Three days before Lucinda Brand won the silver medal at the 2016 European Cyclo-cross Championships, she danced around pointed questions about her season goals. The 27-year-old Dutch woman's first full cyclo-cross season was off to a flying start, yet she seemed uneasy about naming objectives.
"Of course I didn't start cyclo-cross without any goals, and my goal absolutely was to be quick going up to the top riders," Brand told Cyclingnews in an exclusive interview. "Condition-wise, I knew I was able to do that, but on the technique, on knowing what you can do when, the trust in yourself and your experience, that part I was really unsure about and that part would determine how it would be for me this season."
Here's how it has been: Brand came second at the opening Superprestige race in Gieten in early October, finished in fifth place in Ronse and posted another second place finish at Grand-Prix de la Commune de Contern. She made her World Cup debut in Valkenburg where she finished just off the podium following a gutsy ride with the leading group of six.
Two days later, Brand took her first win of the season at a night race in Woerden. She finished second to her Rabo-Liv teammate, cyclo-cross world champion Thalita de Jong, at the European Championships.
Brand skipped the 2016 Road World Championships in Doha, Qatar to prepare for the cyclo-cross season. She's no stranger to the dirt, mud, sand and snow, but she's never devoted herself to discipline. Until now, it had been an off-season diversion.
"I have raced cyclo-cross for a few years already, but I could only do it in December and January," Brand said. "I really like racing cyclo-cross, and I already wanted to do it more seriously, but I was never able to make the step and skip some road races and focus on it."
"Last winter, I began to think that maybe next winter would be a nice moment to try," she added. "I'm getting older, and I had to make the decision that if I want to do it, maybe now is the time."
Brand began to lay the groundwork for a full cyclo-cross season in July. She spoke with her trainer, her coach, the road team and the Dutch Federation to finalise her plans.
"I had to make the decision for myself between riding the World Championships on the road or hoping to ride the World Championships in cyclo-cross," she said. "The team said that the choice was totally up to me. They said if I didn't want to do the [Road] Worlds, they stood behind me. Of course, they wanted to take me to Qatar, but they said if I felt like I had other things to do, I was free to do them."
By August, Brand was training on her 'cross bike. The two-time Dutch road champion has some of the best technical skills in the women's peloton. She's an agile descender, can move around the bunch with ease and has a nose for a well-timed attack. Yet she rightly knew she would need to put in the hard yards to be competitive in the dirt.
"The condition part, it's all fine from the road," she said. "On the road, I know my technique is good, but when I started to train with real cyclo-cross riders, I realised that the technique in that field is completely different from the road."
"I use my front gear a lot, and I can't do that in cyclo-cross," Brand noted. "The way you position your body on the bike in the corner is different. There's mounting, dismounting and running."
"These are things that you can only learn when you do them more often," she added. "I could easily put them in my training when I was still doing road races. That's where my training began. It was very basic and very important."
The change in routine energised Brand. She's spent nearly 20 years riding and racing on the road. The new challenges she faces on the cyclo-cross bike have injected a sense of passion and purpose into her winter.
"I have been riding my bike since I was eight years old," said Brand. "In so many years, you don't notice anymore when you're learning new things. I do the same races every year. The people are the same. I'm used to everything.
"This feels new with so much to learn. It's another world. There's new things to see and new people to meet. The training is a lap in nature. You can have a nice look at the forest, and maybe you're working with a group, so you're not alone riding.
"It's so much fun. I make so many mistakes and look back and laugh about them all. That also makes it nice. It's a totally different atmosphere."
Learning the ropes
While the lack of familiarity serves as renewed source of motivation, it also can disadvantage Brand as she lines up with her far more experienced competitors. Lacking UCI points, she is forced to contend with a poor grid position at the start. She's unaccustomed with the way a course can change lap-after-lap due to weather conditions, and, of course, she less knowledgeable of those laps in the first place. Brand refuses to allow this to deter her.
"Almost every race is new to me," Brand noted. "There are three races in December I know from other years because I always did those races. All the other courses are new, and I'm letting it come as it comes. I'm not looking at videos or movies or anything from past years. I go the weekend to the race and see how the course is when I pre-ride. I go blanco in the race and see how good I can be."
"Of course when the lap is straighter more for the power rider, that's my advantage, but I also want to be able to say that I can do a good race on a technical course," she added. "I really want to improve in that area. I think you can like every course if you can have good technical skills."
Brand now has a month to hone her technical skills. Following a road season that began in Qatar in February and ran through France in September, Brand had two dedicated weeks of preparation for her cyclo-cross season debut at GP Cees Sint Nicolaas, a race put on by her local club.
"I'm taking a bit of a rest after the Europeans," she said. "In the beginning of December, I will start 'cross again. Then it's a full program until Worlds with the World Cups and some other races. The most busy period of racing is around Christmas."
"I also have to go to a training camp with my new road team between the National Championships and the Hoogerheide World Cup," she noted. "I have to join, but it's not bad to have a short training spot between the busy races to work a bit on the base."
For the last four years, Brand has ridden with Rabo-Liv on the road. Come January, she moves to Team Sunweb (formerly Liv-Plantur).
"In January, I change colours on the road and in cyclo-cross," Brand said. "Rabo helps me with materials now, and in January, my new team will take over. I'm very lucky that the bike brand is the same, so there aren't any change in materials.
"My new team has said 'it's nice that you do cyclo-cross but you're riding Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to Flanders, so you're going to have to be ready for the spring.' They really want me to do well in 'cross as well, but for them and for me, road is always the biggest part."
And what exactly does it mean for Brand to "do well in 'cross" this season?
She's been happily chatting about her cyclo-cross season for nearly 30 minutes, and yet she remained reserved when it comes to naming her goals. The third time Cyclingnews asked about her objectives she conceded a specific response.
"Riding my first World Cup and finishing fourth, I think that's amazing," Brand said. "I was really proud and satisfied, but I was also really close to third place.
"I realise the most important thing I can do is not make any mistakes. I know if I'm able to do that, something really nice could happen. I have to work hard and focus on the final and be sure that when I get tired, I don't make little mistakes.
"Maybe it's nice to set the goal of reaching the podium at a World Cup. When I look back at Valkenburg, I know it's possible if I continue like this, I can do it. I can look back now already and feel very positive with where I started and how I have grown with all things I've had to get used to in cyclo-cross."
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