Cyclocross Diaries: The Americans in Belgium

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With the entire US cyclocross calendar cancelled, the team had a choice: make the jump across the Atlantic, or don’t race at all. They chose the former.

The riders, Kaitie Keough, Curtis White, and Clara Honsinger, have been living and training in social isolation with the support of the team mechanics, Gary Wolff and Michael Berry, since early November. In a year of uncertainty and ambiguity, they are putting in the work to make it to the start line of races and gaining results on the way to the UCI World Championships in Ostend, Belgium.

These weekly briefings, written by the team, will share the oddities and nuances of European racing, plus an inside perspective on the strangeness of this cyclocross season.

This first installment is from Clara Honsinger, who finished 2nd in Namur on Sunday.

It was early November, three days before we were supposed to depart for Brussels. I pulled up my email, saw the subject line, “IMPORTANT! Euro plans..” The contents reflected the question that had been biting at my nerves for weeks: did we really want to make the transition from our comfortable homes in the US to race cyclocross in Europe?

Now, almost two months later, we have seven races in our legs and life feels routine and almost natural. We live in our tight bubble at Watersley Sports Park just outside of Sittard, NL. Our training grounds consist of various bergs of the Amstel Gold course and the sandy trails of Brunssummerheide forest. On the weekends, Mike and Gary pack race bikes in the van, and Kaitie, Curtis, and I load our bags into the camper, and we depart for the races.

The process of making it over to Europe was a flood of emotions for us all. Ultimately, we knew that with the cancellation of all races in the US, our only option to toe a start line would be across the Atlantic. We’re athletes, and we want to compete. So, on that first Thursday in November, Kaitie, Curtis, Gary, Mike, and I gathered our papers and boarded our flights in a commitment to racing.

The races make it all worth it. After a nine-month off-season, nothing feels better than putting nine months of practice into gear and rallying around a proper course. There have been highs – nailed lines, smooth pit changes, and a world cup podium – as well as lows. I fumbled starts, had numerous flats, and suffered avoidable crashes.

For me, the learning curve this season has been steep. Although I have experience with European racing from the past few seasons, I often felt overwhelmed and intimidated by the intensity of the racing. Racing in Europe is significantly more aggressive than anything in the US. In races, I have been shouldered off lines, pushed into barricades, and even pulled down run-ups by my bike. This is all part of racing, though, and stability is an essential component of doing well.

US Champion and eventual runner-up Clara Honsinger (USA/Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld) in Namur.
Photo: @Kramon

This year, the overall sensations are different. With the lack of crowds and quieter air around the venue, it is easier to relax and focus. I am also lucky to be a part of this team. While I am new to the team, Kaitie and Curtis have combined over two decades of experience with the program. Kaitie runs through the course with me, highlighting the best setup for the start and the unridden lines. Curtis cuts ruts in the sand during skills practices and challenges me to push back. And our mechanics, Mike and Gary, are machines; they can crank out a wheel change and a clean bike in less than half a lap. They even know when our tire pressure is too high before we can call out. With the foundation that the team provides, it feels easier to build results.

Cyclocross is a sport full of transitions, from season to season, from course to course, and from one rutted line to the next. Ultimately, this has been a year of transitions, as we try to anticipate the following moves through unpredictable times. While we are halfway through our stay in Europe, there is still so much racing left in this season and opportunities to perform.

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