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How the EuroCross Academy kept kids stoked on cyclocross during COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic made the 2020 EuroCross Academy camp impossible, director Geoff Proctor came up with a virtual alternative.

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The video clip showed Mike Teunissen powering through mud puddles during the 2013 UCI world cyclocross championships in Louisville, Kentucky, while a young Wout van Aert and Julian Alaphilippe chased several seconds in arrears. The fast and muddy cyclocross action beamed across a Zoom teleconference call as several dozen bike racers from across the U.S. watched the action on their computer screens.

Suddenly, Teunissen’s voice crackled through the Zoom channel.

“At this moment you can see I’m really happy to be world champion, and at this point, I am not sure what I am going to do in my cycling career,” Teunissen said, narrating the scene. “You can see that Wout is in his first year and he is so good. Even if Alaphilippe isn’t doing that well in the race you can see that what he learned is helping him to this day.”

Another voice crackled through on the call — someone asked Teunissen whether those skills he learned in cyclocross ever factor into a WorldTour road race. Teunissen answered with an emphatic, “Oh yeah.”

“You can really pick out the guys who did cyclocross in the past because they are so much more explosive, especially from a standing start,” Teunissen said. “The pure road cyclists are so slow — it’s funny to see. That [kind of] acceleration is so specific because in road cycling you never stop.”

Teunissen was speaking to members of the EuroCross Academy, the annual cyclocross skills and training camp for up-and-coming riders organized by longtime coach Geoff Proctor. During a typical year, Proctor might invite more than 30 promising cyclocross racers from around the country to his ranch in Helena, Montana for a fun-filled week of bunny-hop practice and interval work.

During a normal year, Proctor invites top pros like Katie Compton to help coach the young riders. Photo: Erika Peterman

Veteran pro riders would be available to offer sage advice, and the kids would leave the camp with a quiver full of new racing skills, and brains filled with knowledge.

Of course, 2020 has been anything but typical, and like coaches and race organizers across the globe, Proctor has had to adjust to hurdles created by the COVID-19 pandemic. When Proctor, who teaches high school, realized that operating his camp in person was out of the question, he got creative.

“I’ve been teaching online all spring, so doing stuff over Zoom seemed like a good idea,” Proctor told VeloNews. “I wanted to build in a European component for these kids, because I want to give them a broader world view. So I tapped into my contacts to see what I could come up with.”

What Proctor came up with was a virtual skills camp build around a 10-week series of invite-only Zoom calls with cyclocross celebrities and coaches from around the globe. Proctor’s teenaged riders followed training plans submitted by his circle of coaches, and they submitted videos of themselves performing cyclocross skills such as dismounts and re-mounts, to work on technique.

Every week, riders then sat down for an hourlong call with a guest speaker. The lineup included international stars like Sven Nys, Katerina Nash, and Lucinda Brand; North American riders Curtis White and Rebecca Fahringer; and top coaches like Jim Miller and Grant Holicky, among others.

The riders and coaches spoke on a wide range of topics, from proper racing preparation, to the character attributes that help riders become champions.

Nys spoke about the importance of respect and recalled the instance in 2012 when he approached a fan who had thrown beer into his face during a Belgian race. Shirin Van Anrooij, the current junior women’s world champion, told the camp members how she would ride on her trainer on weeknights after school in order to complete her studies.

Brand spoke to the riders after she had completed a grueling five-hour training ride.

“Her hair was still wet from the shower, and she’s kind of scrambled, and she’s sharing her experiences with these kids who idolize her,” Proctor said. “I bring these rock stars to a human level and show they are accessible. I believe in creating those connections.”

More than 75 kids participated in the 2020 camp, in some form. After the camp concluded in September, Proctor’s email inbox was filled with feedback from the kids.

One rider said he enjoyed hearing from Belgian Under-23 rider Niels Vandeputte.

“It was really interesting to hear a young rider working his way and the challenges he’s faced,” wrote the email. “I’m only a couple years behind him so it gave me some good [insight] on what to work on.”

Another message referenced the speech given by coach Chris McGovern, who helps run the U.S. cyclocross program in Europe.

“He talked to us about placing yourself around other successful people,” the message read. “He also explained that not every race will be a good race. You just have to keep working hard and training.”

Proctor said the weekly check-ins and zoom calls helped the kids stay motivated, even in lieu of the racing. As the camp went along, more and more U.S. cyclocross events were called off, culminating in USA Cycling’s announcement in September that the 2020 U.S. cyclocross national championships were canceled.

Even as the races were cut from the calendar, Proctor continued the weekly calls. Having the kids check-in with each other — and hear from the riders and coaches — gave them something to look forward to.

And it provided them with helpful advice that, someday, could help them navigate the ebb and flow of a professional cycling career, or a career in another field.

Teunissen offered this advice as he recalled his world title victory from 2013. Sure, the win felt good — and it came against a stacked field of future WorldTour talent. More important than the victory, Teunissen said, was that he enjoyed the race and had fun speeding around the muddy park in Kentucky.

“It sounds cliché, but my advice is to always have fun,” Teunissen said. “Already at nine years old I wanted to be a pro cyclist, but I saw kids dropping out of school to completely focus on that. They all lost the fun of it. I think it’s important to always have fun.”