Whether you're world champion Lucinda Brand or an American amateur, Europe's holiday races are a grueling ordeal
(Lead photo by Dan Brock)
Cyclocross’ “Kerstperiode” is one of the most intense racing periods in any cycling discipline, an avalanche of top-tier cyclocross races at a time of year when much of the world is hunkered down and relaxing with family.
This year, 10 races were scheduled at the C2, C1 or World Cup level in an 11-day span from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, mostly in Belgium. Few individual riders attempt every race, but they do their physical best while shuttling between race courses and not nearly recovering enough to offset the fatigue in their legs and lack of sleep.
When I woke up after Hulst the next day, I felt like a truck ran over me.
- Lucinda Brand
Prior experience is conducive to success during the Kerstperiode. The Baloise Trek Lions, managed by cyclocross legend Sven Nys, are old hands at holiday racing, and that’s in part why they emerged from the period with a trunk full of accolades. To wit:
- World champion Lucinda Brand won six straight races to give herself 16 for the season, with her title defense just over three weeks away.
- Toon Aerts and Lars van der Haar took four third places between them against a stacked elite men’s field.
- Thibau Nys won his first U23 race of the season on Dec. 30 … then took two more wins, including the GP Sven Nys, named after his father.
- Pim Ronhaar took two U23 men’s podiums of his own, including second to Nys in Herentals for a Baloise Trek 1-2 finish.
- Shirin van Anrooij was the fastest U23 rider in three of her five elite level starts, and scored her first ever elite race win in Gullegem.
That level of achievement is mind-boggling, and a testament to Baloise Trek’s professionalism and organization. But not every rider has the resources of a dedicated cyclocross team behind them, nor the benefit of racing being Belgian or Dutch and racing relatively close to home.
For Maddie Munro, who rides for Trek Factory Racing CX, and Anna Megale, who rides for Trek Cyclocross Collective, a group of amateur domestic riders, taking on the Kerstperiode was a particularly large undertaking. Both forewent family gatherings to travel from the United States. And Megale paid for the trip herself while also taking time off from her full-time job.
Everyone experiences the Kerstperiode differently, but there is one common thread:
“When I woke up after Hulst the next day, I felt like a truck ran over me,” Brand laughs.
Here’s what it’s like to take on a full slate of cyclocross races over the holidays according to Brand, Van der Haar, Munro and Megale, four riders who experienced all the highs, lows and incredible sleepiness of the past two weeks.
There's no right way to prepare
The hardest part about the Kerstperiode may be that it takes place in the midst of an already busy season. Racing just once a week is still plenty difficult, especially when you’ve been doing it for three straight months already.
Baloise Trek riders took a weekend off racing in early December, but only so they could participate in a team training camp to prepare them for the late stages of the season, including the rigorous holidays.
“Normally before the big Christmas period, we do a lot of endurance training, because during the Christmas period it’s almost impossible to do any endurance training between the races,” Van der Haar says.
Brand has been pushing herself particularly hard, having entered the cyclocross season off a full road season for Trek-Segafredo. The defending world champion uses every moment she can to relieve the pain and fatigue in her body.
“We really focused on having the right recovery food and meals straight after a race,” Brand says. “Today I went to therapists to get the muscles more loose because I felt the body really needed it. So you always need to be very careful with that and also alert to get the treatments at the right moment, even if it’s a busy time.”
For the American riders, mental preparation is as important as physical. Munro is just 19 years old, but she has already raced three European cyclocross seasons, and has tackled the Kerstperiode once before. That experience helped her to one of the best results of her young career on Jan. 5 when she finished ninth in Herentals — her first ever elite-level top 10.
“Mentally, I have been working really hard all season to increase my self-confidence and the belief that I can ride in the front group of these elite women’s fields,” Munro says. “The best thing to prepare is to remember my goals for the block, and then get excited for all the racing that is to come.”
Megale, 30, went to Europe without any training dedicated specifically to the Kerstperiode. She made the decision to race in Europe just three weeks before flying out to Belgium. She was coming off two days rest from U.S. National Championships on Dec. 12, and 20 races in three months in the States. Reminder: Megale races on her own around a full-time job.
“My coach often says, ‘Resting is training.’ That’s been hard for me to learn as an athlete because I feel like ‘go go go’ is always best,” Megale says. “For me, the preparation is really mental. I think it’s super important to get your head in the right headspace. Because if you’re not mentally prepared, it just makes it that much harder.”
It helps to understand the logistics
The Baloise Trek Lions are seasoned veterans when it comes to the Kerstperiode, from the managers and staff down to the riders. Even the team’s youngest stars grew up in cyclocross havens, and likely understood how frantic the Kerstperiode could be even when they weren’t actively participating in it yet.
Americans have a more difficult time knowing what to expect. Munro, thankfully, had Trek Factory Racing support behind her, as well as some company for three races in British teammate Hattie Harnden.
“I feel very grateful to have the support of TFR to get me here and immersed in this cyclocross tradition,” Munro says. “Under their support I have also had the opportunity to ride with and learn from some of the sport’s legends, namely Sven Nys. He has taken myself and Hattie out to some of the classic Belgian forest training grounds where we work on speed, skills and technique.”
It's expensive, it's time, it's just a lot to come over and do this block of racing.
- Anna Megale
Megale would ultimately race six times in a 16-day stretch — twice in the Netherlands and four times in Belgium — all in her first ever trip for the Kerstperiode.
