For 19-year old Joseph Schmalz, racing cross in Europe was “definitely the hardest racing I’ve ever done, the most challenging”. He came back richer from the experience having pushed himself and his skills to compete with the top riders. “That was definitely an eye-opener, it was tough it was really really tough.”
The KCCX/Verge rider was part of the eighteen riders that participated in EuroCrossCamp VII over the holidays where under the direction of Director Geoff Proctor, they immersed themselves in the blitzkrieg of cross racing in Belgium.
The toughest part was the field both in depth and in sheer number. In his five races over a 10-day period, Schmalz encountered fields with an average of 80 to 100 riders – the smallest field he faced was 50 riders. Compare that to US fields with at most 40 riders and right there you have a major difference, and then there was the level of the riders itself. “It’s just crazy how many good guys there are, it was pretty impressive.”
In our first conversation back in December, the relative newcomer to cross racing, described how he had decided that he wanted to experience cross in Europe. He made it happen by racing in the USGP events, getting good results. A few days ago, I caught up with him as he was resting at home in Lawrence, Kansas.
“A frenzy the first few laps.” Schmalz along with the other two U23 riders at camp were often at the back of the field for the start having to work their way up which brought about a new concern: being lapped.
“Basically I started every race that if I’m not passing someone, I have to constantly be trying to pass someone. You get immediately put behind the eight ball as far as being lapped just because the sheer gap from starting, the goal was just to pass as many guys as possible and not get passed by anybody, “ said Schmalz with a laugh, “because you’re already far back.”
Which meant increased pressure at the start so Schmalz had to get himself worked up before every race as opposed to US racing where he found that he could use the first lap to settle in. But in Europe “you have no time, you’re not really where you want to be so you’re trying constantly to get there.”
So what did he do to get ready for the battle of each race? “Just mentally prepare yourself to be mean, to be able to take the risk when you need to take it, be willing to take the risk, to put yourself out on the line to maybe get those one or two spots in the corner where you’re not so sure about it, if you take the risk and you make it then it’s going to pay off dividends the remainder of the race. Just preparing yourself to really fight for everything.”
While Schmalz comes across as pretty mellow off the bike, he had no problems pumping himself up.
“When I get on my bike I’ve always been aggressive, when I get on my bike I’m ready to race and I don’t usually take a whole lot from people so it doesn’t really bother me when other people start bumping me or stuff like that, I just shrug it off and bump back harder. It just something that you have to get used to, preparing yourself for a start that’s going to be really hard, compared to what it usually is here.”
One technique that he used to get ready was visualization. “It got easier after the first few races, knowing what to expect, learning certain things what’s easier and what’s not, after I learned a couple of things it got a lot easier, just trying to visualize the start and being aggressive so I think that helped a lot.”
A technique he hadn’t really utilized in the United States, as he typically had a much better starting position and didn’t find it necessary, but that’s going to change next cross season.
“In cross, the starts are everything, just being that much aggressive and learning the little tricks of moving up and squeaking through holes that you normally wouldn’t push yourself to go through, daring yourself to do little things that you normally wouldn’t.”
Five races in ten days. Two days after his arrival, Schmalz was lining up for his first European race in Kalmthout, a World Cup for the Elite racers but not for the U23 or juniors.
Winter had hit Belgium hard for the days prior to the race with lots of snow being dumped.
“It snowed a lot that day, the course was very technical and the start wasn’t too long, there was a little bit of pavement but it dumped into a 180 into the snow, the course was just single-track all the way around because of the snow so passing was really challenging and nearly impossible on a lot of the course. There were quite a few turns, there was only one small pavement section halfway through the course so it was really difficult to pass so it made the start even more critical.”
What was going through his mind when he lined up at the start grid for the first time? “That whole lining up in Europe for the first time, I don’t know how to explain it, it’s a relief to be there but you’re in shock of the all the guys you’re going to have to pass to even be in the race, that was definitely a challenge.”
Schmalz placed 40th in his first race. Three days later on December 23rd in Middelkerke, he had his best results finishing 38th where he raced with the Elites for his first time, a field that included Sven Nys.
“That was fun. Sven won, it was a cool race, it was my first Elite race to race with those guys. It hard there was a lot of pedaling, it was probably good for me.” chuckled Schmalz. “It was cool being able to race with him.”
Schmalz was able to view Nys’ smoothness first-hand on the muddy and snow-covered course. “He was riding file treads in the snow, ice and mud when no one else was. I don’t know how he does but he does and he won the race. It was impressive. He just never slows down that’s the biggest difference.”
