Cyclocross Diaries: A pro perspective Q&A
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 team mechanics, Gary Wolff and Michael Berry, since early November. At a time 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, share the oddities and nuances of European racing, plus an inside perspective on the strangeness of this cyclocross season.
This third installment is from Clara Honsinger, who has hit the podium at a string of major races.
Last night I poured myself a beer. It was a small treat for another hard ride at the Hulst World Cup and a reward for wrapping up the Kersteperiode on a high note. In 12 days, I raced seven times, and while each race was an exciting flood of adrenaline, the efforts did take a toll on my energy, both physically and mentally.
With so much racing, some aspects of a bike race seem routine and I often overlook how foreign and unique our lives are at this moment in time. It is not until friends and fans ask questions about our jobs that I realize how much there is to share. So for this week I reached out to folks and asked them what their questions were. The questions ranged from broad seasonal goals to the most minute components of a day. I hope with these answers I can give greater insight into our bike-racer lives.
What are the races like this year? How are they different from previous seasons? How are they different from races in the US?
This year, the venues are almost empty except for race organizers, riders, and staff. There are still the lines of campers and incomprehensible parking stewards barking Flemish, but no vast throngs of fans and supporters to navigate on the way to the course preview. It was so bizarre to be on the podium at Namur and look out amongst a nearly empty pavilion. It felt both momentous, but also a bit eerie. Ironically, European racing now has a similar ambiance to racing in the US, where most people at the venue are there to race rather than spectate.
Behind the tape and on the course, the sensations are very similar to previous seasons. The fields are large and significantly more aggressive than in the US. Even before the race begins, riders are pushing elbows and leaning in for lines. At Hulst this weekend, Kaitie was nearly shoved off her bike by a rider behind her, a minute before the start. But I have learned to hold my ground and look for the windows in the chaos. Like a crit, the focus is always moving up.
What is it like to be riding against the top European pros, like Alvarado or Betsma? Is it intimidating?
In races, I spend a lot of time observing the riding style and technique of the rider ahead of me. Whether it is Betsma, Cant, Alvarado, or Brand, I try to isolate their strengths and weaknesses in sections. With this, I can find the faster lines or the places to catch a gap on them. For instance, at Dendermonde I found that I was about the same speed as Ceylin on the running section but much faster on the flat tractor pull by the pit. Thus, I made an effort to get ahead of her on the run and then hit the tractor pull and build a gap. In general, I use this analysis with any wheel I follow in a cyclocross race.
What are some weird pro-euro things?
Beyond the yelling and shouting, another difference in European racing is how it is a family affair. Even though riders share a team name and kit, their race day support is made up of the family. For most of these riders, their father is their mechanic, their mother drives the camper, and their sister grabs their clothes at the line. In an interview, a Belgian journalist was surprised to learn that I no longer live with my parents and that I am not related to Mike nor Gary.
What do you all eat over there?
This was probably the most commonly asked question, perhaps because I am studying nutrition at university.
Overall, we make a grocery run once or twice a week to sustain ourselves and replenish our waffle supply. Gary Wolff, one of our mechanics, is not only meticulous and talented with his attention to bikes, but also a very fine cook. Each night we gather together at the dinner table to share food and the evening. The meals range from standard pre-race pasta marinara to delightful shepherd’s pie and flavorful curries. Occasionally Kaitie or I will give Gary the night off to make tacos or a pad thai.
Unfortunately, we cannot indulge ourselves at our favorite restaurants in Sittard or spend recovery days drinking cappuccinos at the cafe in the town square. However, the lack of fritz stops might be positively associated with our race performances.
Around races, I tend to consume mostly white rice. Before I pre-ride the course, I heat up some rice on our camper’s stovetop. I often get distracted and burn the bottom of the rice, which actually gives a very delightful tahdig crunch. A little jam and butter, or balsamic vinegar and olive oil add some taste. From that pre-race meal until after the race, I sustain myself on Skratch Hydration mix and matcha chews to keep my stomach stable for the intense effort. After the race, I like to use hot water with my Skratch chocolate recovery mix – it tastes just like hot chocolate and is a warming reprieve after a frigid race.
Following a cool down, a quick shower, and a change of clothes, I chow down a quick post-race meal, which is typically leftovers from dinner the previous night.
How do you choose which tires to run?
Typically, I have a rough idea of what the track will look like and which tires we will need by watching previous year’s races. If it is wet out, I alternate between the Challenge Baby Limus and Limus. If the soil is muddy but still pretty stable, the Baby Limus is my go-to because it has less rolling resistance. If the mud is really deep and slippery, I will choose Limus to get better traction. On drier courses, Dunes are ideal, especially with sand, and Grifos offer a bit more traction if there are sharp climbs or loose dirt.
With pressures, I like to start low and do a slow pre-ride lap to find all the rocks and debris that I might flat on. If it feels too low, I meet Gary or Mike in the pit to bump it up a few PSI before hitting it out on a fast lap. Often, they will also have a bike in the pit with alternative tires to try out.
How do you keep warm?
Bringing lots of clothes and changing them immediately when they get wet is essential for staying warm. For a race, I typically use two to three kits just for pre-ride, warm-up, and cool-down. During the race, my tricks are embrocation on my feet and legs, and nitrile gloves underneath thinner race gloves if it is especially cold. One of my best tips is to wear lots of clothes at the start. Keeping warm and dry on the line is essential for a good start.
Even though I have found a routine and relative comfort with all these races, each race still holds its own unique profile and challenges. I still feel nerves rolling to the line, but the anxiety is manageable and gives me an extra kick off the start. And, at the end of the day, that post-race beer is still so delightful and rewarding.
Thanks for reading and cheers to a new year!