American pro cyclocross racer and Strava employee Elle Anderson left Belgium after her 2014-15 cyclocross season drained and disillusioned. A hostile host family situation and team drama sapped her drive and left her unsure if she'd ever return. But now she's back, on her own terms with her own program for the 2016-17 season, determined to keep pushing herself against the best talent on the most iconic courses in the sport.
"I love what cyclocross means to this part of the world... to have the chance to be on TV and race in front of 20-30,000 fans at the big races. The competition is world-class and deep. The courses over here are so much more challenging. You get the muddiest of the mud races, the sandiest of the sand races, the hilliest of the climbing races. It's a crucible, and I love it.” She hungers for the competition, the camaraderie and the clarity she experiences racing in the epicenter of the sport. And at the Koppenbergcross, she once again found all three in abundance.
The day before the race, Elle headed out for a recon lap, an important part of her race prep process.
"Before every race, I get on the trainer - it's where I mentally and physically get in the zone. To make that happen, I use these headphones. You can’t talk to me while I’m on the trainer. It’s my little space, and the fans are super respectful of that - you can’t interact during this time. I look forward to this time - the way I look forward to when I wake up a few minutes before my alarm goes off - I love those bonus ten minutes of sleep before the alarm goes off."
"I tend to be really calm on the start line. I get really focused and block everything out and work on the positive goals I have for that day."
"There was this section on the lower part of the Koppenberg where the yellow leaves were falling in the wind all around me as I climbed. One for the memory book for sure.
"I had also never been to the top of the Koppenberg until today, because the old course only went part of the way up. It was special to ride those last few meters of this really famous climb. It gave me goosebumps."
"I dream of it, focus on it - I chase it. The zone is when you race in state of sublime clarity. You go for it and you’re not aware of thoughts. You transcend the moment while staying perfectly present. It's like magic.
"I had it happen one time in particular in a race, and it still makes me smile to think about it. I crossed the finish line and all I could think of was how easy it had been. My brain was so clear, a voice was telling me, sprint now, turn now, do it now, and it was amazing. It felt like I was reading a book or watching a replay, yet at the same time the character in that book. It was so subconscious and automatic - it felt like I floated to the finish line."
Elle put in a solid effort to finish 12th on the day - not amazing, not bad - a decent day at the office.
"My biggest fear is that in two or three years, I’m still just a mediocre American that insists on racing in Europe all the time and struggles to get in the top ten. I do believe I’m capable of a World Cup podium or becoming a top five rider in Europe. I really want that. I really want to make a profession out of it and to be respected.
"Do I define success solely as making a career for myself over here in Europe? It’s a tough position to be in - I love being in the mix, I love being a participant, but I’m way too competitive. If I just go for the next couple of years as a top fifteen participant, I think it’ll drive me nuts, but if I put too much pressure on myself, I’ll burn out in two years anyway. I have to strike that balance and figure out a way."
"I think making the first group on a regular basis is attainable. I think mostly because I’ve made that front group a few times, so I know that I can do it. It must be possible, because I’ve done it. It’s hard to say scientifically and physiologically I’m capable of being in the front group. There’s a mental part to it as well - I have to have the confidence to believe I deserve to be there. I don’t think it’s a huge difference, but it’s significant.
"Honestly, I think the magic comes from not being 100% sure that I can make that front group - just the mystery of it all keeps me wanting to chase it. If I knew it weren’t that big of a difference, I might be harder on myself, or if there was something easy I could do - it’s kind of chasing that carrot on down the road. I think I enjoy the pursuit of that goal - not knowing how possible or feasible it is - just going out and giving it a go every weekend and seeing what happens."