A Winter's Education

Maghalie Rochette riding through mud during race

Photo: © Balint Hamvas/cyclephotos

This past winter, Maghalie Rochette started her cyclocross season on a tear in the US. Good early season form culminated in a victory at the Canadian National Championships, and from there she embarked on a three-month campaign of living and racing in Europe, wrapping up at the World Championships in Denmark. We were excited to see what she would do, she was excited to see what she would do, and so we kept our eyes on the results of each race.

The results didn’t give out any fairy tale, shooting star, triumphant news; instead, they told a story of a tough season – a long schedule of hard races in heavy terrain, in an unfamiliar country. They told a tale of perseverance, and hinted that some big lessons were being learned. We caught up with Maghalie last week upon her return to Canada, and had a chat about the winter.

Roval: Welcome home, Maghalie! Last time we talked, you had just wrapped up a successful early US season, capping that with a convincing win at the Canadian National Championships, and were heading to Europe for a long campaign, culminating at the World Championships in Denmark. You were going to be living in Belgium full-time, and racing a full schedule in what is widely regarded as the most competitive cyclocross scene in the world. What were your expectations going into this campaign?

Maghalie Rochette: Last time we talked, I was pretty excited to head to Europe for three months. I don’t know that I had any “expectations”, but I was riding well at that time and was excited to see how I would do in the European races and World Cups. I guess I had two big goals. First, I wanted to race regularly against the deepest/strongest field to get used to that intensity of racing and improve as a racer. Secondly, I wanted to create a successful racing setup...

We always hear about how difficult it is for North American racers to go race abroad. There are many factors that can make it difficult; the travelling, the fact that you don’t have an optimal racing setup - having enough equipment, having a car, pressure washer, tent, trainer, et cetera. So by going there for a long period of time, my thinking was that I would cut the travelling and I would build myself a decent racing set-up in Europe, therefore minimizing the factors that make it difficult to race there. 

Maghalie Rochette riding through mud during racePhoto: © Balint Hamvas/cyclephotos

So, with regard to those two goals - getting used to that intensity of competition and creating a successful racing set-up - how did it go for you?

I would say those goals were met… We had a very good racing set up with everything I needed. We created contacts in Europe; people that became our friends, and that we may work with when we go back in the future. I also gained a lot of racing experience, even though my results weren’t great. 

What I did discover, though, is that those are not the only important factors. I struggled to train properly over there… I mean, I trained well, but not as much as I do when I’m home. I did not find a gym, I wasn’t riding trails as much as I normally do, I found it tricky to do the long rides because I was always balancing doing a long ride in the rain and cold with the chance of getting sick… So that was one thing. The second thing is that I was very bored. There isn’t much to do there during the week between races and that became long. 

I realized that maybe for me, staying there for long periods of time is not the ideal set up. To me, being fit and feeling ready and excited to be there plays a big role in how I race. Even if I have a few sets of wheels and tires less, but I am more fit and excited, I’ll do better. 

Chalk that up to the learning curve, then. Aside from the foreign context of being away from your familiar training environment, how did you get along culturally? Basically, you went through the bike racing equivalent of a cultural immersion, what were the highs and lows of that?

Yes, it is completely different culturally. Some things were great. Some things were… different!

Cyclocross is really big over there and it’s cool to see that the sport is so healthy and that so many people come to watch the races (or watch on TV). I also got to know a few of my European competitors; I got along well with the Dutch girls, some girls from the UK, Spain, and Luxembourg. Some Belgian people are very generous and want to do all they can to help you.

However, that’s only a few people… I feel like in general they are not that happy to have North Americans coming over to race. For them, you represent competition, so they don’t really want to be your friend. I think it takes time to break through and to earn their respect (the respect of the fans, the race organizers, and fellow racers). Also, you constantly have to fight… especially at the smaller races. Many things are “not possible” over there... You fight for the parking lot space, to find your race numbers, to find the port-a-potty, et cetera. 

Maghalie Rochette walking bike through mud during racePhoto: © Balint Hamvas/cyclephotos

Can you recap for us your highest and lowest moments of the whole European Odyssey?

The highest moment probably came early on. I was excited to be there. We got familiarized with our new training environment, met some good people who would end up helping us thought the trip; it was all pretty exciting! Then, I kicked off the Euro campaign with a solid race in Tabor, Czech Republic ( where I came 13th), followed by another good one in Hittnau, Switzerland (4th). Results were not incredible at any of those races; I got caught in crashes, but I was feeling so strong. That got me excited to see how I would do, but unfortunately it all went downhill from there haha!

The lowest moment came in January when I started getting sick. After a pretty mediocre block of racing at Christmas, I went to Lanzarote for a 12-day training camp. It was a hard camp, but it really got my fitness back to a solid level, so I was excited to start racing again. But then, a day before the World Cup in Pont Chateau, I got sick…that was fine, because I thought I’d get healthy quickly…but the sickness lingered and I was not getting better. So that was the lowest point. I had done all I could to roll up my sleeves once more, but now I was sick, with the two biggest races of the season coming up, and I could not do anything to get ready for them.  

Closeup of Maghalie Rochette with face covered in mudPhoto: © Balint Hamvas/cyclephotos

It sounds like you suffered a simultaneous combination of fatigue and cultural dislocation. Three months is a long time in a foreign country, packed with races, to push through something like that. When you see your own performance slipping, while at the same time fully committed to sticking it out, how do you mentally cope?

