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Christian Heule returns to CrossVegas ahead of, maybe, his last year racing

Swiss 'cross star Christian Heule may be coming into his last year of racing, and he's looking to carry a CrossVegas win into a strong European season

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2009 StarCrossed, Trebon, Heule and Page
Trebon, Heule and Page at the 2009 StarCrossed

Five-time Swiss national cyclocross champion Christian Heule (Champion System) may start his third and final Cross Vegas Wednesday night as he eyes a possible retirement after the 2010-11 season. “I plan to finish this season and if I get a good offer to do one more season, I’ll probably do one more,” he said on the eve of his third of five events in a two-week U.S. run that began at StarCrossed in Washington last Saturday. “But it’s definitely one of my last seasons.”

Heule is on his third tour of duty in the United States and finished second twice over the weekend, behind Christian Mourey (Francaise des Jeux) and Jonathan Page (Planet Bike) at StartCrossed and Mourey and Ryan Trebon (Kona) at the Rad Racing Gran Prix.

The 14-year pro registered a seventh-place finish, his best ever, at the world championships in February and closed the season ninth in the World Cup overall. Heule’s strong finish came after a two-week training camp in Mallorca that turned around a month of injury and illness following the World Cup in Nomay, France.

“After that I had a lot of trouble and for about three or four weeks couldn’t train very well,” he said. “I had troubles with my back as well.” A crash three laps from the finish at the Swiss championships January 10 erased Heule’s chances for a sixth title, but he did score a second-place finish at the C1 GP Wetzikon in mid-December and was the best placed of the expected CrossVegas starters, other than Mourey, at worlds in Tabor, Czech Republic.

Heule began his professional career on the road in 1998 with Ericsson-Villiger and focused his energy on the skinny tires for five years, a period he credits with developing the tactical foundation that keeps him competitive in a high impact, anaerobic discipline midway through his 30’s. Giving up entirely on cyclocross for half a decade, Heule hoped to build a long road career. “My heart was still in cyclocross,” he said. “After the fifth year I wasn’t happy with the offers I had from several teams on the road and I decided to focus back on cyclocross. I was too young to stop my career and I think it was a good decision to focus on cyclocross.”

He sees a close relation between ’cross and road tactics. When he returned to ‘cross after two years alongside Gregory Rast and Martin Elminger at Post Swiss, Heule said the transition was easy and that background still serves him well, nine years later. “I feel myself getting older and recovery takes longer,” he said. “I do about 30 road races a year to strengthen my tactical senses.”

An emergency appendectomy three days after returning from a trip to Mallorca in March cut Heule’s road season short this year. “It was a total emergency,” he said. “I had troubles after. They made some mistakes in the surgery and I had three or four weeks to get a little bit better, still not well, but just to get back on the bike.”

The nearly four weeks he took off the bike are in the rearview mirror now and Heule hopes to earn at least one win and a heap of UCI points before returning home after the USGP opener at the Planet Bike Cup in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, this weekend. The win would pad his confidence ahead of a long European campaign, but the points could push Heule into the front two rows at the second round of the World Cup in Plzen, Czech Republic, October 24.

“Start place is one of the most important things in cyclocross racing. You may not win a race with starting on the first row, but you probably lose a race starting in the third or fourth row,” said Heule. “That’s why I make this investment to ride cyclocross in the States.”

The World Cup starting grid is laid out using UCI points after the series’ opening round and top points holders receive the best start positions. But that is only one reason behind Heule’s three-year run of early season U.S. racing. The veteran said he prefers American racing for all the sport offers outside of the course tape in the States. “For me, cyclocross in Belgium is already more business than real ’crossing. It’s not something I like the most anymore, but it’s necessary and it’s nice to have that many spectators for every race and live on TV,” he said. “For me, it seems sometimes to be too much business and not so much sport anymore. The hour of racing is the same, but before the race and after the race, I like it better in the States.”

If he truly prefers racing in the U.S., why doesn’t Heule make a longer American season? One word: family. The 35-year-old is a husband and father of two children under the age of five and his three-week stint away from home is his longest of the year – the most difficult for him to handle. “For me, a man with a wife and two kids, it’s important to stay at home as much as possible,” said Heule, pointing to an easier family schedule when asked the difference between racing as a pro on the road and ’cross bike. “That’s the biggest difference. The racing is racing and it’s all cycling, but homesick is probably one of the worst sicknesses you can have.”

Heule was disappointed in his results in Washington last weekend and will look to turn up his first win of the year at CrossVegas Wednesday night. “I’m not very happy with the two races, but the results are still OK,” he said. “Mourey is one of the best cyclocrossers in the world and to not win against him is not a shame. To be third behind Page or Trebon also is not a shame.”

The former Tour de Suisse podium finisher left the rain of the Pacific Northwest for the extreme heat of Las Vegas after Rad Racing Sunday and hoped to improve on his best finish of second in 2007 on the grass at the Desert Breeze Soccer Complex. “It’s unbelievable. You can ride the same line 200 times and the grass is still up,” he said. “It makes the course so hard to ride. Normally you get the grass on the ground and you start rolling, but in Vegas definitely not.”

A win at CrossVegas would set Heule down the path toward the main goals of what may be his final season: a Swiss championship, top 10 in the final World Cup standings and top five at the world championships in Sankt Wendel, site of his biggest career disappointment, at worlds in 2005.

“I was an outside favorite and had a crash the Saturday before the race. I crashed on my knee very hard and couldn’t start on Sunday. I was in great shape and there were super perfect conditions for me,” Heule said. “But every sportsman has to handle some bad things.”

Heule could reverse that memory with a strong ride in Germany January 30, 2011. First, though, he’ll start under the lights and 80-degree temperatures that could not be further removed from the snow he’ll likely see in Sankt Wendel in four months.