This Kerstperiode, nine U.S. Junior cyclocross racers are in Europe to race with the EuroCrossCamp program run by Geoff Proctor. During the next few weeks, the young athletes will be sharing their stories and experiences in rider diaries written while they are in Belgium.
by Skylar Bovine
People often say racing in Europe is a totally different experience than American cyclocross, and, in a way, they are right.
The racing is on another level here. Every race is aggressive. You fight for every corner, and every position. Elbows rub, shoulders knock, bars hit, and that’s just a part of it. It’s expected here.
In Loenhout, I was going back and forth with a girl and at one point, I passed her on the inside of a corner that led into a steep, but short, uphill. My line led me tight inside for the pass and then outside to exit the corner and make it up the hill, causing me to move into her space.
After the race, we talked for a bit and while we were chatting about the race, I briefly apologized for pushing her into the tape in that section. She quickly said, “No, that was totally fine. That is racing.” And she was right, that’s just racing here.
In the U.S., you might see this kind of racing for the first lap or so, but it usually gets strung out pretty quickly. A few people might ride together, but as you move back from the lead group, lots of people are riding in no man’s land. There’s rarely a chance to be aggressive throughout the whole race unless you are top five.
In Belgium, however, time gaps are small, and sprint finishes are common throughout the whole field. We have nightly meetings, usually before or after dinner, and one night we talked about making small improvements.
One of our coaches, Roger Aspholm, brought up the highly competitive nature of these races, how the difference between 1st and 15th can be 1 or 2 percent. That can be the difference of one extra interval, one additional hour of sleep, one more minute of stretching.
I have always been taught that growth, in any kind of sport, begins quickly but tapers off the better you get. That’s when marginal gains become important. I accepted this to be true but never truly experienced it until racing in Belgium. Everyone here wants it, and the opportunity to race in these massive fields where you have to fight the entire race is mind-blowingly cool. To perform well here, you have to be all-in not only during, but before and after each race, as well.
Despite all these differences, when it comes down to it, European cyclocross is still just cyclocross. The competition is more intense and the courses are more challenging, but it is never anything more than cyclocross. It is still the same game.
The real difference between American and Euro cyclocross is everyone wants it. Instead of the top 10 percent being committed, the top 90 percent are full gas here.
At another one of our nightly meetings, we talked about grit and determination. The word of the day was sisu, a Finnish word that isn’t completely translatable but loosely means, “stoic determination and tenacity of purpose.”
Based on my experience here, I think the real difference between American and European cyclocross is a higher concentration of athletes with unwavering sisu. You see it in the speed and aggression of the race, you feel it at staging. It’s driving and makes you hungry for more after every race.
The experience I’ve had here at EuroCrossCamp has been priceless, from the racing experiences to just exploring Belgium and experiencing the culture. We are here for racing, so there’s not much exploration that happens outside of training and trips to the grocery store.
One day though, we went to Antwerp. As a massive Harry Potter fan, the experience was the closest thing to Hogwarts I have ever experienced. I had never ridden a train before, so everything from buying tickets to watching the train tracks and graffiti zoom by was super new.
We got off in one of the biggest buildings I’ve ever been in. Nadia [Geoff Proctor’s wife and chef extraordinaire] showed us how the rails worked and how to navigate the train station and then we walked through the doors into Antwerp, which was magical.
Three of us set off in a group, Lucas Stierwalt, Ellie Dyas and me. There were hardly any cars, and we spent a few hours exploring, going in stores and drinking coffee. That was probably my favorite day. Having the opportunity to experience the culture in Belgium with the EuroCrossCamp crew has been an unforgettable experience.