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Into the heart of darkness: The story of Elle Anderson

American ’cross racer Elle Anderson is heading back to Europe to race two years after her first, and traumatizing, experience there.

[pullquote align=”right”]Two years ago, Elle Anderson staggered through a miserable European ’cross campaign fraught with psychological trauma, personal struggle, and illness. This season, she’ll make a full return to the hallowed home of cyclocross, hoping to put her haunting past behind her.[/pullquote]

Sometimes there are only a few firing neurons separating gritty determination from catastrophic implosion. At first, willpower is there at your side, fighting, refusing to fail. Every ounce of strength is driving you ahead, pushing, churning. Then, suddenly, nothing. You’re hollowed. The brain lets go.

Elle Anderson has walked to the edge of such catastrophe. Two seasons ago, while racing a full season of European cyclocross from her base in Belgium, she came precariously close to plunging into a chasm and being swallowed whole. She was emptied.

But it wasn’t the racing that nearly did her in. A race is a race, familiar no matter where it is, she says. The problems arose on the days between the races — short days, damp and cold. An American based abroad faces a great challenge, trying to survive without family and often without friends, with little race support or resources, immersed in a different culture. She had to overcome incredible odds to feel at home.

She never did. Anderson lived with a series of host families, with each situation becoming traumatic in its own way. She became increasingly uncomfortable by the situations she was placed in, and spiraled down.

“I just felt like a caged animal. It was just so scary,” she remembers. “I just backed myself into a corner and I didn’t know where I could go. I couldn’t communicate or relate to any of the people around me. It was so isolating and so extremely petrifying.”

One of the most lauded American ’cross racers in recent years lasted one season in Europe before depression, anxiety, and circumstance sent her back home.

But she never let go; she refused to give up. Inside her is a fiercely competitive savage — a Mother of Dragons, someone incapable of backing down.

Now, two years later, she’s ready to return to Europe and stake her claim as one of the best ’cross talents in the world.

ANDERSON WAS RAISED in Vermont. Both her parents attended Burke Mountain Academy. Founded in 1970, the school was the first ski academy of its kind in the United States. Following in her parents’ footsteps, Anderson started as an eighth grader and stayed for six years, attempting to fulfill her dream of becoming a member of the U.S. Ski Team.

“It’s almost like a boot camp,” says her mother Lyndall Heyer. “You cannot get through that school without being unbelievably focused and organized and driven.”

Unfortunately, despite her trajectory to make the national team, Anderson’s dream was destroyed by two devastating ACL injuries, something her mother says she still hasn’t emotionally recovered from. Like others before her, Anderson’s injuries led her to the bike.

Flash forward a number of years and Anderson was the revelation of the 2013-’14 American cyclocross season. Before that, 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 suddenly she was known for beating a legend, after doing so at the Providence Cyclocross Festival in October 2013.

As the season progressed, people expected ever-bigger things from her. By all accounts she delivered, at one point winning four straight races on consecutive weekends before taking second place at the national championships behind Compton.

AndersonNationals2014.BK
Photo: Brad Kaminski | VeloNews.com

It wasn’t a surprise when she decided to take the leap to do a full European ’cross campaign in 2014-’15. She traveled to the sport’s epicenter and based herself in Belgium for the season.

It’s a step that would have made another Vermont native proud.

The parallels between Anderson’s career path and that of the late Amy Dombroski, killed in a cyclocross training crash in October 2013 in Betekom, Belgium, are uncanny. Dombroski also attended Burke Academy. She was previously a ski racer who suffered a serious knee injury that led her to cycling. When Anderson decided to make the jump to Europe, their paths became inextricably 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 in 2014. “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.”

The connections didn’t end there. Anderson was able to race in Europe for the Kalas-NNOF team, in part, because of Dombroski. After her death, Heyer wrote a letter to Dombroski’s “European family” out of the blue. She struck up a correspondence with Victor Bruyndonx, the family’s patriarch. Heyer encouraged her daughter to head to Europe and Bruyndonx was on board with the plan. Though Anderson was hesitant at first, Bruyndonx’s persistence eventually paid off.

She left for Belgium the Monday morning after the Gloucester race weekend in 2014.

BELGIUM HAS A HISTORY OF CRUSHING Americans who attempt to make it full-time in Europe. Beyond the obvious things it takes to settle in — a place to live, finding the right food, having a solid team and ample support — there is an intangible element that adds to the challenge. “From a larger perspective, it’s about trying to be at the absolute top of one’s game on a foreign continent while simultaneously being cognizant of that context of ‘otherness,’” says Geoff Proctor, who has spent years helping Americans race abroad through his EuroCrossCamp. It’s about being an outsider.

Unlike racing in the U.S. where the sport is community-driven and participatory in nature, the Belgian scene is cutthroat. Fans will throw things and jeer at anyone not named Sven Nys, Sanne Cant, or Wout van Aert. Inside the race, it’s no better — the competition wants to destroy you.

In recent years, only Jonathan Page and Christine Vardaros managed to truly make it work. They had a network of family and friends whose support cannot be overemphasized. Others have tried to do the same. Of course, Dombroski’s attempt was tragically cut short.

