BRUSSELS (VN) — A decade ago a high school teacher from Montana had an idea that changed the landscape of cyclocross in the United States forever. The teacher, who had made three trips to the world championships in Europe in the 1990s as part of the U.S. National Team, had come to believe that American results at the highest level had been hampered by a preparation gap.
Americans had long been overmatched by their European counterparts, but it was clear, especially after a world championships win by junior Matt Kelly and a U23 bronze by Tim Johnson in 1999, and near-podiums by American women in the few years women had been included in the world championships, that talent was not lacking. The problem was experience. To race successfully in Europe and at the worlds, the teacher concluded, Americans would have to start doing more than simply traveling to Europe at the end of January and hoping for the best.
The teacher was Geoff Proctor and the program he launched in 2003 as a result of that bright idea, the EuroCrossCamp, is now in its 10th edition. The camp, which brings young American racers to Belgium to test themselves among many of the best riders in the world during the busy Kerstperiode — the Christmas season — has been an unmitigated success. Its alumni are a who’s who of contemporary American cyclocross: Jeremy Powers, Ryan Trebon, Jamey Driscoll, Danny Summerhill and Zach McDonald are all Proctor products and most are quick to credit their experience gained at the camp as a major contributor to their racing success.
In Diegem on Sunday, after junior Logan Owen (Redline) finished in the top two in his fourth straight race in Belgium, Proctor pronounced this year’s camp, whose roster also includes elite racer Justin Lindine (Redline), U23 Drew Dillman (Bob’s Red Mill) and junior Curtis White (Hot Tubes), a success.
“It’s been really good, I’m really happy,” he told VeloNews. “Every year you look for certain benchmarks and we’ve achieved those with the juniors. Drew Dillman had maybe a top 25 today (Dillman finished 28th —Ed.), and that’s great for a first year, and Justin, whose goal has been trying to finish on the same lap as the leaders, got another race under his belt here, which is super experience. So I’m really happy. It worked out well.”
This year’s camp has not been without challenges. With its traditional home base, USA Cycling’s team house in Izegem, in the southwest corner of Belgium, under renovation, the camp moved to ’cross legend Bart Wellens’ hometown, Vorselaar, in northeast Belgium. And with the world championships headed to the United States for the first time ever, and the national championships now in January, the camp, whose mission has long been to help riders fill the gap between an early-December nationals and late-January worlds in Europe, has had to rethink its goals. With a new summer camp for developing riders as well, Proctor has shifted focus from simply extending the season for American riders to a more holistic approach, helping aspiring riders to gain essential experience both at home and in European races year-round.
Proctor said he was optimistic that the work he and the camp staff do would continue to pay off with better and better results for American racers.
“Hopefully all the work will manifest at nationals and worlds,” he said. “But you have to invest over here; this is where it’s at, this is where the great whites live.”
For junior riders like Nick Torraca (Mad Duck Cyclery) of Grapevine, Texas, and Josey Weik (ISCorp) from Wrenshall, Minnesota, both of whom got their first taste of European racing in the past two weeks, the sharks of the Belgian mud loom large.
“It’s a lot more pressure here,” said Torraca after finishing 32nd in Loenhout. “I’m from Texas where there’s not much mud, so all my races have been fast, dry crits. So it’s fun to come out here in the mud. My first race was Namur, which they said was one of the hardest courses in the world, and it was really hard. But I’m learning to be more aggressive at the starts, and it’s really cool to race against the world champ and Logan, and to see Logan competing with him too.”
Weik, the youngest rider at the camp, who turned 16 only days before embarking for Belgium, said that despite the challenges, he is already hoping to make a return next year.
“I’m having a blast; this is the best ever,” he told VeloNews after a 34th-place finish in Loenhout. “Despite just getting my head pounded in today, I was having fun the whole time. It’s all super fun, a super big learning experience. Namur, the first race I did here, was by far the most fun I’ve had on a bike. I was scared, but it was just a blast.”
If the difficulty of the course in Namur, with its steep, muddy descents, cliff-like run-ups, and long, grinding ascents, was a shock for first timers in Belgium, the real test came in Loenhout, a race with some 60 junior entrants and the first opportunity to line up in a field that included world champion Mathieu van der Poel.
Campers Owen and White took second and third, respectively, behind van der Poel at the front of the race. Weik, who lined up at the rear, said the chaos of the start was like nothing he had ever experienced.
“It was really awesome at the start,” he said. “It was just the most unreal thing. Everything’s just going to heck, everyone’s screaming and shouting at each other. It was just really fun.”
Nonetheless, spending the holidays thousands of miles from family and friends and racing almost every day isn’t always easy. Campers lean on each other for support; the older, more experienced racers act as mentors for the younger and less experienced newcomers, forging bonds that persist long after riders go their separate ways.
Owen said campers help each other scout courses before the races and support each other even as they also compete against one another.
“Everyone here is super helpful and supportive,” he said. “We’ve all become one big group of friends here.”
The camp closes after a final race on New Year’s Day, the perennially muddy GP Sven Nys, in Nys’ hometown of Baal. A few riders and staff will continue on to the seventh round of the World Cup in Rome on Sunday, but most will pack their bags and head home to prepare for nationals and, for a few, the world championships.
Proctor, meanwhile, after 10 years of hard work organizing the camp, 10 years in which he has, in some sense, singlehandedly elevated the international standing of American cyclocross, said he has no plans to slow down.
“It can be hard,” he said after watching Lindine ride to 35th in Diegem, meeting that personal goal of finishing on the lead lap once again. “I keep hoping it will lead somewhere someday, and we’ll see where it goes. Right now I’m just really proud of the guys to see them all do so well.”