Positive Signs for Americans
For Europeans the busy period has long served as the final test and training period before championships. But more and more North Americans have also made the trip to Europe for the Kerstperiode in recent years, and perhaps never have these two intense weeks mattered more than the do this year. With only a handful of racing opportunities available in North America before the US National Championship — held in January for the first time — Belgium offers a chance for the final tune-ups many racers need.
“Mario de Clerq used to talk about this period as his ‘stage race’,” says Geoff Proctor, who runs the nine year-old Euro Cross Camp, which brings developing American racers to Belgium during the holidays. 20 riders made the trip this year, producing some of the best results in the history of the program. Under-23 racer Zach McDonald scored a third place in Zolder and Junior Logan Owen scored four top tens, including a fifth in Zolder.
Proctor says that despite the changes in the schedule, he has hoped the camp will set up participants for success on the biggest stage. “These European guys do so many races, then they just rest, and then they are flying for the next three weeks. They do this overload period, then they supercompensate, and then they’re — Boom! — at another level,” he explains. “And I’m trying to do the same thing with the camp. I have wanted the camp to be a constant (regardless of nationals). It’s it has one mission, which is preparation for Worlds and European experience. So whenever Nationals fall, I think this year it did take on a bit of a different angle because now this is preparation for national too.”
And though Proctor’s campers almost uniformly told VeloNews they have grown as a result of their time in Belgium, no American seems to have benefitted from the past two weeks as much as Jonathan Page.
Though Page has always targeted the biggest races at the end of the season, he is coming off perhaps the most disappointing early season of his career and has, at times, even talked about retiring.
Perhaps the most accomplished elite male rider in US history, with palmares that include a second place finish at Worlds in 2007, Page has been uncharacteristically off balance this season. His results sunk as low as a 43rd place in a World Cup race in Tabor in October, but have turned around in recent weeks. Since Friday Page has pulled down two consecutive top ten finishes — seventh in Leuven and tenth today.
“It’s good. This has been a very hard week and I’ve come out of it really good,” said Page today. Now it’s time to chill out a little bit, hope for the best, have good travel, and head to Nationals on Friday. This has been my plan for a while, it could be the season’s saving grace. A few weeks ago I wouldn’t have been able to do this. I’ve been consistently good recently. Things keep improving and that’s good to see. There’s no doubt that I need to finish the season well, because I just haven’t been performing.”
Page’s other results, though not entirely spectacular, have been the best of any American in the past two weeks. He will head to Madison next week as a serious contender for the national title — alongside Ryan Trebon, who claimed an impressive victory yesterday in conditions nearly as muddy as in Baal, Jeremy Powers, and perhaps Tim Johnson, who also spent time in Europe in the past two weeks.
Johnson, however, had to settle for disappointing 39th and 37th place finishes in two World Cup races.
“It hasn’t even been mixed, the trip was pretty mediocre,” said Johnson, clearly disappointed after last Monday’s race in Zolder. “But I think I’ll get to the place where I need to be still. I know what it takes to get me going, and even if I have bad results, I am riding better than these results and I know I’ll get there. I’m really optimistic about Nationals.”
Other riders came to Belgium with their National Championships behind them. Canadian Craig Richey, who has been based in Belgium since the Canadian Championships in November was among those who matched up against eight-time Japanese national champion Keiichi Tsujiura, New Zealanders, Australians, looking for some late-season racing opportunities. Richey pulled down solid, if not spectacular results, but said je benefitted from the opportunity to test himself in competitive races.
“The past weeks have been way different from normal Belgian racing,” said Richey after today’s race, his sixth of the period and, with a 29th place finish, his best. “Over this block of racing I was emotionally invested in the World Cups. But I didn’t really care about the results at the others and could take them much more casually and try some different things I normally wouldn’t do in a big race. With a focus on Worlds the intensive race block is great preparation, lots of intensity and skills work. But it takes a lot out of you and with nationals on the 8th, it could be a little much. This year a lot of the top guys skipped at least one or two of the races.”