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Inside USA Cycling’s new ‘cross development program: A conversation with Geoff Proctor

BRUSSELS (VN) — For 11 years, Montana school teacher Geoff Proctor ran the EuroCrossCamp, a roughly 10-day program of cyclocross immersion in Europe for developing riders. During that time, almost everybody who would appear on the list of America’s best present-day cyclocross racers got their first taste of racing in cyclocross’ Belgian heartland against the sport’s toughest competitors. Jeremy Powers, Ryan Trebon, Danny Summerhill, Zach McDonald, and Jamey Driscoll are all products of the camp. not to mention road standouts like Cannondale-Garmin’s Joe Dombrowski and Alex Howes.

Last year marked the return of women to the program after a long hiatus, and Elle Anderson’s successful 2013-2014 camp netted her a contract with the Kalas-NNOF team and a season in Europe this season.

This year marked the end of the camp entirely. It was replaced by a full-fledged cyclocross development program backed by USA Cycling, with Proctor serving as head coach. The new program sent riders to Europe in four blocks — with a trip to Belgium for it’s so-called Kerstperiode race week anchoring the program — a big step for American cyclocross and the development of its next generation of leaders.

VeloNews spoke with Proctor about the new program, his coaching philosophy, and American prospects in international cyclocross at the conclusion of this latest block, at its base of operations for the GP Sven Nys in Baal, Belgium, the final race of Kerstperiode, on New Year’s Day.

VeloNews: Gage Hecht was one of the clear standouts among the American youth in Europe this year. What can you tell us about his development as a rider?

Geoff Proctor: He’s riding really strong, and so for him, the next step is to get — in teaching I use the three Ms: models, miles, mastery. He’s got the models, he now needs the miles to then get the mastery.

Gage is in the ballpark, but he needs to do more races over here. And it’s tricky with school and the [development] blocks and everything, but I think it can work, to get him over here a little bit more, I hope.

As a junior, school is still paramount, but he could do something. In cyclocross we struggle with losing guys to the road. And it’s all good for me, as head coach, that cross-pollination, or whatever the word is, it’s just part of the sport. I think guys who head to the road, who want to find their destiny, that is what it is. There’s not much you can do about it.

Gage will be tempted by the road. He’s a good road racer. That will all come. But for the time being, part of my real strong philosophy is that riders need to be doing two disciplines. Like the kid who was third in Namur, the Danish kid [Simon Andreassen]. He’s mountain bike world champion. And he’s here, in Namur, in the juniors, racing his bike. What I’m seeing is a lot of guys are just like, “I’m a mountain biker” or “I’m a ‘cross guy” or “I’m a road guy.” And the Europeans, they’re doing everything. [Julien] Absalon just broke his collarbone in a ‘cross race. He’s not sitting at home on the couch.

VN: So those guys are getting more fitness, getting more experience, getting different kinds of experience that translates across a whole career?

GP: Right. You’re racing your bike. It takes a special person to do that 12 months a year, and you do have to worry about burnout, but I think that it’s important that these kids are doing ‘cross to do the road, or doing road to do ‘cross. Or doing mountain bike to do ‘cross, that sort of thing.

VN: So tell us how you’re doing that with the new program and these development blocks.

GP: We didn’t know until quite late that the program was going to get put together because of the funding, but it started formally on September 1. We built a program around the World Cups, with four different blocks.

They did Valkenburg, a short block. Koksijde, 10 days. This block, two weeks. And then worlds and Hoogerheide, and that will be 10 days again.

And I think as a classroom teacher myself, for me school is paramount for these juniors. So you have to figure out individually, case by case, what’s going to work for them. You’d like to bring them over for longer, but they’ve already missed enough school. If they’re doing two out of those four blocks, you really have to watch it.

So I haven’t figured that out totally, but I think it’s worked really well for a first year, putting it on the map. And having the support of USA Cycling, I mean, it’s amazing what they’ve done for support with the vans, and the equipment and material.

VN: What changed at USA Cycling that brought this new focus to cyclocross?

