A Model for Supporting North Americans Abroad / Michael van den Ham

U.S. based Cannondale–Cyclocrossworld.com is a leader when it comes to supporting North American riders in Europe. While active and highly visible at key U.S. races, the team also spends dedicated portions of the season in Europe. Cannondale–Cyclocrossworld.com staff have created a winning support structure and atmosphere for their athletes abroad.

Challenge had the pleasure to sit down with Cannondale–Cyclocrossworld.com mechanic Gary Wolff to discuss the team and his role. Simply calling Wolff a mechanic doesn’t do his work justice. He and fellow mechanic Mike Berry also take on some director and soigneur tasks. “When in Europe, our director Stu Thorne is not on site, so we make more of the day-to-day decisions,” said Wolff. “We arrange the week how we want: the races, the schedule, ourselves.”

During COVID times, it made sense for the Cannondale–Cyclocrossworld.com to run a lean and efficient program with minimal staff. “We haven’t had a soigneur since last year during COVID,” said Wolff. “We still don't, although we have some part-timers that we will hire depending on the venue and how many riders we’ve got.”

It’s important to recognize the challenges of living abroad, far from home, family, pets and normal day-to-day life. Despite these, Cannondale–Cyclocrossworld.com athletes are thriving. After winning the Koppenberg, U.S. National Champion Clara Honsigner took silver at the Dendermonde World Cup; Teammates Katie Clouse and Curtis White were 9th at Besançon and 17th in Dendermonde, respectively; and the team scored many X2OTrofee top-15s.

Key to the athletes’ success is the team’s home environment in Sittard, Netherlands. “We have a comfortable place to stay,” said Wolff. “There’s enough space for everyone, so no one is cramped. It’s a relaxed area we stay in. There’s ideal training: great road riding, great trail riding. Of course, they each have their own training plan, but it’s nice to have teammates for some rides.”

The team regularly eats meals together with Wolff doing much of the cooking.

The cost of outfitting a team on the other side of the ocean is not insignificant, but Cannondale–Cyclocrossworld.com ensures the athletes are well-supported. “We have all the equipment we need,” said Wolff. “It’s not like we are short on equipment. The van is a good setup. It’s got everything you need for a cross race. Having a camper is a plus. The camper really makes it a lot more comfortable for the athletes in some really bad weather.”

The three athletes share the camper and are responsible for keeping it clean. This is different from Belgian and Dutch teams where individual riders have a camper (shared with the rider’s family, who is support staff). Since Cannondale–Cyclocrossworld.com has male and female riders, they are often at the race site all day. This fosters a tight-knit team. “All the riders get along,” said Wolff. “A good positive and comfortable atmosphere generates success. We are not mopey or complaining all the time. It’s quite fun. We are like family.”

Besides professional-level infrastructure and a supportive environment, riders benefit from Wolff and Berry’s knowledge base. “We have been doing this for a long time, so we know the ropes,” said Wolff. “It’s not too bizarre; there’s not too many surprises when we show up. We kind of have a system and it works well for us.”

One of the areas in which Wolff and Berry have helped the riders is with tire selection and tread. “Clara is pretty confident going down to using the fastest tire she can, the least tread possible,” said Wolff. “She would perhaps transition from the Baby Limus to the Chicane if it were sort of tacky conditions. She’s comfortable on the faster tire. Then it just comes down to getting the pressure right.”

The mechanics have guided the riders towards using lower pressures for the soft soil of Belgium. Wolff explained: “That has sort of been an education since Clara joined the team. When she first started with us, she was probably running 16 to 18 psi. Now, the other day at Koppenberg, we ran 14 front and rear. That’s a learning curve you have to get used to. You have to have them trust you.”

Cannondale–Cyclocrossworld.com’s European campaign wrapped up at Herentals and the team has returned to the United States. Their next startline? Their home World Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Canada’s Michael van den Ham on Canadian Nationals and Worlds (#)

Michael van den Ham is the reigning Canadian National Champion, a title he earned way back in December 2019. Yes, that’s right, due to a series of misfortunes, Canada hasn’t held its national championships since 2019.

The 2020 championships were to be held in Langford, British Columbia (B.C.), but were canceled due to the pandemic.

The 2021 championships were again slated for B.C., this time for the city of Vancouver Island.

For van den Ham, the 2021 championships were to be a “home event.” Van den Ham currently lives in Chilliwack, B.C., and Vancouver Island is only a 3-hour trip (by car and ferry). “In the grand scheme of things, it’s actually really close to home,” said van den Ham. “I have actually never done a national championship that I could drive to within a day or less.”

Unfortunately, catastrophic flooding forced postponement of the national championships from December (Canada’s traditional date) to January (the UCI national championships date). “A couple of weeks before it was supposed to happen, we had these apocalyptic rainstorms in B.C.,” said van den Ham. “To put it in perspective, we had basically an entire month of rain in less than 72 hours.”

With more than 90-square kilometers underwater, B.C. declared a state of emergency. The few roads that connected the region to greater B.C. were closed due to landslides and bridge collapses.

Living in Chilliwack, the flooding affected van den Ham personally. “The area just outside of where I live flooded pretty drastically,” said van den Ham. “I could not have gone to Nationals period because the town that I live in was essentially cut off by the flooding. There’s no major airports in Chilliwack. The highway was closed on both sides.”

Although the flooding abated, the January championships were ultimately cancelled due to Omicron. “It’s a little bit different [than Europe] because to get to the Canadian Nationals, everyone has to get in an airplane, everyone has to travel,” said van den Ham. “It’s not as self-contained as getting in your car and driving an hour. Asking 90% of the participants to travel on public transport, I can see why it did not seem like the best choice.”

At least, van den Ham can look forward to his second World Championships in North America.

That’s right, van den Ham’s first Worlds were Louisville 2013. He remembers the fans: “It’s a stereotype, but there is some truth to it. North American fans cheer for basically everybody down the field. It’s not that the Belgians don’t do that, but there’s less familiarity with the back of the field.”

Since van den Ham raced the Fayetteville World Cup, we were eager to hear his thoughts on the course. “It’s a heavy course,” said van den Ham. “I think that, without a doubt, the strongest will win. I don’t think there will be any surprises, which I think is a good thing on a World Championship course.”

During the World Cup, it rained, so the tire of the day was Limus. “I rode Limus there in the wet,” said van den Ham. “The mud didn’t seem to get super heavy, but it certainly was slippery. I needed Limus to get up [the course’s main hill]. There were people running it.”

Van den Ham cautions us not to assume that the weather will be wet: “Two of the driest months of the year in Arkansas are January and February. There’s a real chance that it could just be dry and fast. In that case, it's Grifos, for sure. Maybe you could get away with a file tread, but I think there are just enough sections where you want traction. My choice would probably be Grifo.”

Whatever the weather, Challenge riders will have the tread to ride that hill!