Archive for the Interviews Category

If you want to know more about me, step on over to race.cx where my CpQ (Cyclocross Punters Questionnaire) has been posted. I did it as a lark and didn’t really expect Brian to post it — but he did, and there it is!

After I snapped pictures of Erik Tonkin’s Kona and talked about it for the bike feature, I sat down and asked him some questions about racing in Europe.

On Sven Nys:

Erik picked up the impression that other riders were jealous of Sven Nys’ success. Nys seems to be an easy going guy but perhaps it’s easy to be when you’re winning three out of four races – he’s not called the cannibal for nothing. There are whispers of criticism because he often has a hard time at the big one (Worlds).

“Perhaps he’s missing some edge when Worlds comes around. You need so many matches saved for when everything is really on the line. You need the fire left in your belly. Maybe winning so many races kind of dampens that desire. Of course I don’t pretend to know what’s in his head. He doesn’t seem concerned about it especially since he’s already won one.”

Even with the undertone of jealousy, he seems to be well-liked by the other riders. He’s generous as well. For instance, it was reported that he was going to charter a plane to fly all of the top ‘crossers to the US for the now canceled World Cup race.

“He’s always been friendly to me – when he sees me for the first time each year, he says something like, ‘You’re back’; once when we were both in [doping] control after a world cup he asked if I was going to his race [the GP Sven Nys in Baal] the next day: I said, ‘Yes, if you promise not to double me’; and last year he gave my ‘fan club’ his Sharpie pen so they could all get my autograph at the GP de Ster in Sint Niklaas! He makes it look so easy, ya know.”

Plans this year:

Since he and his wife Rhonda Mazza are expecting their first child in early December, there won’t be a European campaign this season. Baby or not, he and Rhonda had already decided not to contest Worlds this year. However, he also won’t be going to Geoff Proctor’s Euro Cross Camp either (for the first time since the camp’s inception). This is a great disappointment because he really enjoys the role of teacher and mentor to the younger racers. He also likes the almost daily schedule of races; “There’s no time to think, and that’s good for me.”

Erik has been steady at Worlds and has always finished the race on the lead lap. However, he knows that even at his very best, he’s never going to finish better than a top thirty – but at his worst he’s still not going to get lapped. He’s proud of the fact that he’s one of a very few US riders that have finished on the lead lap in every Worlds he’s entered. He hopes that by giving up his spot, someone genuinely faster will take it and place well: “I’d be happiest to see the US send 5 guys who should place top-20, guys like Page, Trebon, Johnson, Powers, and Wicks. I want them to send the best. I’m not one of the best, but I’ve shown I can solidly fill the gap.”

Since he relishes racing in Europe, there’s a slim chance that he might find a way to get to the Hoogerheide world cup and another race on the same weekend, both among his favorite races. Erik often finds a way to make the seemingly impossible happen.

Without the European races to look forward to, he’s having difficulty getting motivated for the local and domestic races. Another barrier is Rhonda’s hiatus from racing this season. He’s very proud of her success and has very much enjoyed racing with her over the last six or so years. He can’t see himself heading out to an east coast race without her.

September is very busy for him at the shop since there’s a avalanche of people getting ready for cross. The rush of work makes racing on Saturdays virtually impossible and the reason he missed Starcrossed. He typically spends the month getting his customers ready for cross and organizing the Alpenrose cross clinics. He says, “Once everyone else has their ducks in a row for the season, I can start racing and training”. In previous years, this schedule worked well to prepare him for European racing in December and January. It forced him take a hiatus after mountain bike season and saved his best form for later in the season.

What is takes to race in Europe:

He agrees with Page’s opinion about finding success in Europe. A racer needs to make the commitment to live in Europe and race in all the top races. Ryan Trebon has had difficulty making the leap because he’s a single guy without any real support structure to make the transition easier. Page has his wife and kids (now) to ground him over there and has made the commitment to learn the language and integrate into the culture. But like many American riders, Trebon has had a hard time overcoming the language and cultural differences as well as the feelings of isolation from friends in the States. Still, Ryan has a strong desire to make it work and race in Europe.

