Michael van den Ham is one of the nicest guys in North American cyclocross—and he is also Canadian—so it is little surprise an incident at the Pan-American Championships last November got re-told in the most Canadian way possible.
Van den Ham and Tobin Ortenblad were sitting in the lead group halfway through the race heading toward the muddy climb and off-camber. One of the two slipped, an apology was made and Stephen Hyde attacked. Folks hanging out nearby assumed the apologizer was Van den Ham.
“No, Tobin messed up the section and I was caught behind him!” Van den Ham said. “This got turned into a Canadian story. Maybe I still apologized to him, I don’t know.” He continued, “That’s funny that the story somehow came around that I slipped up and apologized to Tobin. I mean that just shows the reputation of Canadians precedes us. Even if we want to be mean, we can’t. People are just going to turn the story about to us being polite and apologizing.”
The only thing Van den Ham had to apologize for after Pan-Ams was racing really fast. He finished third on that afternoon in Louisville after taking Ortenblad into the last lap. Now he only needs to talk to his Garneau-Easton team’s content manager *checks notes* Michael van den Ham about updating his result from the race on the team website.
Putting Things Together Nicely
For Van den Ham, the journey to competing at the front of North American cyclocross races has been a process. The Manitoba native started racing on the road and has been hammering away at cyclocross since 2012. “I spent a long time in the sport in the 20s, then the teens, then I’d be getting top 10s,” he said about the journey. “It’s only recently where I’ve really been at the pointy end of races.”
Van den Ham won Canadian Nationals as a U23 rider in 2013, but since graduating to the Elite level the next year, a national championship had eluded him, even as he became one of the strongest Canadian riders.
That changed this October when Van den Ham won Canadian Nationals at Sherbrooke. Van den Ham—or MvdH—shared his thoughts with us about winning Nationals after coming close for so many years. When we saw him at Pan-Ams, it was his first weekend wearing the Maple Leaf kit he had coveted for so long. Tired but happy, he said the kit has special powers you may not know about. “It’s amazing, I think it gives me an extra ten watts,” he said. “These are superpowers.”
Despite his win at Nationals—and another during the Major Taylor Cup weekend— and several UCI podium finishes throughout the season, the 25-year old said he is still learning how to win bike races.
“I think a lot of it is just plugging away at the sport. And for me, a lot of that involved being in enough situations. [Winning] still isn’t my strong suit. I still have a lot of races I could have won, but I’m slowly learning how to win. I think because I had kind of been, I guess you could say, an underdog in the sport for so long, I would always go out as hard as I could and get the result I would get. Then at a certain point, maybe a year or two ago, it stopped working because I was one of the strongest people. It just took a long time to learn to race totally differently. Not going as hard as I could. There’s way more of a tactical element. And you’d think I would be better at that given I started out as a road racer, but it just took a long time to learn how to do that.”
For Van den Ham, success is not about not working hard enough. He trains hard while fitting in his day job at NOBL Wheels just outside Vancouver. In fact, in our chat, he talked about finding coffee shops to work at during his three-week long trip to Europe in January and February to race the last World Cups and World Championships.
His biggest challenge is turning his goals into a desire to win when the bell rings for the last lap. His plan is still a work in progress, with many podiums and wins likely to come, but he said he is starting to figure out how to get to his own (very friendly) promised land.
“A lot of it is personality,” he said about racing and winning. “There are a lot of people who are going to be, I guess, hungrier for those wins. There are different personalities in cycling. I’m someone who really enjoys the process of getting there and pushing myself as hard as I can. I think there are other people in the sport who train and do all that stuff so they can beat other people. Both those are equally valid, but if you’re someone who’s more like me, to be successful, I always need to have my goals close at heart. So if I want to win Nationals and want to win races, I need to almost remind myself and use those things as fuel during training and write them down and use steps to build toward that.”
