A chat with Maghalie Rochette, a trailblazer for Canadian cyclocross
The cyclocross racer from Québec chats with CyclingTips about mud, the future, and dogs.
The cyclocross racer from Québec chats with CyclingTips about mud, the future, and dogs.
Maghalie Rochette has been part of the US and Canadian cycling scene since 2011. In 2014, she made the jump across the Atlantic to race cyclocross in Europe for the first time. This season she made the step up from regular North American wins and podium places to podium finishes in the UCI World Cups in Europe in Besançon and Val di Sole. The 28-year-old Quebecois is ready for more and dreams of the world championships a month from now in Fayetteville, USA.
“I don’t think I am necessarily much stronger than in previous years,” she says from her European home in Sittard, the Netherlands. “I did not perform at my full potential in Europe though. It’s hard to pinpoint why that was exactly. It was hard to find a place I really felt comfortable in, a place I could call home. Then I had to find my place in the European cyclocross scene. It’s not easy for a foreigner.
“There is never a parking spot for you and then you need to figure out where registration is and there are no toilets and you pee on the side of the course. It used to be a real pain in the ass, a literal pain in the ass,” she laughs and comes up with an illustrative anecdote.
“It was in Loenhout [one of the beer-iest of races between Christmas and New Year] a while ago. I really needed to go to the toilet and eventually found the one port-a-potty on the terrain. You must imagine there are thousands of people there. So, I go in and do my thing and then of course there was no toilet paper. I went outside and a fan gave me a Kleenex but this was like 10 minutes before the race so that was less than ideal.”
Although it’s a hilariously funny story, it’s indicative of the hurdles she faced when first racing it Europe.
“They seem small hurdles but I had trouble to navigate them,” she says. “Then there was the mental block. I saw the other European racers as goddesses almost. I never managed to reach my same level as in the USA, not even a week after. I wasn’t less fit than a week before of course but I never could piece it together.
“This year I am maybe more mature and have more experience. We also do as the Euros do and have a motorhome with my own private toilet. I now feel I race to my full potential. Every race I feel it’s 100%. Maybe it wasn’t enough to win or podium, but I know I did everything I could that day.”
Rochette is a petite but powerful rider who excels when races are longer and harder. She is also someone who radiates a lust for life. It makes her a welcome figure in front of the camera.
“It is who I am,” she says with a smile. “I would be grateful if the cyclocross fever I have is contagious and attracts more people to the sport. My enthusiasm has brought me problems in races sometimes so if something good comes from it and it makes people smile, that’s great.”
Rochette has her own podcast, a website and active social media channels where she frequently interacts with followers and fans. Apart from it being a fun way to be creative, it also helps her give her sponsors a return for their investment, allowing her to race full-time.
“I just enjoy interacting with people,” she explains. “I love to meet people and chat with people. I use my own podcast to learn from other people as well. If you want to grow in the sport you need to be in the sport longer. If you want to do it sustainable you also need it to be more sustainable financially.
“All these things I do bring a different kind of return to my sponsors for the support they are giving me. That allows me to live more comfortably financially. That’s less stress for me before racing so I can do better in the racing. I have a creative side I would love to explore more but I don’t have more time now so I use my creativity for the website, newsletter and podcast.”
Cyclocross is still quite an unknown sport in Canada and – like in most places in the world – that is down to the lack of funding because the discipline is not Olympic. In December the UCI and race organizer Flanders Classics brought the World Cup to Val di Sole, Italy to race on snow because that’s one of the prerequisites the IOC has for a sport to be included in the Winter Olympics.
“It was amazing and really fun,” Rochette says about the race where she came in third. “A lot of people thought it would be crazy. I think it never happened we had a deliberate snow course. It was in the mountains and 12 hours from Benelux. People were skeptical and afraid it would be a running course but it was really good racing. I personally loved the new challenge. It was tricky but also so incredibly beautiful.
“After Val di Sole I think we have a shot at becoming Olympic. I have to applaud the UCI for thinking outside the box and to just try it. Sometimes we have blinders on and stick with the same things because we always did it that way. The UCI went out and found a place and an organization to try. All together we proved it could happen to have cyclocross at the Olympics.”
Normally a typical Belgian or Dutch cyclocross race involves mud and lots of it. It always makes me wonder why you would want to get so dirty and cold for fun.
“You are so right that it’s a weird sport and absolutely miserable at times,” Rochette says with a laugh. “I think it being so miserable at times is what draws us to the sport. When you go through hard things together and challenge yourself in mud and cold, you create a bond with others who do the same. That’s the cool thing that binds us together.
“There are so many things I love as well about this sport. It’s so intense and very dynamic. Sometimes it feels like your bike is not equipped for whatever you need to ride on. Sometimes you are at the limit of what the bike and what you can do. But keeping that corner you’d thought you’d never keep because you keep sliding is the greatest feeling ever. There is grass, sand, hills, mud, and now even ice. You have to be good at so many things.”
Cyclocross is often used as an example of how to develop the women’s side of the sport. A couple of years ago, Belgian television and race organizers made the decision to move the women’s race from early mornings to the time slot just before the men to make a comprehensive TV package. Nowadays the women’s races get high TV ratings and have equal prize money.
“I am grateful I am racing now and not 10 years ago or even five years ago,” Rochette says. “For that we need to thank the women before me like Helen Wyman or Georgia Gould who have fought for equality in sports. It’s awesome now. I make about €3,000 finishing third in the World Cup. I am not in it for the money but it needs to be sustainable. We also need to buy groceries.
