When Katie Hall received a two-year contract offer from Boels-Dolmans for the 2019 and 2020 seasons, she initially declined, instead inking a one-year deal with the Dutch super team. After all, what if living in Europe full-time and racing in the breakneck European races didn’t work out?
“I’ve always been one to play it year by year,” Hall told VeloNews. “At the end of every year, I say to myself ‘what do I really want to do next year?’
After her debut season racing in Europe, Hall has an emphatic answer to the question: She wants more.
Hall spoke to VeloNews the day before she boarded a flight to Austria, where she will meet the rest of her Boels-Dolmans teammates for a pre-season week of skiing—an activity that, due to contract obligations, she hasn’t done since 2013. After Austria, Hall heads to her adopted hometown of Girona, Spain to be training for her second season in the European peloton.
At this time last year, Hall’s excitement to join the European peloton stemmed from the allure of the unknown; her outlook at the onset of this season is more tempered.
“I just feel a lot more comfortable,” Hall said. “Last year I was really excited because it was all really new. This year, I still feel really excited for the season, but I have more of an idea what to expect. More comfort with my team. More familiarity.”
Hall will be racing almost all of the same events she tackled in 2019, but her goals for the upcoming season have evolved after her experiences last year. Rather than focusing solely on establishing herself as a critical support rider for Anna van der Breggen and the team’s other stars, Hall hopes to assert herself as a leader when she has the opportunity to ride beside them.
“In 2019, I was often successful at being a really good teammate,” Hall said. “But getting results myself is a lot harder over there. That’s more of what I’m looking for in 2020 – to have confidence in myself to speak up when leadership roles are offered to me, not just defer to Anna. I mean, she’s one of the best cyclists of any generation. Trying to find my place next to her this year is a big goal.”
It was during the Giro Rosa, the 10-day, high mileage type of race that suits her, Hall said, that she began to consider what she might be capable of in the future.
“At the Giro, every time it got to be just each team’s GC leaders, I would be there,” she said. “It took me a while to realize, ‘hey, I belong here.’ Sometimes I don’t have the most confidence in myself, but in the Giro, I was always there. And that was such a good reminder to me – I belong here. When the racing gets hard, I need to get myself to the front. I can survive any hill with the best.”
Hall can’t wait to get back to the Italian countryside, as well as to the Ardennes races in the spring. Good results there will be her best shot at qualifying for the 2020 Olympic games, and the hilly courses suit the strong climber. Hall also said that the Ardennes may be another arena in which she shifts her focus from helper to leader.
“My team is always eager to give me leadership roles and co-leadership roles,” she said. “In the hillier races, we have a better chance of winning as a team when we have two people that can win. Team tactics really allow for multiple options. I want to be ready for that responsibility and opportunity. Being ready to just go for the win when the chance arises.”
Hall’s teammate, decorated Olympian and World Champion van der Breggen, has a stellar track record at the Ardennes, winning the last five editions of La Flèche Wallonne.
While Hall has a newfound focus on personal results in Europe next year, she’s equally committed to becoming more effective as a teammate. This means continuing to learn how to race efficiently given the nuances of the European peloton. Hall found that positioning, in particular, was exponentially more important – and challenging – during her first season in Europe.
“I’m working on being more effective at my job, even when it’s support of Anna,” she said. “I struggle with the things that make European racing so different than American. Positioning on small roads, really fighting for position is really hard for me. Being effective at that, the more effective I can be for Anna.”
Hall credits the team and its director, Danny Stam, with helping her adjust to the differences in strategy, planning, and preparation that often challenge American riders who’ve made the leap to the European peloton.
“Chantal (Blaak) was a really good role model and helped me a lot with positioning,” she said. “She’s just a great wheel to have in the peloton. She’s calm, doesn’t make dangerous moves. She’s very strong and very good and getting herself where she needs to be. I really appreciated having her as a teammate.”
Although she didn’t know anyone on the team except for fellow American Skylar Schneider when she left for Europe in early 2019, now with a season of getting to know her teammates, the team’s management style, and life in Europe under her belt, Hall’s comfort level going into 2020 helps to ease the sting of leaving her beloved life in northern California behind. Hall and her husband live at the base of the Santa Cruz mountains where she has “the most wonderful cycling community.”
“Girona is lovely, and I really enjoy it,” Hall said, “but when you’re only hanging out with pro ladies, it’s like ‘I have to do my training. You have four minute intervals today? Well, I have six, so I guess we can’t ride together.’’ Hall laughed. “When your friends aren’t pros, they’ll do your workout with you.”
Normally, Hall would be looking forward to a trip home in May to race the Tour of California and “show off” her home state to the foreign racing community. She said that her results in that race while on United Healthcare contributed to her offer from Boels-Dolmans and helped “launch my European racing career.” Hall lamented the loss of such a personally and professionally significant event.
“I feel the American scene is really at a low point right now,” she said. “There’s not much reason for European racers to come to the US. I feel pretty sad. I love California, and I love to show it off. It’s a bummer the world’s attention won’t be on California next year.”
Nevertheless, come spring, the world’s attention will be on Hall as she battles for a position in the front, right where she belongs.