He finished by explaining his dilemma. “That really sort of beat other people competitive nature isn’t something that comes terribly naturally to me. I want to win, of course, but I’m not going to go home distraught if I don’t. Which is funny because I’m in such a competitive sport and that’s my job.”
Going (Back To) Gravel
Growing up in Manitoba, gravel roads have been a regular part of Van den Ham’s training diet his entire career. “It’s funny that we’re talking about gravel like it’s a new thing,” he said. “As if people haven’t been riding road bikes on gravel for probably a hundred years. I actually did road races with gravel segments in Manitoba because again, you’re riding the highway or you’re riding gravel. It turns out riding the gravel roads is a lot safer.”
If riding gravel is not necessarily new for Van den Ham, doing long rides is. After recovering from the Cyclocross World Championships and taking some time off the bike, he decided doing some long gravel races was a good (bad) idea. “I had taken three or four weeks off training. Had ridden for a week and a half and was like, I think this 100-mile race is a really good idea,” he said. “Actually, I was like, I know this 100-mile race is a terrible idea, but I’m going to go do it anyway and see what happens.”
His “terrible idea” took him to the red hills of Oklahoma for the Land Run 100. Like most professionals who also race gravel, he said the participatory nature of the events is a big draw for him after so many competitive events.
“The cool thing with the gravel scene and community is that there’s the race on the pointy end, but at the end of the day, I’d say the events are mostly, and should remain, about going out and doing this thing you didn’t think you could do. For everyone. For the people who finish in 5 hours and the people who finished in 15 hours. It’s not really about the race in gravel events. It’s about going out there and challenging yourself with a huge group of people who are going to be supportive and also be challenging themselves.”
Van den Ham got in a two-man break with 2017 Dirty Kanza 200 winner Mat Stephens and stuck with him at least long enough to get the couch photo that eluded Women’s winner Amanda Nauman. For him, the photo couch was a metaphor for the beauty of gravel events.
“It was worth it just because one we got a super-cool photo and it was super-fun, but it also took [Mat and me] out of this really competitive moment to being two guys riding their bikes and hanging on a couch. I think that light, non-competitive spirit is really important to gravel. I’d hate to see it become road racing 2.0. I don’t think it will because it’s so focused on participation and achieving something. Gravel’s really exciting and popular because it offers an alternative to the ultra-competitive environment of road and to an extent, cyclocross racing.”
After finishing second at Land Run, Van den Ham said there are more gravel events in his near future including Paris to Ancaster and what has become the granddaddy of all gravel events. “The other one I just decided I will be doing is Dirty Kanza,” he said. “I registered at the last minute possible on March 31st.”
What is Van den Ham riding for his gravel adventures? “I rode my Garneau Steeple cyclocross bike. The same one I rode cyclocross on all season.”
Despite not switching from his familiar ’cross bike, Van den Ham did quickly become a fast high-volume tire believer.
“The first time I had ever ridden 40mm tires was the day of Land Run,” he said. “I set them up the night before. I set my Vittoria Terreno tubeless tires the night before. It’s a tread I’ve ridden a ton and helped Vittoria develop in the 33mm tubular form, and one I’ve raced a lot tubeless. But that was the first time I’ve ever ridden them in 40mm, and I basically haven’t taken them off since. It’s amazing how much that little bit that extra air volume makes on washboard gravel and on singletrack and all that stuff. I think that makes a big difference.”
Interview with Canadian Cyclocross National Champion Michael van den Ham
I talked to Van den Ham about gravel, winning cyclocross races and his experience at Worlds in our interview. If you are planning on attending the 2018 Pan-American Championships in Midland Park, he also gave some advice on how to get the full Canadian experience. “Maybe you should try intentionally running into some people to see if they apologize,” he suggested. “Just to see if the myths are true. Just start bumping into people and see what happens. I bet you they’ll apologize to you when you run into them.”
You can listen to and download the interview via the embed above or our Soundcloud page. You can also find our Cyclocross Magazine interviews on iTunes. For all our podcast-type interviews, see our Audio File archives.