After a one-year hiatus, the Euro Cross Academy (ECA) returned to Belgium this week, with 10 junior riders from the United States embarking on a near three-week racing stint to get their first experience of European cyclo-cross.
Cyclingnews is running a blog from the camp, with riders contributing throughout their Belgian adventure and the ninth installment provided by 16-year-old Elsa Westenfelder. In the women's junior race at Namur, the Montana teen was the top US finisher in 26th place. For updates from the ECA, follow on Instagram: EuroCrossAcademyIG; Twitter: EuroCxAcademy and EuroCrossAcademy.com.
I imagine the cheers would’ve been deafening, as when Lucinda Brand’s name was called to the start of the elite women’s Telenet Superprestige Heusden-Zolder. But with COVID regulations meaning no spectators, it was nearly silent as another 65 names were called to the start line before mine in the junior race. As the UCI official announced two minutes to start, women around me slid between other riders, trying to get as far up on the start grid as they could. I tensed, waiting for the lights to go green.
And then we were off, fighting for position and trying not to crash as we flew towards the first corner. A woman yelled at me in another language as I bumped her, and it struck me again how different it is to race here than in the United States. Two weeks ago I would not have thought it necessary to touch her. But here in Belgium, especially in the elite fields, every position counts, and rubbing is racing.
Getting to race with over 100 of the fastest cyclocross racers in the world was one of the most surreal experiences of my cyclocross career thus far. In the US, I am used to racing in fields of 25 or fewer junior women, so the jump to racing in fields at least twice that in the Namur and Dendermonde World Cups was already a big change. Racing in the elite women’s field was another step up, but having the opportunity to line up with the women I have admired and watched on TV was unforgettable.
I can tell you that these racers are even faster than they seem on television. The courses are also much more challenging than they look, and I have really enjoyed getting to test my skills on them against the best in the world. Just getting to be in Europe for the first time has been incredible, let alone the racing.
Although it has been difficult and somewhat stressful to navigate changing COVID regulations while trying to race, train, and adjust to a new routine, I am very grateful to be here and get to have this experience after junior races in Europe were canceled last season.
In Zolder, I got pulled with two laps to go. Here, I have learned, results are not the most important part of racing, though they are a bonus. For my first trip to Belgium, I am here to learn and grow as a cyclocross racer, and I am very thankful that EuroCross Academy has given me the opportunity to do so, and presents a vision that aligns with my goals and values.
I know that my experiences racing here will change how I race in the US, and my goals heading into the New Year. I have one more race left in Belgium (Baal, Sven Nys’s race) on New Year’s Day. I am ready to give it my all and ride with what I have learned into next season.
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2021 EuroCross Academy team member
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