On December 27, was the Diegem Super Prestige, his favorite course. “It was something I’d never experienced being basically in the middle of town and racing to the top, it was sort of weird to me racing through city streets in a cross race.”
Two days later was the Loenhout GVA Cup. “ Loenhout was a circus course just because it’s a flat farm field basically just outside of town, they just put in a ton of flyovers and a woop track and dirt mounds, it was really muddy, that made it really hard. It had a long pavement section before the mud section, it was really really hard physically, it was just a mudfest that day.”
His last race was St Niklaas on January 2nd. Where he crashed out on a course that had gotten slick and icy after the thermometer dipped and the mud froze.
In an off camber section, “the guy in front of me, we were trying to bridge up to the group in front of us, he slowed up in front of me and I hit his bike, went over the bars and fell from the top of the off camber to the bottom and just landed on my head and shoulder.”
That was the same off camber section that brought his fellow U23 camper Travis Livermon down and into the lake, one of the funny stories that Schmalz shared. “He’s pretty tall, the barrier fencing wasn’t very tall, if you went over the bars at the bottom of the off camber section you were going into the lake. He said he tried to save himself by grabbing onto it but he just didn’t hold in. It was cold.” laughed Schmalz. Some of the crowd did help Livermon but most were just laughing.
[note: per comment: Fellow U23 Euro Cross Camper Joe Dombrowski posted a picture of that off-camber section by the lake at St. Niklaas on his diary at GamJams.net.]
While still sore Schmalz is now regaining his range of motion in his shoulder.
Life and learning. Life itself at the EuroCrossCamp house is laid back as everyone was recovering in between races and strategies such as watching movies were used to keep the boredom away.
Schmalz relished the learning opportunities such as the pre-dinner conversations that included post-race debriefs and visits from people such as Noel Dejonckheere, the long-time director of USA Cycling’s U23 development program in Belgium who has now moved on to work with the BMC team.
“The biggest thing you learn is listening to everyone’s debrief, what they thought, what tire they rode and just their general experience, what happened to them in the races, just a general debrief and sharing is something you don’t get unless you have a bunch of teammates in the race which most America cross guys don’t have, maybe or two teammates to debrief with. It’s pretty interesting to have twenty guys talking about the same race.”
Even though Schmalz doesn’t mind racing in the cold, getting exposed to harsh winter conditions was another opportunity to learn and hopefully something he can use in his future races.
“The mud and the ice is probably not my best thing just because I’m not the best technically as say as mountain biker might be. Being a roadie you don’t get exposed to those types of situations to learn from them and know what you can and cannot do and be comfortable in those situations. So going over there and having every race just be crazy nasty conditions was really good, I hope I learned a lot from it as far as going into cross next year. It wasn’t the best condition for me, I prefer fast, dry courses.”
In his ten days, he saw an improvement in the way he handled the conditions and the racing itself.
Want to do it again? “Oh for sure. I was talking to Zach McDonald and he pretty much said the same thing as everyone that had already been there. The first year is always an eye opener and you learn a ton and it just makes everything so much easier the next time you go. I would love to go back over and do it again just with the knowledge I gained from my first year, I think it would be a totally different experience just knowing what to expect would make everything a lot easier.”
Looking back, Schmalz is incredibly satisfied with his cross season this year.
“Cyclocross had never really been a major thought in my brain, starting the year going to Madison and getting good results that was definitely pleasing, it being my first real cyclocross UCI race. Starting with nothing and knowing nothing really as far as racing cyclocross with the fast guys, making it to Europe was the end goal and I got the Europe, I think it worked out well and I reached my goal and it was definitely a good season.”
Now as he gets ready to head back to school and start his road season with the Mercy Elite Cycling Team, Schmalz has to balance school, work and training. “It’s hard but somehow it works out.”
As far as his road season, he’s still working on his goal as he takes a break to let his body recover.
“I want to have a good road season, after last year I definitely had some improvements so I think I’m definitely capable of having a good road season. I’m going to take it slow at the beginning, U23 Nationals will be a goal and then our team is going to be going to several NRC races, I hope the road season goes well.”
He will keep on racing both cross and road in the near future. “I like them both. I don’t think you can make it by doing cross only in America unless you’re good enough to go to Europe for a sustained amount of time and race, I think doing both is the most beneficial for me.”