Belgium-based Corey Coogan Cisek takes us on her whirlwind journey of life as a North American pro cyclocross racer in Belgium. Catch up on her latest adventures in today’s Cyclocross Apprenticeship column.

Wij Zijn Professioneel

Nowadays, we are all professionals.

As mentioned in the last piece, per COVID-19 national restrictions, Belgian Cycling clarified the entry procedures to ensure only professionals are still racing. The difficulty? Professionalism remains a bit murky in cyclocross, especially on the women’s side. Yes, finally, someone like Ceylin del Carmen Alvardo is being justly (or less unjustly) remunerated for her talents and efforts. However, one need not go too far down the results list before finding talented pros barely scraping by. By the time you get to me and my peers, “Elite” is the word, and net loss is the reality.

Corey Coogan Cisek tackles the muddy 2020 Superprestige Boom. ©

Corey Coogan Cisek tackles the muddy 2020 Superprestige Boom. ©

Belgian Cycling decided to define “having UCI points” as being professional and thus able to race. (Alternatively, a promoter can offer a rider a start contract of 100 euros for the race. In theory, this could be extended to someone who does not have points, but is otherwise significant, say a developing local rider from the town promoting the race.)

Our team, Velo Revolution – Cyclocross Custom, added British rider Laura Greenhalgh to our team just days before this rule was instituted. Laura is a former international rower and World Championships medalist. She has both the endurance background and fierce competitive drive to succeed in cyclocross. More importantly, she fits into our team of hard-working, mature riders, committed to moving up in the sport, while retaining a sense of humor, perspective and balance. She resides in Brussels where she works as an editor for POLITICO Europe.

Laura’s an emerging rider, but she wasn’t a pro. As an up-and-comer in Belgium or the Netherlands, if you want UCI points, you have to travel. Given Laura’s demanding job, and having the world’s best races in her backyard, she never saw reason to chase points.

All UCI points are not created equal. You know that “little race in Boom” last weekend, Superprestige Boom? It was a C2, so points went 10 deep. 11th place went to Sanne Cant. That means she earned zero UCI points on the day. Next in line for no points: Aniek van Alphen, Inge van der Heijden, Alice Maria Arzuffi….. I think you get the “point.” It’s different here!

Laura has been mixing it up on the Belgian UCI scene for two years now, sometimes earning lead lap finishes despite being gridded in the back. She’s more than capable of racing here, but the rules left her cut out. What’s a woman to do? Drive to Slovakia.

Last weekend, Laura drove herself to Slovakia for Grand Prix Topolcianky, 28 hours round trip. She raced to 10th place and one UCI point. We believe this one point makes Laura “a professional,” and thus able to join our team at the races starting with X2O Trofee Antwerpen. We are nominating her for “hardest-earned UCI point ever.”

When Laura returns to Belgium, she’ll return to our “every race is a World Cup” racing scene.

My results show a trend: stuck in the 40s, struggling with the same handful of riders, head down, trying to make the lead lap. Behind me? Air. Relatively few riders.

Fighting for every position. Corey Coogan Cisek tackles the muddy 2020 Superprestige Boom. ©

Fighting for every position. Corey Coogan Cisek tackles the muddy 2020 Superprestige Boom. ©

Back in the golden olden days of 2019 (remember those great times?), Belgium was a bit more like North America. Many of the best female riders in the World are European, but in the days of two races a weekend and races across the continent, field quality and size varied. Likewise, as much as we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that the Euros do not put their kit on one leg at a time, there were development riders here too. Riders young and old race to “make it” or just participate here too…in normal years.

These days, during global pandemic times, World cyclocross is a very small island. There are precious few of us remaining. The front is flying faster than ever. Most of the best in the World are there every race. The back is…well, home. Either it’s too difficult to travel, they are too young to race under current restrictions or they aren’t pro.

Am I delighted to be racing among the backmarkers? Um, no, most definitely no. It’s hard to keep your brain engaged fighting for a bottom quarter position. Yet, it’s mostly my brain, my judgments, I’m fighting. I could be having exactly the same physical sensations sitting top-30 and I’d feel “unstoppable.” I have to reset and remember, I wanted to race among the best in the World. I’m getting that. Full stop.

I need to remember it’s still worth going “bleeding from my eyeballs hard” to fight for…40th. ‘Cause guess what? That’s what a top-40 takes for me on this island.

I Was a Professional (Project Manager)

Once upon a time, I was a “Professional” and I’m sure of it!

Not so long ago, about two years, I worked a full time corporate job as a project manager. As a result of passing a rather horrific exam, I was also PMP-certified— a Project Management Professional. (Save the applause for the end!)

Who knew PMP skills would come in so handy?

I’ve taken on a bit of a second job helping our mechanics at Cyclocross Custom navigate COVID testing on our small scale.

The requirements have been clarified. For Belgian UCI races, we need a PCR test within 10 days of the race OR an antigen test (fast test) within 24 hours. For World Cups, we need a PCR test within 72 hours. PCR tests cost approximately twice as much as antigen.