“I think we have some improvement to make in the junior-women category. They are the foundation of our sport. We have some World Cups now for them and a world championship but they need their own races in all events. Junior women need to experience the sport as being accessible for them.”
Cyclocross is also often mentioned as an example on how exciting women’s racing can be. Oftentimes the women’s races are considered more exciting than the men’s races. There have been six different winners already in World Cup races this season, and 10 different riders on the podium.
“I think the women’s races are exciting and it’s not by chance,” she says. “Because we have the opportunity and equal money the races are so exciting. There is more money at the top level now so more women who can focus on the sport full-time. I think that is a snowball effect. You see it with the very young racers like Fem van Empel who have all the opportunities and already excel.
“It’s exciting for the sport that we have [Marianne] Vos and Van Empel who are 15 years apart fight for the win. It’s a testament to the progress the sports have made. I think we are paving the way for other disciplines in cycling because road is not there yet.”
Rochette is the current Canadian champion and usually the sole representative of her country in the European races. She and her husband David Gagnon are involved in growing the grassroots of the sport at home.
“My husband and I think a lot about how to develop the sport in Canada,” Rochette explains. “In Canada funding goes to Olympic sports like MTB, road, and track. There is nothing for cyclocross but there are a few pockets across the country with good racing and a good scene. There is no clear path to becoming a professional and that’s a hurdle for many.
“We have a program in Canada where people volunteer to get young kids to the Pan American Games and to Europe. We donated money to the program as well because we want to bridge the gap. It goes all to juniors so they can experience the cyclocross in Europe and improve their level. It’s a work in progress and we have many years to go before we are at Benelux level but there is excitement. This week for the first time ever I was asked to be on national TV,” she says with clear excitement.
“If young girls and boys see that I can make it to the podium they can too. That’s super motivating for me. I hope the fact that we are racing at World Cup level makes them dream of this as well.”
Next month, for the second time ever, the UCI Cyclocross World Championships will be held in the United States. Louisville, Kentucky was the first one back in 2013 and Fayetteville, Arkansas will follow in the last weekend of January 2022.
“2013 was was my first year I raced cross,” Rochette recalls. “I got into it and loved it so much straight away. I realized the World Championships were in the USA and maybe I had a chance to go. I needed 75 points to qualify but got stuck at 74. So, I didn’t go but I remember watching it from afar and it looked so amazing. When they announced it would be in Fayetteville, I vowed I wouldn’t miss it. I also vowed I would be there in the best possible condition and take a shot at the title.”
For Rochette, seeing the World Championships sparked a fire. She hopes the younger generations in the USA and Canada will experience the same thing with Fayetteville 2022.
“I hope they see a sport they weren’t really aware of that proves to be very cool,” she says. “The festive vibe around cyclocross in the US is different than in Europe. Hopefully the next generation will see how intense and weird and inspiring and welcoming the sport is.
“A North American can be on the podium or even become world champion because Clara [Honsinger] is also killing it. The course is super fun and Fayetteville and Bentonville are very cycling-centred and I am confident it will be a great week for all.”
Rochette and her husband David are staying in Europe for two months this season. They brought along their Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, Mia. The brown-eyed, brown-haired sweetheart has become a social media and race favorite for many on the cyclocross scene.
“I think Mia is more famous than I am,” Rochette says. “Sometimes I walk around and I hear ‘Oh my God it’s Mia.’ It really gives us something extra having her with us. We really thought long and hard about bringing her over. We really wanted to but it’s long ride on the plane. We didn’t want to be selfish and do it for us while she would be uncomfortable but it’s a simple flight. It’s only six hours from Montreal to Brussels and it’s at night. I think she slept through the while thing.
“Mia brings normalcy to our lives. It can be lonely with just the two of us. We have no family or many friends here. It’s one more person extra to hang out with. Walking her in the morning feels homely and makes us experience doing normal things. That brings so much positivity but even more important is that at the end of the day Mia couldn’t care less if I have a shit race or a good one. If I have a shit race, she is there and happily licking my face when I return to the motorhome. It’s all good. But also, when I win the race and come back, she reminds I am still the same person.
“She reminds me to be humble. No matter what happens on the race course, she reminds us of what is important. I never had a dog before and could never imagine I could love a dog so much.”
Rochette is only 28 years young and only just started getting results in the sport she loves over in Europe. She doesn’t really make long-term plans because who knows what the future brings?
“Do you mean future in two months or future in 10 years?” she asks in response to a question about her future. “I know Katerina Nash won World Cups in her 40s. It’s hard to say what the future holds but one thing is for sure: I am having the time of my life and really want to keep going.
“I have some plans to return to the mountain bike and do some World Cups. Cyclocross will still be my main focus but I want to get back on the MTB circuit and try my luck at the Paris Olympics in 2024. I had shivers watching the Olympics this year. Evie Richards really wanted to win but was seventh but still crossed the line with the biggest smile. I really want to experience that.
“And then who knows what will happen when it’s 2024. This is just a great lifestyle now. A few years ago, I was struggling in racing. I have so many other interests like food, reading, writing, and bees. I remember one training session and it was too hard and I didn’t succeed. I cried on the side of the road. I called David and said this is not for me, I suck at racing and training is hard and I have so many interests and I am going to quit.
“David then said, it’s fine to quit but remember that when you have a normal job from 9 to 5 you have no time at all for the other interests. I thought ‘huh, maybe you are right’. In cycling we have the opportunity to do the things we love and do it fully but also have time for other things. It’s good to recognize that.
“You can have an awesome life as a cyclist and I can do it in a sustainable way. So, if you are a young cyclocross rider reading this and have dreams, know that you can do this as well.”