When you finish fourth at U23 Cyclocross Nationals racing as a 17-year-old, it is tough to come up with an encore for the season.
Last weekend, Colorado’s Madigan Munro (Boulder Junior Cycling) did just that by riding for Team USA in the U23 Women’s race at Bogense Worlds and finishing just outside the top 20, riding like a seasoned Euro pro in her first trip abroad to race bikes.
Munro first turned heads on the national level when she rode and ran to a fourth-place finish—second for the Junior Women—in the U23 Women’s race at Louisville Nationals. The race was not her first Cyclocross Nationals—she raced the Junior 11-12 category at Boulder Nationals in 2014—but it did mark the culmination of her first full season of racing cyclocross.
Why did she come back to cyclocross this year? Offseason training for her favorite discipline, mountain biking.
“I started racing cyclocross when I was 11 years old after my dad encouraged me to try out a few local Colorado races,” Munro said. “After doing a couple races I stopped racing cyclocross and started mountain biking, so I really started racing cyclocross this past season after my mountain bike coach suggested I try out a few ’cross races to do some training for the upcoming mountain bike season.”
Louisville Nationals was not Munro’s first racing on the sport’s highest level this season. If you looked closely at results from this season, you would have seen her name in the top 10 both days at the Major Taylor ’Cross Cup in November.
Living in Boulder, Munro also got the opportunity to race in the de facto pro Elite category in local Colorado races. At the Colorado State Championships she finished fifth, ahead of Sunny Gilbert—second at Elite Nationals—Melissa Barker—Masters National Champion—and Kristin Weber—Masters National Champion. Meredith Miller won that race; she will play a role in Munro’s story soon enough.
Next up was the National Championships in Lousiville. “Going into Nationals, I had almost no expectations for myself. Since this was still my first season of cyclocross and this would be only my second Nationals ever—the first one was mountain bike nationals last summer,” Munro said. “I was racing again for experience and to see how far I could push myself after trying out something new.”
At Nationals, Munro finished fourth in the U23 Women’s race, less than 30 seconds behind third-place finisher Sophie Russenberger (Team S&M CX). Again, just 17-years-old racing in really her first-ever Cyclocross Nationals, Munro finished ahead of a number of women with impressive palmares in the discipline.
“After pre-riding and looking at the course, I knew it was going to be a very muddy and tough race,” Munro said about the Louisville mudder. “I was pretty nervous, especially since I had only done a couple muddy races back in Colorado leading up to Nationals. I knew how inexperienced I was racing against all these 17-18 and U23 girls, and I definitely surprised myself with my finish. That being said, I’d trained really hard all season and I learned so much, I knew that I prepared as much as I could and whatever result that brought I would be proud of.”
After the World Championships, Munro decided to take a flyer on extending her season by applying for a provisional spot on Team USA for the U23 Women’s race in Bogense. With the first-ever Junior Women’s World Championships taking place next year in Switzerland, Munro had a strong case to be included to prepare her for the race next year.
USA Cycling agreed, and when the team was announced, Munro was headed to Denmark. “After receiving the call that I was selected for the Worlds team I was initially very surprised and honestly a little in shock to have made the team after having only raced my first Cyclocross Nationals,” she said. “I could not have been more ecstatic to have been given the opportunity.”
Getting named to the Worlds team deserves a little celebration, for sure. “I definitely did a little happy dance after hearing the news!”
Euro ’Cross Baptism at Hoogerheide
With her spot on the U23 Worlds team secure, Munro got to spend her winter break preparing to head to Europe. She was able to secure a starting spot for World Cup Hoogerheide the weekend before, so that meant she would be racing against the world’s best in the combined Junior/U23/Elite Women’s World Cup field.
Before heading off to her European cyclocross baptism, the Boulder Junior Cycling rider sought advice from the folks at home.
“Before traveling to Europe to race I sought out as much advice from my Boulder Junior Cycling coaches and teammates as possible,” Munro said. “Leading up to the trip, I had absolutely no idea what to expect, and I am lucky to have so many experienced coaches and mentors around me who were able to give me advice on just about anything surrounding the trip. How to prepare myself mentally for a big race like Worlds, what the training would be like in Europe, what kind of food we’d be eating and things like that.”
Although Coloradoans such as Meredith Miller, Sarah Sturm and Lauren Zoerner race hard, they are all still relatively friendly on the cyclocross course. Based on her recon, Munro knew that she was in for a much more aggressive style of racing in Europe than she experiences back home on the Front Range.
