FLASH-BACK: US cyclo-cross juniors reaching new frontier


FLASH-BACK: Cyclo-cross season is in full swing! This article, written during last season’s world championships, will give you a glimpse inside the lives of the junior racers that participate in USA Cycling’s Cyclo-Cross Development Program.
by Mary Topping
Their alarms chime too early. Six young American men each crack open an eye, then swing feet onto the hotel room floor, overcoming the pillow’s pull as snow sifts out of the gray Czech Republic sky. Sixteen to seventeen years-old, they will race for the junior men’s title at the 2015 cyclo-cross world championships in Tabor.
In the lobby they meet a very awake Geoff Proctor, head coach for USA Cycling’s Cyclo-Cross Development Program. They show up because they’re dedicated. But they also know Proctor’s got the worlds pr
Gage Hecht finished fourth in the juniors men's race.
Gage Hecht finished fourth in the juniors men's race at worlds.
ocess dialed in and they don’t want to let him down.
So they tug knit hats over their ears and head outside for a fifteen minute stroll. “Geoff’s a really cool guy,” says Brannan Fix, one of the six athletes. “He wants the best for you. It’s all in for us from him.”
Proctor has been conducting pre-breakfast junior walks since he began coaching the American juniors and U23 riders at worlds in 2002. He says the jaunts wake up teenagers who would otherwise sleep. They reset body clocks to prepare for an early race day morning in a few days. They also help the young men relax.
Between Danny Summerhill’s silver medal in 2007 and 2013 worlds, the U.S. junior team earned a tenth place and some top twenty results. Then in 2013 Logan Owen scored fourth, Curtis White finished eleventh, and Maxx Chance twenty-fifth. It was the best collective worlds result Proctor had seen.
But that display would be surpassed by the group ambling down the Czech Republic road; three will finish in the top fifteen at the 2015 race. The U.S. will rate third best in the nation’s ranking, ahead of the Belgians who, along with the Dutch, typically hold the top spots.
That level of performance and improvement is no accident. It’s the outcome of converging efforts years in the making and additional support from USA Cycling, along with a new dawn in cross that Proctor calls “the new age.”
Right time to step up
“The paradigm is shifting. Now’s our time,” Proctor says.
He’s referencing multiple signposts, one of which is youthful stars replacing more mature names in the men’s elite category. The 2015 world championships would prove it. Twenty year-olds will seize gold and silver.
Other markers have popped up in the U.S. The UCI effectively recognized the country as a player in the sport by assigning the 2013 world championships to Louisville, Kentucky, the first time cyclo-cross rainbow jerseys were awarded outside of Europe. Pan American Cyclo-Cross Continental Championships materialized in 2014. In September, 2015 CrossVegas will take the honor of becoming the inaugural U.S. cyclo-cross World Cup event.
With rapid growth of cross in the U.S., USA Cycling especially noted increases in junior race numbers nationwide. In response, the organization introduced an expanded cyclo-cross development initiative for the 2014/15 season to propel young riders to success at the highest level of the sport.
“We feel it’s very important for those riders to race in Europe, see those types of courses, and race against the best Europeans in order to come to the world championships ready, with more confidence and more history racing World Cups,” says Marc Gullickson, mountain bike and cyclo-cross program director for USA Cycling.
The USA Cycling Cyclo-Cross Development Program encompasses junior and U23 men and women. Proctor came on in an expanded role, coordinating and coaching four race blocks in Europe that brought over more riders for more World Cup contests than in prior years and at an overall lower cost to the cyclists. The program utilized the service course in Sittard, Holland, near Belgium and extra staff resources.
Logistical, coaching, and travel support laid the groundwork for this year’s exceptional junior accomplishment. But ultimately it’s up to the young athletes to transform those resources and their skills into race results. They shoulder the pressure of pushing out the boundaries on the time-worn European cyclo-cross success map even further.
Pre-race preparation
On Friday morning the day before the junior worlds race, Cameron Beard rolls into team camp in the parking lot just below the Tabor course. He’s from Bend, Oregon and a first-year in the junior men’s category. A generator growls next to the team vans, feeding a power washer that mechanics aim at the melange of mud and grass glued to the juniors’ bikes from course preview.
Proctor accompanied them as they navigated frozen ruts on the challenging track. Some portions encourage throwing down lots of power, but the course is slippery, Beard says. “Right now it’s pretty hard to stay up and so there’s never a break mentally or physically on the course.
“As a first year, I’m excited to be here. Hopefully I can…you want to do really well here.”
The young Americans at Tabor have advanced in cycling while racing with teams committed to development age riders. Beard and Cooper Willsey ride on the Cyclocrossworld.com Development Team. Gage Hecht (Alpha Bicycle Co.) and Fix (Boo Bicycles) are both from Colorado where the state cycling association has organized junior ‘cross camp for many years. Gavin Haley grew up a member of the Louisville, Kentucky area’s Red Zone Cycling team which has brought up other superb young riders. Lance Haidet also lives in Bend. Until recently he belonged to the Bear Development team which is based in California.
