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Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Kaitie Keough and Stephen Hyde turned in inspiring rides at the Cyclocross World Championships in Limburg. Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld team manager Stu Thorne talks about all that goes into American progress in European racing.

For Stu Thorne’s crew, the biggest races are far from home. Often in cold rain. Often in the mud. That’s life as an American cyclocross team.

The simple (and harsh) truth of cyclocross, is that what it takes to succeed on a dry, sprawling course in the United States is different than what it takes to master the mud, ruts, and sand of Europe.

All Photos © Balint Hamvas/cyclephotos

The Belgian’s are still the beasts of cyclocross, and the Dutch are still their top rivals. Yet the Americans keep fighting. Stu Thorne’s Cannondale p/b team has long provided the needed expertise and infrastructure for top American cross racers to compete in Europe. At last weekend’s UCI Cyclocross World Championships in the Netherlands, team members Kaitie Keough and Stephen Hyde turned in impressive performances. Keough was sixth among Elite Women and Hyde 15th among Elite Men.

On a rainy Dutch day, we talked with Stu about the challenges facing American cross racers and how they’re working to overcome them:

How would you describe the atmosphere of cyclocross in Belgium and the Netherlands compared with elsewhere?

The Belgians in particular, they’re fanatics. It’s their national sport (along with soccer). So you get a deeper fan base. They know all of the players. I went into an auto-parts store the other day, the guy knew everything about Kaitie there was to know. He saw my team jacket and said, ‘Oh, you’re Kaitie Keough’s manager…’ He knew everything. He knew all the players. This is just your average joe. 

In the U.S. if you go to cyclocross races, most of the spectators are also participants or consider themselves cyclists. That’s not really true here, is it?

It’s like, I played hockey when I was a kid. I don’t play anymore, but I love watching the sport and I know the players. It’s no different here. The fans all know everybody. They may ride a commuter bike back and forth to work, and that’s their extent of cycling. They’re just fans. It’s a sport they want to follow.

You have traditional cyclocross rivalries such as the Dutch vs. the Belgians. How does the U.S. fit into the competitive dynamic?

The Belgians have dominated the sport for a long time. The Dutch are incredibly good at it. There’s definitely a rivalry there, not just in cyclocross. To come over here to try to break into that, I think in the women’s category we’re starting to do it…. We have Kaitie finishing second in the overall World Cup. Sanne Cant (World Champ) the other day in the news made note that the American women have stepped up in ‘cross. We’re starting to get the recognition and get the respect of the Belgians. Even Stephen Hyde. He’s friends with Wout van Aert. They’ve trained together, and they hang out together. Just that alone has allowed the Belgian fans to accept American cross racers. It somehow raises legitimacy of Stephen Hyde. On top of that, he’s had some results to back it up.

What is it about Kaitie Keough’s makeup as an athlete that makes it possible for her to do consistently well over the whole season?

She’s been with the team now for about seven years. She’s sort of the senior member of the team, at age 25! … She’s a determined athlete. That’s what it takes to make it to the top; you have to have that determination. She’s very detail oriented. It’s that last few percent to get to the next level. She’s checked all those boxes, and it’s shown in results this year.

How big is the issue of geography – America as such a large country– in developing racers? To get concentrated competition can be hard.

In the states, that’s one of the biggest problems we have is that it’s a massive country. Just to get all of the top athletes in America together on any given weekend is not easy. There also are conflicting races. There could be a great race on the East Coast but there’s another OK race on the West Coast, and it’s OK for someone to stay home and get some points vs. making that big trek. It’s expensive to travel around. Here it’s much more consolidated. You have great racing every weekend. Some of these guys, they’re only going to travel a maximum of a couple of hours from home.

The other factor is the physical toll of long international trips. U.S. cyclists have to get used to living abroad.

Kaitie’s been doing this for a long time. She’s also been on the National Team for the road. Cylance Cycling, her road team, also is over here a lot. She’s had a lot of travel experience, so she has a lot of things figured out. Not everybody is the same. Some of the riders, it might be their first or second time coming over here. It’s eye-opening. You have to figure it all out.

Travel is one thing, for sure. But having the infrastructure when you’re here is just paramount. If you compare us with the Belgians, for instance, they have a camper van and they have another support vehicle with all of the bikes or something. Then they have a bunch of mechanics and staff and relatives. Someone’s cooking. Someone’s driving the camper van. Someone drives the car. Someone washes the bikes. Someone takes the jackets at the start. These are all different people. It’s incredible. Someone at the top of the game probably has 10 helpers.

We have a decent staff. We try to do our best to supply that. That, I think, is the stuff that makes the real difference here. Having the equipment, having the staff, and having a good ‘home.’ Making the most of a home away from home. It’s critical.

What other factors are there?

They (the Europeans) just grew up on a bicycle. It’s part of their culture. That’s a big difference. The travel is a major issue. The food. But also just learning how to ride. We (in the U.S. ) don’t have overly technical courses in most of the races in September, October, and into November and it tends to be a little bit drier. So, it’s a different kind of racing. These guys race in this mud regularly. You do have to train in it. They just have incredible bike handling skills. It shows. You could take someone who has equal numbers but their technique and just that ability to accept this (the weather) is the way it’s going to be. You’re going to have to pressure wash your skinsuit every Saturday and Sunday. And you’re gonna have 10 of them. You go through those things. It’s just as simple as that. An American could come over here and be like, ‘oh, I’ll just bring my thermal skinsuit and another one.’ You’re going to blow through those in one weekend.

It's amazing to see all of the schoolchildren riding bikes in the Netherlands.

I know. If it’s raining like this, they still ride their bikes. Right now it’s 37 degrees and it’s raining, and they’ll be an 8-year-old kid riding his bike to school or across town.

With no gloves on...

No gloves. One hand in the pocket. That’s just what they do. So they’re used to this. It’s OK to race in this. It’s OK to be out in it.

Where does Kaitie’s second overall UCI World Cup finish rank among the accomplishments you’re most proud of with your team?

I’m really happy for Kaitie that she’s achieved that. She’s worked hard for that. She deserves it. It’s a big thing for our team for sure. National championships are great for Stephen. I think that’s pretty massive. But to finish second in the world and currently be ranked second in the world, that’s pretty powerful.

Cannondale p/b Cyclocross World rides SRAM Force 1 with Zipp 303 Firecrest Disc brake tubulars, and Zipp Service Course SL bars, stems, and seatposts.

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