Raphael Gagne takes on cyclocross after standout MTB season

Gagne returns to 'cross after four years away from the discipline, and he's expecting to make a splash at Canadian nationals this month.

At last, Raphaël Gagné finds himself at the end of a rainbow. After a mountain bike season of achievements such as Pan American Games gold, he’s developed a sustainable way to mix cyclocross with big cross-country ambitions. The solution is a short competition calendar as a member of the new Red Truck-Garneau cyclocross team, Canada’s first professional cyclocross outfit.

The 28-year-old will race five weekends, including the Canadian national cyclocross championships after a four-year absence from the event. He could be a favorite in Winnipeg on October 24, yet he remains cautious about his chances given the tough fight expected at the Shimano Canadian Cyclocross Championships p/b Volvo.

His breakthrough mountain bike season opened with a March victory at Bonelli Park in USA Cycling’s US Cup, which Gagné won overall in June; it was his first series title. In July, he doubled-up on gold medals at the Pan American Games and Canadian cross-country championships. Next came a sixth place at the Windham World Cup. Then, at mountain bike worlds, he delivered the best male North American finish.

Improved health and mental strength powered his results; prior to this year, colds and sinus infections had derailed his performance. “I kept believing and doing my best to train, recover, and perform,” he said. “It didn’t always work out but I just kept doing the good work and in the end it finally paid off.”

Gagné believes the short cyclocross calendar improves his fall program, even this year as he hopes to race at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics next August. He likes to train by racing and said ’cross augments skills such as cornering.

“For technical skills at speed under pressure, it’s really good because you are never really in control or rested in ’cross. You have to stay on the wheel and be sharp physically, technically, and strategically,” he said.

While mountain biking consumes him — in part because of his Olympic dreams — Gagné loves cyclocross for its challenges. Maybe as much as he loves mountain biking.

“This is how much I think ’cross is good for me and how much I love it: Two years ago I didn’t have any support and only one bike, and I raced almost a whole season out of my pocket,” Gagné said.

Last year, however, that love bumped up against other priorities. Again without a ’cross team, he opted out of racing.

“I was tempted to buy a bike and just race,” he said. “But at the level I’m at, I don’t think I deserve to buy a bike and race out of my own budget.”

He spent the fall completing a university degree in physical education teaching.

Growing up in Québec City, Gagné started mountain biking at age 9. He tried a few cyclocross races on a mountain bike as a junior and won a provincial championship. At provincials in 2009 he raced on a ’cross bike for the first time and won the senior men’s category.

“My first two laps of pre-riding were weird and bumpy. I had way too much air in my tires,” he recalled.

His 2011 mountain bike season ended early due to a back injury, so he dabbled in the U.S. ’cross scene. In 2013, on his self-funded campaign with a single bike and no spare wheels, he grabbed four UCI wins plus three podium spots.

With the Red Truck-Garneau team, Gagné’s five-weekend schedule began in Gloucester with a top-10 result from a back row start. In Providence, on day 1, he flatted but still placed eighth. His tour will include the Cycle-Smart International in Northampton, Massachusetts — the scene of Gagné’s first- and second-place finishes in 2013 — one additional U.S. venue, and then Canadian ’cross nationals.

Gagné watched the livestream of last year’s title race in Winnipeg. He believes his technical strengths will still prove advantageous on the fast circuit where long pedaling sections connect sandpit and off-camber features that proved decisive in the 2014 elite races.

“If a course isn’t too technical, but there are still turns and braking and acceleration, it definitely suits me,” he explained.

Citing a year off from the discipline and uncertainty about the energy stores remaining in his legs, Gagné is targeting a podium result.

“I’m always thinking about the win, but I think wishing for the podium is realistic, and it’s just a good goal for me,” he said. “I don’t want to put too much pressure [on myself] for ’cross.”

Gagné will arrive in Winnipeg with teammates Michael van den Ham and Craig Richey. They are favorites in Gagné’s mind, along with defending champion Mike Garrigan (Van Dessel-Shimano), Geoff Kabush (SCOTT-3Rox), and Jérémy Martin (Louis Garneau Québec).

If the man from Québec City wins, he will pile two milestones on his already large take for 2015: a maple leaf jersey in cyclocross for himself, and the first male elite championship in 18 years or more for the Province of Québec.