Grassroots clubs across the U.S. have fueled the rise of junior cyclo-cross talent by focusing on young riders’ needs and offering clinics and regular training, Proctor says. “We have a lot of really good kids. This particular group of juniors in Tabor is really outstanding. Whereas before we had one or two [strong] juniors maybe, all of the juniors here are strong…That’s depth. That’s what’s so cool.”
After the morning preview Proctor whisks the young men 45 minutes south to their hotel. A couple of U23s have squeezed into the sleek van beside them. Now clean, soon mesh laundry bags, inside-out skin suits, helmets, and the crumbling remains of after-race sandwiches will litter the van’s floor after the junior race on Saturday.
The van functions as more than transport. “This is where we get rid of our nerves, listen to funny music, tell jokes, and get away,” Haley says. “The windows are tinted. You feel alone and you’re with your friends. Then once you step out, it’s go time.”
It’s also the scene of tribe-building. On the way back to the hotel, one of the juniors busts out a five word verse from a rap tune that, while silly, celebrates primal masculinity. Others supply subsequent lines. Fists rise in circles. Hips sway in red bucket seats. They arrive at the hotel totally jazzed. 
Proctor knows that while the riders call worlds “just another race,” they recognize it’s special. So he builds the atmosphere they need to chill out and focus on racing their bikes.
“I really wanted to create a really good vibe with the team and I knew that we had nailed that after we drove back and it was like this big happy family, with rapport and camaraderie,” Proctor later says. “I knew that everything was good for race day.”
The juniors appreciate the vibe. “We have a lot of fun and we know when to be serious and when to have fun. It really keeps us relaxed,” Fix says. He believes block four and worlds were about managing pressure. “It was good to have Geoff around because he’s relaxed; he’s experienced this for thirteen years. It’s kind of calming.”
Later Friday afternoon Proctor continues one-on-one meetings with the riders. He carries a little black book in which he tracks each rider’s results and makes notes about what could advance their progress.
Fix later explains that Proctor supplied words to keep in mind during the race. “Mine were ‘go outside your comfort zone and take risks.’ It kind of took the pressure off from thinking I have to do top fifteen, to just take risks and do what I can. That helped me, for sure.”
When not teaching high school English in Montana, since 2009 Proctor has worked behind the scenes on global development of the sport as a member of the UCI Cyclo-cross Commission. For eleven years he also privately ran a Christmas-time European race trip called EuroCrossCamp that many of the best American youth riders attended. To further establish a path to world-class racing, he added a Montana summer cross camp that’s been running for four years.
“The summer camp is a crucial step. To be able to get to know the riders really well out-of-competition and train with them is really important,” Proctor notes. Layering on the USA Cycling Cyclo-Cross Development Program “has really enabled us to show what we can do,” he adds.
Proctor points to Fix as an example of how multiple development components are yielding better and better junior talent. “I've worked closely with him the past two summers, helped him plan his season carefully, and plugged him into a key block [December] and he really came through with a great ride at worlds in fifteenth.
“This is the kind of progression I believe we can achieve with all of our riders. I have big hopes for the future for our young men and women ‘cross riders. With the right infrastructure, I think we can be the best in the world.”
Race day triumphs and tribulations
Saturday morning the U.S. juniors file into a tent at the Tabor venue parking lot for final warm-up before the start. Hecht pedals next to the tent’s window. His father and Fix’s dad stand adjacent to the window, posing for a photograph. The younger Hecht grins. He’s the only one of the three that appears calm and relaxed. The UCI ranks him second in the world.
After an excellent start he follows the plan discussed with Proctor and documented in the little black book. If racing at the front with the leaders, attack. Try to crack them. Coming into the last turn before the finish Hecht battles for the bronze medal, but a mechanical incident delays him. He places fourth. First place goes to a Danish youngster. Belgium takes silver, and the Dutch scoop up the bronze.
Haley finishes in eleventh place; a frozen rut tossed him into metal fencing which dropped him back as far as nineteenth. Fix comes in fifteenth then Willsey in twenty-fourth. Beard arrives in thirty-ninth position after practicing calm in the corners. Haidet does not finish after a crash injures his hand.
Their coach feels proud of their efforts, attitudes, and how far they’ve come. Even Hecht, Proctor says, focuses on how much he enjoyed the race. “Obviously you want a medal, but Gage still had a heck of a race. And it sure was exciting. It was a great advertisement for cyclo-cross.”      
Assuming they continue to race, all but Hecht and Beard will compete as U23s next season. Willsey articulates their mixed graduation feelings: excitement at moving on, sadness at leaving the junior tribe. The new and continuing U23s will do their part to fire-up the juniors with advice and encouragement.
The Americans will benefit from a continued USA Cycling Cyclo-Cross Development Program. “The goal is to try to win World Cups and world championships through all the categories,” Gullickson says. “We definitely know that we have great opportunity on the women’s side. Bringing women to Europe is going to be a big focus for us as well. It has been and it will be.”
These women will join a family that on the last day of cross worlds gathers around the team vans and expresses goodbye with a giant group hug.

This Article Updated December 15, 2015 @ 05:17 PM For more information contact: