Cyclocross

Riding in Amy Dombroski’s muddy tire tracks

Elle Anderson heads to the hallowed grounds of Europe this cyclocross season

The revelation of the 2013-2014 American cyclocross season, Elle Anderson, is heading to the sport’s epicenter, basing herself in Belgium this season to focus on her first full European ’cross campaign. It’s a step that would have made another young Vermont native proud.

The parallels between Anderson’s career trajectory and that of the late Amy Dombroski, killed in a training accident last October in Sint-Katelijne-Waver, Belgium, are uncanny.

The two attended Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont. Both were ski racers who suffered bad knee injuries that led them to their discovery of cycling. Now that Anderson has made the jump to the European circuit, their two paths are linked.

“I actually think about that often because I feel that I am traveling such a similar path to Amy, and the kind of emotions I feel about that are reassurance and gratitude,” Anderson said. “Because it’s reassuring to me to feel like I’m following Amy somewhere, that she’s been here before me and it’s all going to be okay because she made it through, and she’s made it just those few steps ahead of me.”

The comforting connections don’t end there. The reason Anderson will even get to race in Europe for her new Kalas-NNOF team (formerly KDL Cycling) has to do, in part, with Amy.

After Dombroski’s death, Anderson’s mother wrote a letter to Dombroski’s “European family” out of the blue.

Anderson’s mother had been reading some of the coverage about Dombroski’s Belgian hosts and how they were dealing with the loss. She struck up a correspondence with Victor Bruyndonx, the family’s patriarch.

“When I went over to Europe in December [to EuroCrossCamp], Victor just came and found me,” Anderson said. “He talked to me and started following my racing and when the season started to wrap up at world championships, it was almost his idea originally. He asked, ‘Are you going to come race in Europe? I’ll ask around for you and help you find some teams.’”

Though she was hesitant at first, Bruyndonx’s persistence paid off. Anderson will leave for Belgium the Monday morning after the Gloucester race weekend.

If you had asked her in January if she would race a full season in Belgium, she wouldn’t have had a clue, she admitted. Now, she’s ready to go, reassured by the friend who rode the muddy bergs before her, grateful of the opportunity to continue the legacy of a fallen comrade.

She will live with the same host family, even sleep in the same room that Dombroski used.

“When I stayed in Amy’s room, soon to be my room, in April, when I signed the contract, I could imagine and almost feel Amy’s presence still in the walls of that room,” Anderson said. “It makes me feel closer to Amy than I’ve ever felt in the past, like a part of her is still there and will follow me through my experiences to continue what could be considered the same story … or a sequel. I’m sure the feeling will fade a bit as I settle into my life in Belgium, and maybe it does border a little on creepy. But again, I can only imagine her to be happy knowing what I’ve set out to do. To be around people that supported her and that took care of her is really reassuring for me. I’m just grateful that maybe I can write a next chapter that she’s not able to write, and in some small way I can be continuing her dream, even though she’s not able to.”

The revelation

Coming into the 2013-2014 season, no American had beaten then nine-time national champion Katie Compton since 2006. Anderson’s was a name that few people had heard before, and then one day she was known for beating the legend, after doing so on the first day of the Providence Cyclocross Festival in early October.

Throughout the rest of the season, people expected ever bigger things from Anderson; by all accounts, she delivered, with four straight wins at both days of the Trek Cyclocross Collective Cup and Gran Prix of Gloucester on consecutive weekends, her third place at the Superprestige round in Diegem behind Belgian champ Sanne Cant (Enertherm-BKCP), and her second place finish at the national championships behind Compton.

It was a big year, a breakthrough year. Is it a sign of more to come?

Anderson comes into the 2014-2015 season with an entirely new plan. She tackled CrossVegas, riding to a disappointing 15th, though she is looking to have better form once the move to Europe is behind her. She skipped the races in Boulder, Colorado, and will head to the Gloucester race weekend before it’s on to Belgium for the season.

She’ll continue to work for Strava, five hours a day, five days a week, while maintaining a full race schedule. Expectations are high, but the competition will be entirely new. She’ll start her first race in Europe just days after arriving, at the Superprestige kickoff in Gieten on October 5. She’ll race through February 28, after the world championships, and the traditional finish to the European ’cross season. She will only return to the U.S. for the national championships in January, and before that the Cincy 3 Cyclocross Festival weekend, along with the newly created Pan-American continental championships in early November.

“Even last year, when I kept having successes, I just kept going with the flow, having a lot of fun, letting that momentum carry me through the season,” Anderson said. “When everything is new, it helps deflect some of the pressure. It’s like, ‘Well, it’s another race; let’s see what happens.’ When I think about this coming year, I think I can ride the wave and let things come as they may because I’ve changed so many things from last year. In so many ways, I feel like I have another blank slate to write whatever I want. I don’t feel like a lot of people have big expectations of what I can do because I’m going to be in Europe, it’s going to be a completely new circuit, new competition, and I kind of just get to discover cyclocross from a whole new angle.”