“The race at Hoogerheide was so much fun and really eye-opening to what European cyclocross is like,” Munro said. “After receiving so much advice and insight from coaches and other riders who had done the race before, I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what the race would look like. I knew that this would probably feel like one of the hardest races I’d ever done, with a wicked fast start and riders who were much more aggressive than those I’d been used to racing in the U.S.”
From the opening green light, Hoogerheide was as advertised. “Sure enough, right from the start I could feel the aggression surrounding me in all the riders and there was never a time where I could back off in the race if I wanted to hold my spot or move up. That being said, the race overall was still a very new experience. Besides Nationals I’d never really done a race with tractor-pull mud or long steep stairs and technical off-camber downhills like the ones at Hoogerheide. Hoogerheide gave me a taste of what European racing is like and it left me even more excited for Worlds.”
In the face of the challenge in a new country, Munro survived and then some. “Coming into the trip I didn’t have any expectations for myself, and I was honestly expecting that it was highly likely I would get pulled a few laps into racing Hoogerheide,” she said. “But I surprised myself with how far I was able to push myself and finish the race.”
Some Expert Advice
Even with the advice Munro received from her folks at home, athletes’ first trips to Europe to race cyclocross are still filled with new experiences and a sometimes foreign environment. North American athletes who regularly race in Europe have often said that one of the biggest challenges is finding a comfortable situation that is somewhat “normal.”
With recently hired Cyclocross Manager Jesse Anthony heading up his the first trip to Worlds in his new position, USA Cycling put together a small team to help make the experience for Junior and U23 athletes as smooth as possible.
Earlier in the year, Munro got the chance to race against Meredith Miller. During her week-plus in Europe, she got to learn from the U.S. cycling legend. At Bogense Worlds, Miller served as one of the first-ever female coaches of a Worlds national team.
Miller focused on working with the U23 Women’s team behind the scenes, but she also kitted up and joined the young riders for the pre-race course inspection periods.
“I am so grateful to have had Meredith as one of the national team coaches because she felt like a huge mentor to me, even before the trip when I was able to train with her a few times,” Munro said.
“I was a total rookie coming into this trip, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and it was so helpful to have had someone as experienced and caring as Meredith to help show me the ropes,” she continued. “I was able to ask Meredith lots of questions about what the races would be like and pre-ride the courses with her. She also was a huge help in calming my nerves before each race.”
Miller was not the only athlete with extensive experience at this year’s World Championships. The two Ka(i)ties also chipped to help the young women adapt to Worlds.
“I had the chance to pre-ride with Kaitie Keough before my race at Worlds, and I also got to eat dinner a few nights with Katie Compton and the team,” Munro said. “It was really valuable to see how calm and confident they were and how they prepared for Worlds.”
Like athletes of all ages, the two Ka(i)ties are riders Munro has looked to emulate during her young cycling career. “I’ve always looked up to and been inspired by women like Katie Compton and Katie Keough and being able to ride alongside them and listen to their advice and insight was really amazing. The biggest thing I learned from both of these riders was how important it is to stay positive and remember the fun at these big races.”
The help Munro got during her two races in Europe extended past the women helping guide her through the experience. “It was also a big help to have such an amazing team and staff supporting me and all the riders at the race,” she said. “The mechanics, coaches, soigneurs and staff were always there ready to help with any race preparation, making sure my bike was dialed or just there to give advice and encouragement.”
After getting advice behind the scenes, Munro and the young riders on the U.S. team headed to the venue for some reconnaissance on Thursday of Worlds week, and then took the course during the Friday afternoon course inspection period.
Munro said that prior to leaving for Europe, she did some homework, although it only got her so far. “Even after watching replays of races from previous years on the Bogense course, once I rode the course for myself it was a lot different from what I expected,” she said. “I didn’t think the course would be so short or feel like such a power-heavy course but the frozen ground and long straightaways made it a quick lap.”
With her mountain biking background, the more technical the better for Munro, but as Helen Wyman pointed out in her column this week, as a modern ’cross rider, you have to be able to adapt to courses that are faster and at times, less technical. Munro adapted to the course more suited to road skills quite well.
“Despite the fact that power is not my strong suit in racing, I really enjoyed the course,” she said. “The steep ups and downs and the technical off-camber section were my favorite parts of the course.”