GP: Well, I’ve certainly been pushing them for years, and I think they’ve wanted to do it, but it’s just a question of actually doing it. There’s been a lot of support from Jim Miller [vice president for athletics] and Mark Gullickson [off-road program director] to get it on the books.

I think people have realized that if you’re finishing top-10 in World Cups in the winter, and you’re a mountain biker, that bodes well. If you’re a road racer, the same.

It’s tricky though, because there’s all these training camps, and road training camps, and more the higher you go. But even Logan [Owen], who’s one of our strongest U23s on the road — and he will for sure go to the road — he sees the value of doing five or six ‘crosses at a high level. In Diegem he was 13th and faded to 17th, but even a top-15 in the U23s is great at that level. And that will help him for road for sure.

VN: Among Americans, we have Katie Compton getting podiums internationally, and occasionally someone else sneaking in there, but not many other people. Do you think this leads to America being better able to equal some of the northern European countries?

GP: I get a ton of compliments from Belgian people, saying, “Hey, great program, way to go,” You know? They’re hearing the juniors’ names on the loudspeaker and everything. And I think we have to broaden the pool in the U.S., broaden the base of the pyramid in the U.S. with more clinics, camps, get-togethers, to broaden that base. And then the middle of the pyramid is that top-level U.S. stuff, and then the top of the pyramid is over here. I mean, as long as it’s over here, it’s over here.

VN: And the experience over here in Europe is just something you can’t replicate back home.

GP: Some of the kids are the most discouraged after two weeks here. I sit them down and say, “You don’t understand; you can’t understand this right now. You can’t understand that you’ve just done four or five races on super-tough courses, and you will not look at anything the same again when you go back to the U.S.”

It’s expeditious here; you learn faster because you have to learn faster. And then you don’t waste your time. You don’t spin your wheels so to speak. It’s much more efficient to learn here.

VN: I guess because you’re learning in the race? You don’t have any choice to go down the hill or whatever. You can’t dither and say, “I don’t know if I can handle this.”

GP: Right. And then you have the training days and the World Cup and so that’s another learning experience. And then all the things we do, nightly team meetings and everything.

VN: So it also teaches them how to deal with life outside of the races.

GP: Yeah, and I actually wish I had more of a handle on the eating and sleeping and that. But it’s hard to control that. I feel like for this year, for everything I could control, it went really well.

VN: What does it mean for you personally, this transition from running a camp by yourself to being under the umbrella of USA Cycling?

GP: It really is just an extension of what I’ve been doing.

VN: Does it allow you to have a little more focus on the racing and leave the logistics up to other people?

GP: A little bit, a little bit. I’d like to be at the point where at worlds I could just focus on coaching. But like here, I’m in the pits, I’m driving vans, I’m doing lots of other things too. Tons of coordination.

For example, we didn’t have a soigneur for Loenhout, so I did that. And then if I’m doing all that stuff, helping to rub embrocation, I’m not doing stuff I should be doing, not thinking of something else I should be thinking about. And it’s harder to coach. I think what I really like is the coaching, and sometimes that gets lost. It’s hard to do because I’m pitting and running around trying to do all these other things.

VN: So one final question before we run out of time: Who should Americans be watching the rest of the season, especially among the developmental riders?

GP: Certainly Gage [Hecht]. Gage has been very consistent, but all the other juniors are, on any given day, they could be right in there.

Curtis [White] had a really good race the other day in the U23s. And Logan [Owen] and Drew Dillman have had some good races. And Tobin [Ortenblad] is coming up, Our U23s just keep getting better.

Our women, we’ve had four or five women already qualified [for worlds]. I think Elle [Anderson] will get back up to a really good level. Certainly Katie [Compton]. And Katie Antonneau has had some good races over here, Rachel Lloyd also qualified. And we have some more spots up for grabs.

In the men, obviously Jeremy [Powers] and Jonathan [Page] have the experience.

VN: So would you say there are good prospects for Americans?

GP: Yeah. I was pretty confident coming into this block, but every time you come here you’ve got to climb another mountain.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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