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Brands training camp sets tone early

It’s still hot, but the cold starting line is just around the corner

For those who fight for the top spots on pro podiums, cyclocross season has already begun in earnest, the practice courses abuzz with every summertime creature that flies, crawls, or creeps. The pro team, along with its development team, meets in mid-August to kick off its season in Patterson, New York. Hub-deep mud and frosted chicanes are still months away but a collective sense of urgency is palpable anyway.

“When was the last time you rode in a group?” Tim Johnson asks the development team, a group ranging from 11-year-olds to proven under-23 riders like Emma White. “How many of you have ridden in a group in the last two months?”

Only one or two hands go up, and it’s clear now how necessary training sessions like this one really are. Even the top riders develop cobwebs in the off-season.

The practice course in the fields behind Pawling Cycle and Sport is verdant in the bright summer sunlight. The green Cannondale kits on Ryan Trebon, Stephen Hyde, Curtis White, and Kaitie Antonneau disappear in the deciduous leaves; the red of the development team jerseys stand out in stark contrast. When White dabs in a corner, Trebon jokes, “Your jersey’s getting a little redder.”

There’s an eagerness to prove oneself among the younger riders, and that fire is stoked by the veterans who alternately push the pace and keep things light and casual, joking with everyone, often self-deprecatingly, for a laugh. When a camera drone circles overhead, the jokes come quick: “Trebon’s going to hit his head on that thing as he comes out of the turn.” The lanky 6-foot-6 veteran takes it in stride, having heard it all before. He’s been recovering from a back injury for quite awhile now, and while he pressures himself to perform this season, he’s all smiles the entire day. This is ‘cross.

A strange easiness comes with the training, contrasted sharply with the difficulty of cyclocross. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that: Keep your head cool and you’ll do well in a race. Lose your cool and you might as well be nothing more than a spectator.

“Never yell at someone while you’re out on the course,” Johnson says. “If they pass you, even if it’s kind of a dirty or aggressive move, don’t say anything. Just pass them, and do it quick, and do it forcefully.”

These are the lessons not found in training plans and power data. They’re the ever-important tidbits that develop not from scouring Strava data, but from spending a career chasing the best riders in the world on famous courses through the U.S., Europe, and other corners of the globe. While the goal of cyclocross is to go fast, Johnson gives his development team a different perspective when they approach a muddy hill that could be conquered pedaling high watts, or by hoofing it on foot.

“I’m not as concerned with whether you make it up the hill,” he says. “I’m more concerned with the decisions you make on the way up.” When do you dismount? When do you push on in the saddle? Where will the race be won and lost? If you couldn’t clear it last lap or the lap before, why would you try to clear it this time? Is it faster to run it?

It’s all about the intangibles. Each rider here has had his or her share of success already; Johnson’s goal is to make success repeatable. They all have the strength and conditioning. Johnson wants to give them the head for racing.

He knows how to get them in the right mentality because he’s been down that road himself. “I was that kid. I wanted to go as fast as I could and just race and race, but one of those things that develops is the idea of how you actually race, the craft of racing. There are the tricks, the skills, and the down parts, but when I was racing, when I got a flat, I changed it and realized I had 37 minutes to take the lead again. I was never the one to throw my bike or sit there and pout.”

During a mock race, Johnson eats it hard in a tight switchback, and true to his word, pouting is not in the program. He’s laughing before he hits the ground, and back on his bike just as quickly. There’s a lesson in everything, a “what-did-I-do-there” that even the youngest riders can recognize, internalize, and understand for those saved seconds that matter so much.

At a tight switchback, Johnson stops the group. “Protect your space,” he says, asking the development riders about their strategies for gaining ground in corners and straightaways. “Go tape to tape on the course. The 8 a.m. line is worse than the 4 p.m. line, so don’t always go where it looks like you’re supposed to go because earlier races rutted the course.”

It seems obvious in retrospect, but in the heat of competition, the line you see is the line you’ll take. Changing the lines you see is key to improving the lines you could take. And of course, execution is just as important. “Take turns like a bus: Start wide so you can cherry-pick your line,” Johnson says as the team of red jerseys, trailed by Trebon, White, Hyde, and Antonneau, weaves through a series of switchbacks. “The race isn’t into the turn, it’s out of it.”

Antonneau, who has already seen her fair share of pro success at only 23 years old, struggles initially with the exercise. “That’s not the line I would take!” She shouts as she rubs the tape on the outside of the turn. “It’s so unnatural!”

Johnson laughs. That’s why we’re here, to find the lines that we don’t take, to make the unnatural more natural.

Repetition breeds improvement, and within minutes It’s clear Antonneau is getting it, changing her habits for those marginal gains that aren’t so marginal on short, fast CX courses.

In a way, being on the ‘cross course with pros is a lot like looking out of an airplane window: Your brain can’t really tell how fast the air is moving past you. That is, of course, until you reach your fingers out the window and feel the wind rush past — not possible on an airplane, but roll up to the starting line with the pros and speed quickly gets redefined.

A mock relay race starts and a few three-person teams are combined with journalists in attendance. All the skills and training and conditioning tighten up suddenly, and blurs of green jerseys mix with red jerseys on the course, ripping around switchbacks, dismounting in one silky-smooth motion and running up the stairs. The sound of clipless pedals clicking and hard, fast breaths of already-exhausted journalists fill the air and cheers and heckling from the start/finish area resonate across the grass.

It’s all for fun, of course, but the sheer talent in this field is on full display, albeit for no fans to see. Smiles come easy, yet the undercurrent of real training, real effort, real talent resonates.

It’s hot now. Our breaths don’t condense like they will later in the season. From the outside looking in, that might be the only difference in intensity between now and November. From the inside, that intensity is the through-line, the most consistent theme from beginning to end of every cyclocross season. And this team, writing chapter one of the season to come, seems ready for it.