30 racers in the World are permitted two mechanics. The rest of us have only one mechanic per rider. Likewise, the mechanics are assigned a pit box that they must stay in, World Cup style. To me, this is a fine compromise in the interest of safety.

How Do You Manage Stress?

As per usual, the playing field is uneven in Belgium. It’s always been “us” versus the fully logo-ed campervans with showers. Yet, this year feels more unequal than ever.

As each of these rule changes emerged on Twitter, we have been subject to shots of adrenaline. For us, each rule change has the potential to make our season untenable. We utilize our rudimentary Dutch and Google translate and plot our next move. We get moody, sleep poorly and sometimes go for a run.

The most important thing I’ve learned over a lifetime in sport? I can race well under any circumstance. I’ve raced days after long haul flights, the morning after insomnia or loud neighbors prevented me from sleeping a wink. The secret to managing pre-race stress? Knowing that everything does not have to be perfect to post a strong result.

And with that, we carry on and remain thankful to race cyclocross.

Happy Thanksgiving!