Cyclocross Diaries: What a Belgian race day looks like
With the entire US cyclocross calendar cancelled, the Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com 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 second installment is from Curtis White, who recently finished 13th at the Dendermonde World Cup.
It is December 28th, the day after the gargantuan World Cup in Dendermonde. My teammates and I have been in Europe for almost two months, and we have raced eleven races up to this point. We are about halfway through the Kerstperiode, a time where we race eight times in two weeks.
When we talk about racing eight times in two weeks, it is difficult to grasp just how intense this period is. We are not just doing eight one-hour race efforts. The entire effort on race day is exhausting. Here’s a breakdown of what a Belgian race day entails for my teammates and me.
While we really enjoy our home away from home in Sittard, NL, the one critique we hear from every Belgian is, “You are too far from the races.” Nearly every race for us is a 1-2.5 hour drive which, for our standards as Americans, is just out the front door. Having the ability to sleep in our own bed and come home to a familiar setup is something we are not used to. That said, Sittard is on the other side of Zolder and adds an extra 45 minutes to the drive, compared to most of the Belgians who live just outside of Antwerp and are much closer to the majority of races. I barely notice the inconvenience. I am just grateful enough to take advantage of these opportunities. But when we race eight times in two weeks, that extra 45 minutes one way does add up.
The race day effort starts well before race day with our mechanics, Mike Berry and Gary Wolff, prepping the equipment and loading the van. Between the both of them, they have three racers with three bikes each and numerous wheels with all the tire tread choices we would need to organize, clean, and pack. It is a lot of work, but they operate like a fine-tuned and well-greased machine. I wouldn’t be able to focus only on the race if it wasn’t for Mike and Gary’s effort and attention to detail.
The night before racing, my teammates and I are prepping meals for race day. Pancakes for breakfast, a pre-race meal of rice and eggs, and a post-race recovery meal of rice or pasta with some protein, along with any snacks, chews, gels, or Skratch drink mix I may need. When we pack kits, it is standard to pack two or three pairs of everything. We have to be ready for every condition, and we have to stay dry and warm. Races like Dendermonde and Herentals have been so cold and heavy with mud or rain that we use every spare article of clothing that we have. There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing and preparedness.
To arrive at the venue by nine o’clock for our mechanics to set up shop, the wheels are usually rolling by 7:30 AM, sometimes earlier, with Gary leading the way in the van and Mike following in the camper. We are normally eating breakfast on the road to stick as close to our routines as possible.
After we arrive at the venue, we go to inschrijven, have our temperature checked, present our COVID forms and results, and pick up our numbers. We are tested regularly here, and each race has protocols we have to meet.
We head back to our camper, as Gary and Mike have to prep all nine bikes with the right tires for course inspection and make them race-ready, operating like an F1 pit crew. My teammates, Kaitie Keough and Clara Honsinger, are out pre-riding while I have some time to put the legs up and pin on my numbers. At the end of the day, they finish sooner and are waiting on me. We would normally have more independent schedules, but in this year of great uncertainty and chaos, we are happy to concede and accommodate. The chemistry within the team this year has been strong.
Three laps of reconnaissance is my standard. The first lap is slow, carefully identifying lines, potential hazards and trouble points. The second lap is with more intent. I start to piece sections together, dial in the tire pressure, and maybe try alternate lines. The third lap is where I test lines and equipment on critical points at race speed. Part of the beauty and cruelty of cyclocross is that we have the equipment dialed in pre-ride, but the course and conditions could always change. Unpredictable conditions are a staple of cyclocross.
I roll back to the camper and debrief with the mechanics on equipment choice and what to expect in the pits. Normally we can tactically choose our pit box, but the latest COVID protocols take away that choice and we are assigned a box to limit crowding in any one part of the pits. If the course is heavy with mud, Gary will blast me with the power washer to not bring mud in the camper.
Into the camper, legs up, and eat a snack. Through this season, I’ve been pushing out course pre-ride videos with my GoPro. Initially, the footage was for me to review before the race to rewatch and go over anything I had missed in the course. I find that it helps with preparation and visualization.
One hour before the start, I am on the trainer for warm up. The racing is so intense that the engine has to be hot out of the gate. By this point in my career, my routine is dialed. After thirty minutes, I am back in the camper for a dry base layer and jacket, and I roll to the start.
After the call ups, the tire inspection, and handing my jacket and zip-offs to Mike, all there is the pounding heartbeat and the mounting anticipation. Red to green. No thinking. It’s full gas with the knife between the teeth. This is what I live for.
One hour later, my body is empty. Completely drained. Mike hands me my jacket and gives me a pat on the back. The recovery process starts now.
If it is muddy, I’m back to the powerwasher where Gary sprays me down for the second time today. Into the camper, get into some dry clothes, down a Skratch recovery shake, and onto the trainer for a solid cooldown. The hour window after a race is important to get right. We are always tired after giving 100%, but we can’t miss a step. Right off the trainer, I’m heating up my recovery meal of chicken, pumpkin, and rice with soy sauce.
After the mechanics clean up all of the bikes, wheels, and shoes, the van wheels are rolling and we are headed back to Sittard. We normally don’t get back to our house until 7:00 pm, where the second round of cleanup begins. We rush to start the washer, dry the shoes, and get dinner started. Twelve hours of focus is exhausting.
In the Kerstperiode, we race eight times in two weeks. That’s eight twelve-hour days, several of them are back to back. It is a wild two weeks in the cyclocross season built on culture, prestige, and grit.
This is my eighth year racing abroad during this time, and my longest block in Europe. Coming into this season, there was plenty of uncertainty on whether we would even have the opportunity to compete. There was a risk coming to Europe, and it would have been easy to forgo this entire season. But we are here because we want to raise our level, to compete with the best in the world, and continue to promote our sport the best we can. Although there is risk and these days are not easy, there is no place I would rather be.
Thank you for reading. You can follow me on Instagram for regular updates and my website for course preride videos, and behind the scenes “In The Red” video series.