“It’s expensive, it’s time, it’s just a lot to come over and do this block of racing,” Megale says. “You always hear that racing in Europe is so much different than racing in the US and I think it’s hard to fully understand what that means until you go over to Europe. I knew it would be a lot, and I knew it’d be different. And I think that part was definitely true.”
One of the biggest obstacles for Megale was simply finding parking. U.S. cyclocross races often take place in relatively remote areas where it’s easy to set up camp near the course. But European cyclocross races often take place near city centers, which means the nearest parking on a busy race day might be two or three kilometers away.
“I was pre-riding one of the courses and I caught a flat, and I couldn’t even remember where our car was,” Megale says. “So I walked around for like 15 minutes trying to find it. We figured out that if my husband stayed in the pit while I pre-rode that I could always find him and get help if I needed.
“It’s just little things like that where you have to come up with a new routine because things are just slightly different.”
Missing time with family is tough …
Even for the most hardened riders who have made holiday racing a routine, not seeing loved ones can be difficult. But for Baloise Trek riders, at least they have their teammates.
“I don’t always look forward to the Christmas period, but it’s always nice to race,” Van der Haar says. “That is our Christmas tradition: Standing in the mud, and trying to best wish each other during the races. Spending it with teammates, watching them race, and sometimes you get cards from your teammates and you give some back.”
For many Baloise Trek riders, the races also helpfully take place near family and friends.
“Luckily I wasn’t that far from home,” Brand adds. “I had time to see some of the family as well, which was really nice. And of course we tried to make a really nice atmosphere with the other riders. That feels like a kind of family, too.”
Munro is somewhat accustomed to intensive travel as a professional XC and cyclocross racer. But the constant shuttling about does take a toll, especially on a self-described “major homebody.”
“Being away for the holidays is difficult and lonely at times, no doubt. This comes with the racing,” Munro says. “I stay in touch with everyone back home through daily phone calls and FaceTime. I always miss my family and friends, but I also realize that to be at the top level of the sport requires immense commitment and racing experience.”
Megale made a difficult decision to sacrifice time with her family to accomplish a major personal goal. She can’t get that time back, but she’s looking forward to seeing her folks as soon as possible.
“That was definitely hard for me because it was my first time missing Christmas with my family,” Megale says. “My dad’s birthday is in February. So I’ll bring Christmas gifts and exchange gifts and stuff when I see them, but I don’t think we’re necessarily gonna re-do Christmas or anything like that. But at least we’re still celebrating together.”
... But the racing is so rewarding
Brand has come to appreciate racing during the holidays after years of racing during the time period.
“You’re not having holiday time like normal, but who is normal actually?” Brand laughs. “I do look forward to those races because they’re very traditional, and some of them are really nice. Normally they’re even more nice with the spectators because it’s holiday time, and a lot of fans are always there. We really missed that this year [due to the pandemic].”
Even if you’re not a dominant cyclocross racer like Brand, braving the cold temperatures, snow and mud during the most magical time of year creates indelible memories. Megale was blown away by the size and scope of the races, even without as many fans as usual lining the courses.
The heart of cyclocross racing is here in Belgium, and the Kerstperiode is the peak time of racing.
- Maddie Munro
“For example, Zolder this year had 120 women line up and start the race, and I’ve never raced with that many people before,” Megale says. “The start is just mayhem and wild, but also thrilling. You’re like, ‘What is happening right now?'”
Before every race, Megale couldn’t help marveling at the fact that she was surrounded by legends of the sport.
“They’re my version of a superstar. Being on the course, even just pre-riding with them, and watching athletes like Marianne Vos, Sanne Cant and Lucinda Brand, that was really exciting for me,” Megale says. “I’d be pre-riding and stop and just watch them. I loved that part of it.”
Even at a young age, Munro has a deep appreciation for the sport.
“The Kerstperiode has some amazing races and iconic courses, such as Namur, the night race in Diegem, or even Sven Ny’s New Years Day race in Baal,” Munro says. “The heart of cyclocross racing is here in Belgium, and the Kerstperiode is the peak time of racing, with fields consisting of the best of the best. The energy and European cyclocross environment is something you can’t find anywhere else.”
Now that it's over, everybody just wants to sleep
If you’re wondering where your favorite cyclocrosser is right now, it’s a good bet they’re in bed.
“My body has a limit,” Brand says. “This busy time is also a challenge for yourself to find the perfect balance between doing it all and not killing yourself, which is a very, very thin line [laughs]. I’m not sure yet if I did that perfectly. I can still take a break of course. But let’s hope we can keep this level as we work towards the national championships.”
Once again, American and other overseas riders face a particularly rough recovery thanks to the travel involved for the Kerstperiode. They have to slog their way back home through airports, and try to rest while battling jet lag.
It was probably some of the hardest, most challenging racing I've ever done. But it was definitely, in a lot of ways, the most rewarding.
- Anna Megale
“Mentally, the traveling feels the most exhausting,” Munro says. “Having to adjust to the time change and adapt to a whole new living and sleeping environment. However, I think the back-to-back racing is a bit more tiring physically, and as I continue to race and do these blocks, that will hopefully become less tiring overall.”
Megale is happy she decided to push herself to race in Europe. But if she does the trip again, she’ll give herself a bit more time to relax and prepare for the gauntlet.
“We will probably plan our races in the states a little bit better, because I think going there already exhausted was maybe a bit much for me.” Megale says. “It was probably some of the hardest, most challenging racing I’ve ever done. But it was definitely, in a lot of ways, the most rewarding.
“Even finishing 50-something or 40-something in a race, you still finish feeling like, ‘Oh my gosh, I just did that.'”