In 2004-’05, Jeremy Powers lived and raced both road and ’cross in Belgium full-time. “I got my head blown in,” Powers says. A brief return home for cyclocross nationals nearly became permanent. “My mom had to bring me to the airport and literally put my ass on the plane.” He never again tried to race full-time in Europe.

Of course, there is also the atmosphere. First, there’s the horrible weather. It never ceases to be wet. A constant drizzle trickles down over the saturated landscape. When there are storms — and there are often storms — it pours for days. It makes training outside difficult and mentally taxing.

It’s dark. Between November and February, the sun doesn’t rise before 8 a.m. and sets by 4:30 p.m. December and January are worse.

When you finally get out to ride, traffic is bad, and often surprisingly hostile to cyclists. The roads are dirty and in poor condition.

The grim bleakness is draining.

In walked Anderson.

Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com (File).
Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com (File).

She moved into the home that Bruyndonx, in his mid-70s, shared with his elderly mother in Heist-Goor, south of Antwerp. Anderson even slept in the same room that Dombroski had used.

“When I stayed in Amy’s room, I could almost feel Amy’s presence still in the walls,” Anderson said at the time. “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.”

Her trajectory continued skyward as she scored three top-five finishes, including fifth at the Valkenburg World Cup. And then, like a Belgian winter, life suddenly turned cold and grey.

To hear her tell the story of the series of traumas she endured next is to understand a broken woman. One particular incident highlights the purity of her vulnerability.

Bruyndonx, a former sport director and one-time insider in Belgian cycling circles, asked Anderson to go to dinner with a local politician (and an awkward mix of his friends and relatives) who was organizing her fan club. When she returned home, around 10:30 p.m., she startled Bruyndonx, who had fallen asleep on the living room couch watching TV. He immediately erupted, chiding her for coming home late, about not taking her cycling career seriously, not getting enough rest, cavorting with strange men, and on and on. He became nonsensical. They argued. Bruyndonx demanded she sit on the couch and discuss things. Anderson simply wanted to go to bed. He became further agitated and found more bizarre ways to deride and criticize Anderson.

She no longer felt safe. She was completely exposed.

“It was so alarming because it came out of nowhere,” she remembers. “At no other point had he ever said any of these things. I had only tried to appease him.” She tried to go to her third-floor room. He grabbed her arm. By 1 a.m., Anderson had had enough. She sought refuge in her room, only for Bruyndonx to try to stop her from shutting her door. She texted an acquaintance in town, pleading her to help her leave the house. She eventually did, but Anderson knew she had been fooled. She would never trust him or the situation again.

(Bruyndonx did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

“I put all my eggs in one basket,” Anderson says. “Vic had worked on me for months to help me trust him and help me believe that he was going to do right by me. I had no one else. When shit went down, being all alone in a foreign country, not having anywhere else to go, not having any sense of safety or anyone I could trust — my vulnerability was a result of the psychological warfare that he played.”

Being a female submerged in the muddy field of intimidating, chauvinistic masculinity that is the Belgian cycling world (small, tight-knit, and driven by very big egos), made it all that more frightening. “I’m surrounded by people trying to puff out their chests further to try and be my host, and own me, and be the person I rely on,” she says.

[pullquote attrib=”Elle Anderson” align=”right”]”Being all alone in a foreign country, not having anywhere else to go, not having any sense of safety or anyone I could trust — my vulnerability was a result of the psychological warfare that he played.”[/pullquote]

Since Dombroski had lived with Bruyndonx for two seasons, Anderson had a difficult time reconciling what she trusted Dombroski would tolerate and the chaos she was living. “I trusted that she made the right decision,” she says. But this? It created an untenable situation.

To add insult to injury, days after the incident with Bruyndonx, Anderson developed a severe sinus infection, something that plagues many Americans that race in Europe. She made the decision to move out, and try to move her things without setting off Bruyndonx, while battling a serious illness. She was afraid to take any medication because of her unfamiliarity with Belgian brands and which may have contained banned substances.

As ridiculous as it seems (and Anderson now fully understands how ridiculous it seems), she moved to the house of Emile Van den Broeck, the man who was driving the motorcycle behind which Dombroski was motor-pacing when she was struck and killed by a truck. She fared no better in this host home due to myriad reasons, not the least of which was the fact that Van den Broeck had a history of being enemies and friends with Bruyndonx.

“I can’t remember why I didn’t go home,” she says. “Why didn’t I call USA Cycling? That’s the most fascinating part to me, that I wouldn’t let anyone help me because I was somehow convinced that this was the only way to approach the situation.”

Her race results tanked, never to return that season.

Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com (File).
Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com (File).

ANDERSON’S PARENTS WERE PROFOUNDLY influenced by a book they read when their kids were young. By Jean Liedloff, an American writer who spent two and a half years deep in the South American jungle with Stone Age Indians, “The Continuum Concept” details how the experience demolished the author’s Western preconceptions of how we should live. For Heyer and her husband, it meant adopting an unorthodox philosophy for raising their kids.