>Although it wasn’t easy, I would not say I “suffered", I prefer thinking that I learned… it was my choice, after all, and I’m really glad I did it. I guess that’s how I coped, too. I reminded myself that it was my decision to be there and that I should appreciate it, and make the best out of the time I was there. And I think that’s what we - David and I - did. If I would not have been there, I probably would have wished to be there so badly, so that’s a good thing to remind yourself. It makes you appreciate the opportunity that you have. You keep doing your best, controlling what you can. 

I believe another reason why I found it hard to not perform is that we always kept fighting and never gave up… I believe that’s the only way to do it, but in a sense, it also makes the challenge a bit bigger. What I mean is that once you give up and accept that you are sucking and things won’t get better, than it becomes easier because you stop putting all your focus and energy on doing all you can to get better…you start thinking: ‘Oh well. I’m sucking so I’ll just enjoy Europe and go visit all the nice cities and eat the delicious stuff… Who cares anyway, I already suck!”

But I didn’t want to give up. We always thought we could turn things around and kept doing all we could to be at our best… It did not work out for us and things kept getting harder and harder as I started getting sick. However, in the end, I’m happy we never gave up. I feel like I learned a lot more that way and I can be proud of the effort we kept putting in. 

You mentioned that aside from having to fight for everything, that your results were not as spectacular as you’d hoped. Sickness aside, how did you find the racing over there - not so much from the perspective of your personal results - but in terms of the courses, the conditions, the crowds and the culture? And the second part of that question would be - what would you advise a US-based racer to prepare for, physically and in terms of equipment?

The racing was fun! It’s extremely competitive, so it’s nice because you have to be totally focused from start to finish and I like that feeling. You literally fight for every single position… even if you are in 30th place! So it’s always very intense and forces you to bring your A-game, which is good.

The courses were good, too. I didn’t think they were far more difficult than the ones we have in North America, except for the sandy ones! The crowds are cool; a lot of people come to watch and they are so passionate about the sport. Some fans come to the race all dressed up, they drink a lot of beer and listen to the techno music that plays at each venue! Many have rider’s cards collections and they like to show you it to you - it’s cool. I like to ask them question to understand their fascination; I find it interesting.

If someone decides to go race in Europe, I suggest that you prepare for it and you arrive at the top of your physical and technical ability. I would also suggest to show up mentally fresh, because you need all your will power there… to train in the cold, to fight in the races, to be successful. Equipment wise, I think having a home trainer is important, either for training inside or for your warm up. As for wheels, you definitely need a few pairs, but if you can only travel with a few, I would suggest mostly mud tires, because then you can use them in any conditions, whereas the same would not be true with file thread tires. Pressure washer and tent are very nice and useful, but if you only go for a few weeks, I would suggest hiring someone over there that can help you with those and bring all of it to the races, rather than organizing it all on your own. 

Maghalie Rochette walking bike through mud in front of race spectatorsPhoto: © Balint Hamvas/cyclephotos

Now that you’ve weathered your freshman season in Europe, how do you intend to approach the 2019/2020 winter? Is it too soon to ask that?

Not too soon to ask! Although I haven’t made official plans yet, we’ve already started to talk about it with David, my boyfriend, who travels with me as a mechanic. I think we’ll do a similar first half of the season in North America. After that, we’ll probably do some back and forth trips to Europe to follow the World Cup series. We’ve met people in Europe who would like to help us with a setup over there when we go for a few weeks, so we won’t need to have a full setup like we did this year. We’ll hire them and they will help us there. 

Another big change is that I won’t be racing as much this summer. I’ll do some MTB and some gravel events, but I won’t start racing as early and I won’t be as serious this summer. The goal is to use the summer to prepare for ‘cross and be able to have a stronger cyclocross season, without being too tired by January. This year, the last month and a half has been a struggle… I was sick a lot, it’s like my body was telling me “I’m done, please give me a break…” I had been racing since March the year before and I’ve been doing the year-long-racing thing for a few years now and I think my body really needed a break. I don’t want to repeat the same mistake next year, and I’m excited to have more time to properly train and prepare well. 

Closeup of male hands washing Roval wheel Male in hat and coat wiping down Roval wheel with cloth
Photos: Maghalie Rochette

Last question – care to walk us through your bike setup? Did you do much different for Europe?

I would say there weren’t many differences in my bike setup between Europe and North America. I change the chain ring size (between 38T-40T) pretty often depending on the course, but I do that in North America too. One thing I was doing was changing the tension in the pedals…there are a lot of sand races there and I found it helps me to clip in if I loosen up the pedals quite a bit. For me there weren’t any other major changes… for my mechanic, David, there was a lot more bike washing! 

For my overall setup, I have three bikes. I ride a Specialized CRUX with Roval CLX32 Wheels, Challenge tires, and SRAM and Zipp components. I ride the SRAM Force 1, normally with a 38 or 40T chain ring and a 11-32T cassette. On two of my bikes I have a Quarq D-Zero power meter. I also have Lizard Skins DPS1.8mm bar tape and a Specialized Power 143mm saddle. 

Thanks for taking the time to talk, Maghalie! We’ll let you get caught up on sleep, fatty foods and coffee now.

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