The best riders in Europe are faster because they come from a tradition of racing – their dads and granddads raced. Bjorn Selander is the best US prospect and it’s no coincidence that his father raced professionally in Europe. Additionally, to ascend to the top of the sport, a rider needs to start early – a bitter pill for Erik to swallow.

“After my first cross camp, I felt like I unlocked potential I’d never before exhibited. Others noticed, too. I found the racing suited me well. Noel Dejonkheere–the US national team road coach in Belgium, and whose facilities we use for camp–told me quite soberly that he thought I was good and should stick with it. He also said that if I had come over for the first time at the age of 23 rather than 29, that I might be one of the ‘big guys’. He then told me that it was too late for that. It was the definition of bitter-sweet. He said he would always make room for me because I was good enough to handle it all, and, more important, I was a good role model for the younger guys. It was one of the few times he ever talked to me as if I was purely a racer. Usually, he talks to me like a fellow coach. I think he felt I deserved an explanation. Anyway, it was very telling, and ever since I viewed my own racing from his perspective. Younger riders with a real future get his time. He relies on me to show up and get the job done and set the tone for the others.”

Even if you can get past the problems associated with living abroad, there are further difficulties. Riders from the States can be awe struck of performing on the big stage and the courses are really hard. The lap speeds are mind boggling. As an example he points out that Tristan Schouten beat Erik in the domestic races they raced together but he got pulled with four to go at Worlds. It’s very discouraging for a rider to be going so much slower all of a sudden when he was regularly finishing on the podium in domestic races. The difficulty of the courses needs to be stressed. “You see a race like Kruger’s [a late season race with very difficult conditions that ate derailleurs] once a season here and it’s every race in Europe. Here the sand section, if there is one, is through a volleyball court but in Europe it’s down a beach and it’s 300 meters long.”

One of the first races he did was Hofstade in Dec. of 2003, a course which features many long sand sections. The sand sapped racers’ strength, and the rest of the course was a freeway since it was dry that year. Nys was putting in 5 minute lap times so the race was 12 laps. The laps were 3km which means Nys did 36 km in an hour, an average of almost 22 mph over the course – including all the sand. Erik was the last guy on the lead lap and the only reason he didn’t get pulled was because Nys sat up on the finishing straight to celebrate. Even so, Erik was only five minute down (in 27th place). Guys that beat him in the States got pulled with 30 minutes to go. They were fast guys who just couldn’t handle adjusting to how thankless the situation is. “I got one of my best compliments ever that day: Adri van der Poel said, in typical northern European understatement, that I ‘wasn’t bad’.”

Sometimes it comes down to who is hardheaded enough to keep on going during trying circumstances and being satisfied with moderate goals like not getting lapped. Erik finds value in racing cyclocross besides getting on the podium – he finds reward in racing with the best guys in the world and moderate success like finishing races and improving season to season.

Ryan Trebon wins plenty of races in the US but still finds satisfaction and reward by racing against the top competition in Europe. Ryan’s first World Cup race was a really messy Hofstade (Dec. of ’04). He finished in the 25s, a phenomenal result for an American (Wickes and Page finished 43rd and 44th), and told Erik that that was the first time his legs had hurt all year, the first time he had suffered. He wasn’t trying to be coy; he was just explaining how tough the racing was. He had reached a new level of pain. Erik thought, “Welcome to my world.”

Racing against the best:

Erik recalled a Cross Crusade race at Alpenrose a few years ago. Barry Wicks, Ryan Trebon, Dale Knapp, Adam Craig, and Carl Decker were all there with no UCI points on the line when there several other UCI races around the country. If you want more success, then you are going to have to ride with the best competition. Don’t worry about UCI points or podiums.

In Hofstade last season Erik and Page lined up at the back of the field. It was one of Page’s first races back after his injury and he moved up to finish respectably in 18th. The best guys can do well even if they aren’t on the front row. If a rider wants to improve, he should seek out the best competition and not worry about cherry picking out of the way UCI races.