“If it wasn’t life-threatening to our kids, we didn’t say anything,” Heyer says. “We tried to never say, ‘Be careful.’ Because children are inherently careful. They don’t need hovering parents around them telling them, ‘Watch out,’ ‘You’re going to get hurt,’ ‘Be careful,’ ‘Don’t do that, you could fall.’”

Anderson stayed in Europe through the end of the 2015 season. She had made it. The worst was behind her. Or so she believed.

“I thought, I’m just going to get on the airplane, the wheels are going to lift off from Europe, and I’m going to leave that baggage behind. But we know that never happens,” she says.

She was completely exhausted, anxious, and stressed when she returned to the United States. Crushed. After returning to work for Strava in San Francisco, she began therapy. For months, she attended two sessions a week to try to unravel the reasons for her traumatic experiences. She resisted traditional medication, but ultimately learned many things from the mindfulness approach of her counselor. Though she was never given a formal diagnosis, she now recognizes she was likely suffering from a severe bout of depression. But a diagnosis was not of much concern to her. She looked forward to the journey ahead.

“I still wonder at my bravery to simply pack up and move to Belgium that first season, to move in with strangers I barely knew, to put myself in a situation with so many unknowns and so many risks that things wouldn’t turn out as I expected,” she says. “I didn’t once tell myself to be careful, to watch out in case things got tough, and I stubbornly refused to quit and go home early. The experience did hurt me in a way — it was traumatic. But just like reaching out to touch an open flame only to get burned, I learned to heal and to be resilient.”

After locking her bike away for all of July and much of August, spending time trying to heal, Anderson made the decision to return to racing for the 2015-’16 season, albeit later than usual. She began furiously working to design her own program, find new equipment, and return to racing. She did by late October. She raced domestically for much of 2015, garnering a few top-five results and placing fourth at nationals in Asheville, North Carolina. Then, somewhat astoundingly, she dabbled in European racing, managing to finish a number of races in the top 10. By most measures, especially under the circumstances, it was a successful return to a sport and a place that had, at least indirectly, nearly driven her to disaster.

Photo: Brad Kaminski | VeloNews.com
Photo: Brad Kaminski | VeloNews.com

“I THINK I AM MORE EXCITED about this coming season than I have been about cyclocross in a long time, which is really, really, fantastic. I just cannot wait to get back to Belgium!” said Anderson, now 28, who is ready to slay her demons. She’ll return to Europe this fall for a second full-season campaign. Is she afraid that all of those devastating emotions will come flooding back over her as soon as she returns to the cold and grey of Belgium? On the contrary, she’s beaming at the opportunity to prove she is now a harder soul.

“This is what impresses me the most about Elle: she’s extremely resilient,” Proctor says. “She came back. With a lot of self-reflection, she made some important changes.”

Therapy also helped her understand that she was the one that put herself in that dark corner. She had built up a dream — not to mention placed incredible expectations on herself after the successes of that previous season — only to see it crumble, swiftly and catastrophically. Disoriented by the frustrations she felt over losing control of her situation, she relied on primal instinct to see her through her darkest hours. “That is the reason why I want to go back to Belgium. Because intuitively, subconsciously, I know it’s really not that scary and there’s nothing that I’m really afraid of besides myself,” she says.

[pullquote attrib=”Elle Anderson” align=”left”]”In Europe, the racing is not really inclusive, not really friendly, not really approachable. But for some reason I just love it more.”[/pullquote]

While she searched for a European program to join, she never found anything that felt quite right. So, like last year, she’ll run her own program, with continued support from SRAM and new partners Velocio and Roti Cycling Services. The remainder of her sponsors and equipment choices are still a work in progress, as is her schedule.

“I’m not interested in racing in the U.S. very much. My heart is really in Europe, in the level of competition over there, in the environment and the culture and that challenge,” she says. “That’s very much what drives me, what motivates me. It has a power for me. It’s not really inclusive, not really friendly, not really approachable. It’s not really feel-good, but for some reason I love it more.”

When she was a young girl, Anderson would often admire her mother’s ski racing trophies, gathered across a 10-year professional career that took in both the World Cup and Europa Cup. She heard of her mother’s successful year spent racing in Europe outside the comfort of the U.S. Ski Team on an international racing license. Her admiration for her mother has, in many ways, made her who she is.

But despite her vehement wish to do things her way, on her own terms, without the help of others, this time around Anderson will have the positive support she never had two years ago. His name is Niels. Though their relationship is young and she’s reluctant to bring too much attention to it, having a trustworthy Belgian host, friend, supporter, pit crew, training partner, Dutch-speaker, and, yes, boyfriend all in one will make the foul, dark days far from home that much more bearable. Perhaps she’ll even have fun.

“I find success, maybe find some sort of happiness, in that environment. I can say the next question is, ‘Why?’ Why would you even want to seek out that happiness in a completely miserable place? Well, I don’t know. I can’t answer that question. For some reason, I feel like that’s the life journey I want to take and that’s what’s going to be most meaningful for me. Heck, if I’m not going to get paid, I might as well follow my heart.”

Into the darkness.

Photo: Benedicto de Jesus
Photo: Benedicto de Jesus