For most large teams, the solution has been simple. They’ve chosen to go with antigen testing. For Saturday-only race weekends, they test on Friday. For double weekends, they test on the way to the race on Saturday morning.

For the rest of us, like everything, it’s not so simple.

Each test has an associated doctor visit fee. Because of this, PCR tests (one visit per ten days) cost us less.

Oh, and then there’s batching. We can save 15 euros per test if we batch our tests by testing at least four patients simultaneously. Thus, we have a bit of a testing “party” scheduled with Oudenaarde’s Dr. Piet this week.

Filling out COVID-19 paperwork. photo: courtesy

Filling out COVID-19 paperwork. photo: courtesy

Between dates and costs, my spreadsheet is complex. But alas, as my teammate Michelle Geogehegan will tell you, there are few things I love more than a good spreadsheet!

It’s a lot, a lot to handle and manage besides training/racing and coaching. However, I’d be lying if I said I don’t embrace it to some degree. My PMP brain really likes to create order from chaos.

Can a spreadsheet make you feel better about your world? Why, yes, it can. Control the controllables!

A Funny, Sad Story

I’ve lauded the series races (X2O Badkamers and Superprestige) for putting in COVID measures that make me feel safe. Likewise, I’ve felt that races have moved toward greater equality between the “big teams” and smaller outfits/privateers.

It seemed parking was better this year. Because there are fewer racers, and likely in the interest of simplicity, many races have found us all parking together. Okay, obviously, the Telenet Baloise Lions of the world are parked closer to the start, but we are all in the same lot!

Merksplas and Boom took us back to the days of being lower-class citizens in the parking realm.

Merksplas assigned UCI teams to prime parking, but in the wake of confusion, many North Americans snagged parking close to the start grid.

In Boom, our parking had the best view.

The best view at the 2020 Superprestige Boom venue. photo: courtesy

The best view at the 2020 Superprestige Boom venue. photo: courtesy

We arrived and had the oh-so-typical run around. Every parking entry guard we approached knew their lot wasn’t for “individueel” (non-UCI teams) but didn’t know where to direct us.

Finally, we chanced upon the tiniest of signs, pointing to “Individueel” and directing us clear around the park. Just as it appears on television, Boom is a large bowl and we were parked at the high point overlooking the bowl.

The best view at the 2020 Superprestige Boom venue. photo: courtesy

The best view at the 2020 Superprestige Boom venue. photo: courtesy

Oddly, the UCI teams had lesser views. They were near the start line at the bottom. No matter, we enjoyed our 20-minute walk to inscription. Shake out the legs!

The long walk to inscription at Superprestige Boom. photo: courtesy

The long walk to inscription at Superprestige Boom. photo: courtesy

During warmup, a volunteer parking guard strolled over and stood approximately one meter from my trainer…maskless. (Perhaps, universal COVID testing is providing a false sense of security?)

I literally experienced a burst of adrenaline as I motioned to him that he should cover his face. He said something I did not hear, but which I took to mean, “Hold your horses. I’m putting it on.”

That settled, I looked away…until the cloud of smoke wafted in front of me. Evidently, he had said, “I need not have my mask on, as I am going to take a smoke.”

Simply not okay.

I dismounted my trainer and hustled over to my mechanic, who “clarified” my meaning to the man. If you thought your mechanic was just for washing your bike…

Why in this enormous lot in this enormous venue did he decide to take his smoke next to me?

Evidently, our vehicles were blocking a television camera. He was monitoring us to ensure we obeyed the directive to move.

The best view at the 2020 Superprestige Boom venue. photo: courtesy

The best view at the 2020 Superprestige Boom venue. photo: courtesy

A Happy Ending

I keep thinking that one day I will sit down to write this diary without typing “COVID.” I hope I will entertain you with light-hearted stories of embracing the charms of Europe.

However, I think you will understand me when I say, “This is 2020.”

I know that every moment of every day here I am lucky. I am bike racing. I am not home in Minnesota, where there is a rather significant lockdown order as the dead of winter approaches.

Corey Coogan Cisek tackles the muddy 2020 Superprestige Boom. ©

Corey Coogan Cisek tackles the muddy 2020 Superprestige Boom. ©

Nevertheless, we too are living in the oddest of Worlds here in Belgium. We have bike racing, and that’s great, but it’s certainly not ordinary Belgian racing!

Regarding the never-ending inequities between Belgian/Dutch UCI teams and the rest, I’ve always focused on adjusting my mindset to embrace the challenge. I’ve dreamed of leveraging my experience to coach riders to handle life here.

Yet, I’m starting to think differently. Rather than toughening up, how about we remove some of the barriers? Being tough and adaptive is great, but it’s also exhausting. It’s time to start working on removing/shortening the barriers.

In the meantime, “It’s 2020.” It’s about getting through the year, resetting, aiming and hoping for brighter and better. Boom.