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An interview with Geoff Proctor, December 21, 2008
Promising American cyclo-crossers head to Europe
The Euro 'Cross camp is headed into its sixth year over the upcoming winter holidays. Each year, Camp Director and US National Team Coach Geoff Proctor gives some of America's most promising young cyclo-cross talent the chance to gain European racing experience. Cyclingnews' Sue George spoke with Proctor just prior to US Nationals and the start of this year's camp.
Euro 'Cross camp has helped create the careers of stars like current US National Champion Ryan Trebon and top riders like Jeremy Powers and Jamey Driscoll. A crop of 19 promising racers, the largest ever - including nine juniors, seven U23s and three elite riders - are headed to the Cycling Center in Belgium this year.
Proctor explained why his protégés travel away from their families over the holidays. "The level of competition is much higher there. It will be deeper, too. We have maybe 40 or 50 juniors at nationals, but a week later, our guys will be attending Superprestige and GvA races with 100 riders on the start grid. The courses themselves and the terrain, especially the technical aspects, are significantly more difficult, and so is the weather."
The camp's riders were selected for the camp based on their performances at national-caliber races, such as USGP & NACT events. Proctor whittled his choices down from 35 candidates. "I selected the team earlier this year - in mid-November. I had to get specific names to the European organizers, plus with the economy, I wanted to let the riders know sooner."
"In past years, I waited until the last USGP, but this year, I cut off the selection earlier. Some guys were interested in August, and then they realized they're not interested in November because they're either too fried or have other mountain bike or road goals. Who comes also depends on who has the financial means to do so." Many of his riders get assistance- friends and family donate frequent flier miles and sometimes help pay the costs.
A different world
The young talent will have the chance to experience a different culture of racing - both within the race and from the sidelines.
"If you are a cyclist in Europe, it's serious," said Proctor. "You learn young, and it's so competitive. If you don't learn how to shut the door or chop someone at a young age, you're not going to last."
"I think our riders are sometimes too nice. It's more cut-throat over there. I think it takes our riders by surprise. It's tougher and tougher and tougher to get a top 10. The level keeps going up."
Those in the camp who are new to the Euro scene may be surprised by the make-up and size of the crowds. "I'm expecting a massively big crowd at the World Cup we'll do. That will be jaw-dropping for some of our guys. In Belgium, it's beyond over the top - in terms of exposure, the money, etc."
"We have a participatory culture here in the US," said Proctor. "There are 2,000 racers at nationals, and everyone on the sideline has already raced or is going to race. The people who go to the races are participants themselves."
"In Europe, it's more of a spectator sport. Spectators come out and cheer on their favorite rider and they are members of fan clubs for their favorite riders or maybe they are just general sports fans watching," said Proctor.
"There is more of a separation between being a rider and being a pro rider. There is more reverence. The spectators are less presumptuous about their own abilities. They wouldn't dream of riding through the mud like the guys they are cheering."
This year's crop
"I have three juniors who were riding well last year and are returning," said Proctor, who named Zach McDonald, Gavin Mannion and Eric Emsky as talent to watch. All were members of the World Championship team in 2008 in Treviso, Italy.
"I'm confident our guys will shine this time around. The experience of having guys who have done it all before is huge." Half of the camp's roster is returning from last year.
Nonetheless, Proctor expects the juniors to struggle, if for no other reason than poor starting spots. "For the first time in this country, we only had four UCI junior sanctioned racers, so our juniors won't have many points and may get poor start grid positions."
Among the U23s, Danny Summerhill, Bjorn Selander and Nick Weighall are expected to excel as they target the World Championships in Hoogerheide, Holland, in late January. In addition, elite riders Troy Wells, Matt Shriver and Brian Matter will bring more experience to the camp as the elite riders.
"It's impressive to see how hard these riders work. I see kids who have no idea what it means to focus on an objective (Proctor is a public school teacher in Montana. - Ed.), but the kids who make this camp and the world's team have tremendous drive."
They will have an opportunity to learn from some of the best. Camp alums Trebon, Powers and Driscoll will return to spend an afternoon training and sharing a meal with the camp's riders. In addition, riders like Jonathan Page, Christine Vardaros, and Jonathan Baker and Molly Cameron are among a large contingent of more experienced Americans who will spend some time training and racing as preparation for worlds. Campers will occasionally cross paths with them and be able to learn from their examples.
"At the races, it's fun to see Jeremy Powers riding next to some junior during the training time," said Proctor. "It's cool when some of the women or the elite guys come over and shoot the breeze. That makes it special for some of the guys in the camp."
For Proctor, experience running the camp is helpful, but he still encounters new challenges every year. "Getting to know the scene over there takes time. There are logistics of moving people around and getting staff. I'm indebted to all the Belgian staff."
With the exception of the World Cup, in which the roster will be limited to six juniors and six espoirs, the racers will follow the same program throughout. "It tends to work better when everyone races together - instead of a split program. We've tried both ways."
In between the riding and racing, campers will work on their bikes, get massages and discuss strategy and tactics.
"I try to visit with each rider at least twice - to give them attention - have a heart-to- heart," said Proctor. "For some guys, they've never had a coach or a mechanic or a massage - so the camp is indoctrinating them into the bike racing world."
Proctor believes in the potential of the riders he selects for his camp and takes a long-term view, but the camps are already paying dividends. At the USGP finals in Portland, camp alumni occupied 14 of the 18 U23 and elite men's podium spots.
With the top American racers exposed at a young age to European racing, the domestic scene is improving. When asked whether American racing might ever rise to or surpass the level of racing in Europe, Proctor said, "It all depends on the economic climate, sponsorship and the issue of trying to get a World Cup in the US. That's all part of the puzzle - bringing bigger and bigger races here."
"It seems to be a distinct possibility that Vegas might be a World Cup next year. Our scene is really on the right track. We have the right people in key positions as promoters and looking out for the sport."
"We have people working to keep the momentum growing. The races are getting deeper, harder and better attended. I think we have a really good thing going here." Proctor recalled that during his racing days, Switzerland was the place for 'cross. Now it's Belgium. He suggested the US might be the next frontier although he said it depends how things evolve in Belgium. "If we continue to nurture our talent, our young riders, it will only get better. Maybe one day, we'll be the place to come. We're already starting to see start money in US races - it's not new, but it's more regular. That's a huge thing. Some guys are starting to see start money and prize money every week. That's how it works in Europe."
"Our women's scene here is better in terms of interest if not yet at the highest level." Proctor tried to get some women for this year's camp, but he said, "It didn't work out."
The camp will get underway with a small national race in Uitbergen on Sunday, December 21. Then, after four days of training, the team will take on the Zolder World Cup, the day after Christmas. Thereafter, the big races come in steady succession: Diegem Super Prestige on December 28; Loenhout GVA on December 30; Baal GVA on January 1; and St Niklaas on January 2. The camp ends January 3 with some riders staying in Europe to train for the world championships and others flying home for school and/or one final training block.
Stay tuned to Cyclingnews from a diary shared by the attendees of this year's camp.
December 21: Uitbergen