Cyclocross racers exemplify a gritty form of superstardom within the stratosphere of professional cycling celebrity. There are team buses and fan clubs and entire towns in Belgium and Holland that grind to a halt every Sunday to watch their hometown heroes throw down. It’s an insular and familiar scene, with generational dynasties of racing lineage passing tradition and knowledge over decades. It is not easy for outsiders to compete in this arena. And, for women from North America – the ultimate outsiders – it can be a lonely, threadbare, hard as nails way to spend a winter. The existential difficulty of language and culture barriers, grim weather, heavy courses, hopscotching to a new and different race twice a week in any of five countries, training, recovering, grocery shopping, finding where to stay, is compounded exponentially with the monumental chaos factor of a global pandemic. Simple logistics become uncertain and take on a dark gravity; whether a race will take place, finding hotels or apartments to rent, when or if the supermarket will open.
And there, in that difficult, uncomfortable, unpredictable reality, is exactly where Maghalie Rochette has chosen to spend her winter.
The three-time Canadian champion has tasted success here. In 2017 she came 5th at the World Championships, and that cemented her resolve to move away from her mountain bike career and begin developing her own program focused on cyclocross. She raced a split season last year, shuttling back and forth between Europe and North America to race, and decided to do it all again this season. Then along came COVID-19.
Undaunted, Maghalie (and her partner/coach/mechanic/soigneur David) modified their plans. Realizing that shuttling between continents wasn’t realistic, they rolled the dice on a European campaign, loaded up the bikes (and their dog Mia) and headed to Belgium anyway.
Maghalie recalls; “To be honest, we were kind of dreading it – it seemed like a lot of unknowns – we didn’t know what would happen with Covid, we didn’t know how to plan, how long we would be here. So, going to mountain bike Worlds was the kick in the butt we needed.”
They arrived in Europe in time to race the mountain bike World Championships at the beginning of October. Then Team CXFever rented a camper van and hit the road.
“I actually raced well at the beginning – Steinmaur, Bern and Ruddevoorde,” Maghalie recounts. “But then, I had a bad race at Koppenberg, then two bad races in Niel and Leuven. At Koppenberg I was super nervous because they’d just announced that France and Belgium were about to go into lockdown, and we had no place to stay, we didn’t know what would happen. I wasn’t able to fully focus on the racing, and bad results ensued…”
“It is so hard racing here for a foreigner. It’s hard in normal times, and much harder this year. But that is something we knew already, and we still CHOSE to come,” Maghalie continues. “Long story short, I’m feeling really good on the bike, I’m beating all my power numbers. I’m fit, I’m happy, my equipment is good. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to turn things around and have a good race again.”
She related this via email back on November 18th, a week and a half before the first World Cup of this strange season. Those may have been prophetic words. In Tabor, on a tricky parcours in the Czech Republic, Maghalie came 11th, knocking on the door of the top ten in a stacked field, squeezing out perennial Belgian powerhouse and three-time World Champion Sanne Cant in the process.
Photo: Billy Ceusters / @billy_lebelge
Following Tabor, one element of uncertainty has been put to rest. The good results are possible. The following weekend, at a muddy Superprestige race in Boom, Maghalie finished 7th. Another uncertainty has also been vanquished; vanlife got shelved, and Maghalie and David found a house to rent for the rest of the season, until February.
But all the other uncertainties still abound. The pandemic is running amok this winter, as many predicted it would. The entire race schedule is tenuous and unpredictable. The cultural and social barriers, which are formidable to begin with, seem even more imposing in these circumstances. Maghalie is here to race, though, and as long as there are sandpits, and muddy run-ups, and heavy, hard circuits to race against, that is what she intends to do. Assessing the season ahead, she is circumspect in the face of all these uncertainties; “Who knows when and how and which races may be canceled? So I’m trying to see each race as potentially the last of my season, and trying to make the most out of each race I get to do…”
Photo: Billy Ceusters / @billy_lebelge
December’s schedule is packed with racing, and the next big test lies in wait on December 20th at World Cup number two, in the hallowed sandy crucible of Namur, Belgium. Best of luck, Maghalie! To follow her adventures, subscribe to Maghalie’s newsletter here.