As Munro mentioned, after her impressive seventh-place ride in the Elite Women’s race, Kaitie Keough kitted up one more time on Sunday to pre-ride the course with the U23 Women’s team. After that last bit of expert advice, Munro was ready for the big show.
In the U23 Women’s race at the World Championships, Katie Clouse (Alpha Bicycle – Groove Subaru) and Clara Honsinger (Team S&M CX) got a lot of camera time when they formed a chase group and then bridged to join the lead group into the last lap of the race.
However, just two minutes off the pace of the leaders, Munro was quietly having a very impressive ride of her own. One of just 9 racinjg age 17-year-olds in the field, Munro finished 25th overall and 3rd among her peers who will eligible for the Junior Women’s World Championships next year.
And in case you are wondering, the rider who finished 25th last year in Valkenburg? Katie Clouse. Not bad footsteps for the young Coloradoan to follow in.
Munro said her mental preparation for the experience of racing in Bogense was a key to her success. “One of the biggest things that led to my successful ride at Worlds was my attitude and mental headspace going into and during the race. Before the trip, my coaches and parents talked to me a lot about how to maintain a positive attitude through all the adversities the trip and race would present, in addition to what expectations to have surrounding the race. I knew this race was purely about gaining experience and the result wouldn’t matter.”
She continued, “Knowing that Worlds was all about having fun and learning as much as possible, I was able to take pressure off myself and race to the best of my ability. I showed up at the start line thinking that the only thing I was going to do was race my heart out and have fun doing it.”
Taking It All In
When you surprise even yourself with a great ride at Nationals, getting the chance to go to Worlds is all gravy. However, as Munro mentioned, she headed to Europe with her eye toward the future, knowing the experience could pay off both domestically and internationally as soon as next year.
“[A] big thing I learned from this trip was how important the process is,” she said. “Meaning, results aren’t everything and this is only the beginning for me. I learned that if I stay dedicated and focused I hope to see many more years for me to grow as a rider and person. The experience will come with time and hard work, and it’s important that I put my mind towards progress, not perfection.”
When it comes time to race Junior Worlds next year, Munro’s peers such as Puck Pieterse and Shirin van Anrooij—the two 17-year-olds who finished ahead of her at Worlds—will have a full season of racing elbow-to-elbow in European races. Understanding the Euro racing style is something young riders can only experience first hand.
“One of the biggest takeaways was how much aggression and confidence it takes to race at this level. European courses are much harder, physically and mentally, and in order to do well, it’s important that I believe in myself and my abilities while also knowing that I am going to have to push myself to new limits to stay competitive.”
There are a lot of ways that racing in Europe is different than racing in the U.S. Although Worlds was in Denmark this year, a healthy number of Belgians and Dutch made the drive north to watch their respective countries race for Worlds titles. Munro said that the crowds in both Bogense and Hoogerheide were one of the highlights of the trip.
“I was really surprised by the crowds and atmospheres at each of the races,” she said. “I’d never competed in or seen a race with quite that many fans back in the U.S. before. There were so many people watching the races, eating frites and drinking beer, it looked more like a football crowd you would see back home than a bike race.”
And of course, any trip to Europe would not be complete without that memorable first time you meet one of the sport’s living legends.
“Oh, and not to forget how surprised I was to meet Marianne Vos. She is a total inspiration to me, and I was so excited to meet her that when Meredith Miller introduced me to her at Hoogerheide I almost fell off my bike!”
With her cyclocross experience probably exceeding her wildest dreams, Munro now has some time to catch up on the homework she missed during her Euro trip, get some rest in and get ready to rip this summer on the mountain bike.
“Mountain biking is my number one priority, and I’ll be doing lots of races this summer with my team, Boulder Junior Cycling, leading up to Nationals in July,” she said. “My hope is to do some road racing in the spring and early summer to train for mountain biking and also to gain some more all-around riding experience.”
Munro finished third in the Junior Women 15-16 category at XC Nats last year and based on how she raced on the cyclocross course this season, it would not be surprising to see her improve on that finish in the Junior 17-18 category this season.
Although cyclocross served as a way to stay fit in the fall for Munro, she had one heck of a ride in her first full year of racing. With the invaluable experience she got in Denmark and a commitment to improving, she is well-situated to lead Team USA in the first-ever Junior Women’s World Championships next February in Switzerland.