Corey Coogan-Cisek blog: The pros and cons of racing as an American in Belgium

Corey Coogan-Cisek racing in the mud in Ruddervoorde in 2021
Corey Coogan-Cisek racing in Ruddervoorde in 2021 (Image credit: Philippe Stevens)

This is my sixth winter living in Belgium.

It definitely was not the plan to spend so many seasons here! Even I’m not certain how I got here. One season at a time?

Of one thing, I am certain, I’ve had ample opportunity to discover the pros and cons of being a Belgium-based American cyclo-crosser.

  • It’s the Motherland (Pro)

In the U.S., explaining my esoteric sport to a non-cyclist is painful: “I race off-road and yes, the tires are knobby, but no, it’s not a mountain bike. It’s a bike more suited for the road, but I race it in the mud, and there are these barriers…..”

In Belgium, on a training ride, I once had an elderly woman scream, “Veldrijden, veldrijden!” at me. (Dutch lesson one: “veldrijden” is cyclo-cross in Dutch.) This captures the difference in “cyclo-cross fluency” between America and Belgium!

Of course, the courses are, to overuse a term, iconic. Nothing compares to dropping into de kuil at Zonhoven, selecting lines at slippery, technical Namur with its Citadel backdrop, or finishing the Koppenberg as fans bang the boards.

  • It’s Convenient and Affordable (Pro)

I know, I’ve totally lost you here.

Consider: for a single very long plane ride, I can base myself within a two hours drive of the most demanding, prestigious, cyclo-cross courses in the world. Several years ago, my mechanics and I stayed in a family home the night before Koksijde, in part because of the “long” 90-minute drive.

I build my bikes once and leave them built for three months…convenience.

The cost of living in Belgium is reasonable. Luxury items: bikes, bike parts, computers, packaged foods, razors, and dental floss are expensive. However, essentials: basic healthy food, soap, tampons, and health care are cheap, or “goedkoop” in Dutch.

And did I mention that there are no entry fees? In fact, sometimes I even get a start contract, although those have been less common since COVID.

Fellow American riders are often surprised to learn that race entries are free, but it’s a very different revenue structure. General admission gate fees run €12 to 20 (depending on the event’s prestige) with VIP tickets in the hundreds. Fans also spend on concessions! The quantity of beer, frites, burgers, AND MORE BEER is astonishing, as demonstrated by the empty cups and inebriated fans. Even in the COVID years without a live audience, television revenues helped keep races afloat.

We don’t pay to race because we are the entertainment.

  • We are the Entertainment (Neutral)

Corey Coogan-Cisek races a local event in Minnesota before the season

Corey Coogan-Cisek races a local event in Minnesota before the 2022 season (Image credit: Cam Evjan)

Honestly, in the last two COVID years, I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to have fans at races.

Did I miss them? Some of them.

Part of what makes cycling unique among professional sports is fan access to riders. The athlete parking areas with our vans, campers, and tents are open to fans. The famous riders’ “camps” are surrounded by custom team safety tape. The riders stay cloistered in their campers when not on the bike.

Fans’ access makes for some really fun and some less fun exchanges. There are kids or “uber fans” seeking rider cards and sometimes you meet a cyclocross devotee who is fun to chat with. Other times, cigarette smoke wafts through your warmup, as men stare at you and run their hands over your bikes in the rack.

  • I Forgot my Mom (Con)

Family is a part of a Belgian 'cross in a way we simply cannot imagine in the United States. Think about it: Have you seen Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado’s mom on GCN? What about Annemarie Worst’s mom? Do you remember Lucinda Brand’s dad botching her bike handoff at 2019 Worlds? These are not cute anomalies, but the rule. Belgian/Dutch cross is totally dependent on families.

It starts young. Youth racing is a family affair. At children’s races, dads work the pits and moms act as soigneers. This parental involvement extends to the highest level. Even pros’ dads drive camper vans and work the pits. Don’t be misled by the team jackets, the majority of staff is family.

To a large extent, I find the parental involvement charming. In fact, there are definitely moments when I want a Belgian mum! Most Saturday and Sunday evenings, I stand out in the dark cold, hosing off my kit before bringing it in to wash. A modest problem, I know, but this familial support is actually part of the Dutch and Belgian success. They have campers, seemingly infinite bikes and wheelsets, family support, and most of all: they are at home!

  • Homesickness (Con)

Spending winters living and racing in Belgium is the most wonderful thing in my world 363 days a year. However, on day 364 and 365, I pack my things, leave my husband and dog, and it feels like my heart is being pulled from my chest.

There are other moments along the way. Sometimes I watch a teammate hug her partner and I get all teary. And lesser moments, too: When the Americans come over for Kerstperiode, they bring SO MUCH STUFF. I am jealous to discover they have TWO sets of jeans AND they brought maple syrup!

We all make life choices (and I have made great ones!), but homesickness is part of the equation. We talk about jet lag, the weather, and culture shock, but the unavoidable truth is that the Belgians and Dutch are home, and we are not. At the end of the day, sleeping in one's own bed is performance enhancing!

  • My Network is Here (Pro)

It’s a bit different for me. I’m American, but my cyclo-cross support network is European.

My first season in Belgium, I left behind a U.S. team and coach that wasn’t working for me. Unintentionally, my trip here became a severing of ties. Meanwhile, my Belgian mechanics became true friends and supporters.

Elle Anderson once said to me, something like: “I don’t feel like I am an American racing here anymore. This is where I live.” Elle lived here year-round and married a Belgian, so I can’t begin to claim her experience.

However, as with Elle, there came a point when the balance shifted. I have done more Belgian seasons than US Cyclo-cross Nationals. This place, for all its pros and cons, is my cyclo-cross home.

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