On the Eve of America's Biggest ’Cross Season, Proctor Looks Behind the Stare
by Josh Liberles
Is their vacancy or fury behind the eyes of a cyclocross competitor? As Geoff Proctor learned by watching cyclocross' greats compete in the world's biggest events, there was something almost tangible that differentiated the sport's supreme from the rest: a determination that—while it can be fleeting—is indomitable.
Proctor first discovered cyclocross far away from the sport's hubs—he was flipping through channels in his apartment in Portugal, where he was working as an English teacher, when he came across the live broadcast of the 1986 Worlds. To say that the moment altered his life's course would be a huge understatement; in fact, it altered the shape of American cyclocross. Within seven short years, Proctor was on the start line for the first of three Amateur World Championships he'd compete in. Shortly after that, Proctor became the U.S. National Cyclocross Team's director and coach, and he founded the EuroCross Camp, which has brought America's best ’crossers over to the Belgian cyclocross motherland for the past 10 years to compete in the fiercely competitive, non-stop racing of the kerstperiode week between Christmas and New Years.
It's through these experiences that Proctor has gained a unique access to the inner sanctum of European cyclocross. He's on a never-ending mission to both improve the quality of the American team and to give the sport as a whole a boost, with an eye towards an Olympic competition. Proctor took a sabbatical from his primary job as an English teacher to offer a fascinating, piercing gaze deep into cyclocross' heart and belly. It’s a view previously unseen by American eyes, and although the focus is on the 2007/8 season, the story encompasses much more, including the history and context of the sport, the diverse personalities and approaches of today’s cyclocross heroes, and the clashes between traditional and new-fangled values, Old World and New.
In northern Europe, and particularly Belgium, upwards of 60,000 fans will line the courses of the biggest cyclocross events. It is, as Proctor aptly coins, a “veldriligion” that's tough to fathom on this side of the Atlantic, but one that Proctor captures for newbies and the ’cross-crazed alike. He explores why this sport has flourished in Flanders, and provides intimate looks at the top European stars as well as the Americans scrapping to make it on the world's biggest cyclocross stage. We sit in on conversations with then-world champion Erwin Vervecken, Bart Wellens and Sven Nys—perhaps the greatest ’crosser of all time—and we witness the struggles and triumphs of Jonathan Page, the only American to base himself in Europe for the entire season, as well as Ryan Trebon, Tim Johnson and a new crop of U23s and Juniors who, with the help of Proctor, hope to establish the U.S. as a cyclocross force.
Proctor's portrayal makes the hard-man's sport of cyclocross all the more endearing. While to the outside observer, the sport's top European pros may look like they have it made, they rely on a supporting cast of unpaid family members, friends and volunteers to pitch in free labor, wash bikes and schlep gear around. Even in the sport's Mecca, there's still an element of its grass roots.
From Nys' teetolaing ways to Wellens' outgoing nature—as evidenced by his starring role in a popular Belgian reality show for several seasons—the American reader gets a sense of the European racers' personalities for the first time. The juggernaut Fidea team leads an exclusive, fairly pampered, team-only weekly training ride, while 60 of the best Dutch Juniors and Elites—including soon-to-be Elite world champ Lars Boom—assemble en masse for regular training clinics that simulate the race to come the following weekend. And the riders' training plans are laid bare in detail—from time spent in altitude tents down to the specifics of each workout. Sven Nys' regimen is posted online every day, but he's not too worried about competitors copying him. As his trainer tells Proctor, “People ask me why I put Sven’s training schedules up on my blog, which gets 2,000 visitors a day. I say it’s no problem. I know that nobody is able to train like Sven. They can’t do it. They are broken if they try.”
There's enough nitty-gritty, technical info to keep the ’cross veterans fascinated, but the book's true strength is Proctor's ability to capture the sport's spirit—something that even a non-cyclist will appreciate. On the eve of what will likely prove to be America’s most significant cyclocross season to date, with a World Championship leaving Europe for the first time and headed to Louisville, Kentucky, Proctor’s book is a must read. More importantly, it’s an absolute page turner, and he captures the excitement that keeps athletes around the world plunging back into the cold, numbing mud and searing their lungs with effort, week after week. Upon looking “behind the stare,” both ’cross stalwarts and the uninitiated alike will have a tough time resisting jumping on a bike and heading off into the woods, straightaway.