Scott Smith is back in the U.S. following his nearly month-long tour racing cyclocross in Europe.
"It's cold!" Smith said from his Western Massachusetts home where it was 20 degrees and snowing on Thursday. "It was 40 the past few weeks in Belgium."
About a week after finishing 4th in the U23 Cyclocross National Championships in Asheville, North Carolina, Smith flew across the pond and competed in five races in Belgium and the Netherlands. It was his first time racing on the European circuit.
"It was really cool, like going to the major leagues" Smith said. "I was tired from the long cross season, and after nationals, I was pretty smoked. I knew the racing was going to be really hard, and it was."
His first Euro race was on January 24 in Hoogerheide, Netherlands, where Smith finished 41st, but he achieved his goal of finishing on the lead lap.
"I really liked Hoogerheide because it was super slippery and had fun drop-ins," he said.
The following weekend, Smith was in the fifth row at the start of the U23 World Championships in Zolder, Belgium.
"The start was great, I got up as far as I could get" he said. "I had a clean race and rode most everything except for the steep run-up in sand. I slid out on one of the transitions from the drop-in to the pavement. I hit my handlebars on the ground and the tape unraveled, so I had to pit. But the pit was pretty close. It went well for what I had to work with. I was super tired and ran out of gas, but I stayed and finished on the lead lap."
Smith represented Team USA at the World Championships. He stayed at the USA Cycling house in Sittard, Netherlands with other American riders. Renting a USA team van, he got back and forth to races that were about two hours from his European home base.
"Adapting to that lifestyle was easy," he said. "I ate the same stuff as I do here, and you can get some weirder food at the stores if you want."
The World Championships are the grand finale of cyclocross, but there was still some racing in the weeks that followed for those seeking experience and perhaps UCI ranking points. For Smith, the experience was most valuable at this point in his cycling career. Three days after Worlds, he raced with the elite men's field at Parkcross in Maldegem, where he showed off his technical skills by hopping the barriers. Then he raced U23 at Sint-Niklaas and Hoogstraten, where he had one of his best finishes of the trip, getting 23rd. The attention fans gave to his long golden locks made him feel like a rockstar.
"People are paying to watch these races and asking for rider cards, autographs and to take pictures with you," Smith said. "They wanted me to take off my helmet and glasses and they took pictures of my face and hair."
The challenges Smith faced racing overseas were slightly different than in the United States. Belgian cross is well known for the thick, heavy mud, which Smith likened to doing "tractor pulls." Parkcross had four sand pits, which he also said were "super hard." And Smith says it took time getting used to the course markers.
"They use orange wooden stakes and rope to tie off courses, so if you fall anywhere you hurt yourself," he said. "There’s a lot of drop-ins and ruts that if you hit it wrong, you hit a pole or medal fence not one of those flimsy stakes. I wasn’t really ready for that. It adds a level of danger to it. You have to pay attention more and pick your lines exactly."
One of the best parts of his experience overseas was exploring places he's never been.
"I liked getting lost on my training rides and seeing new things," he said. "When we rode around we found weird stuff like a small hut where people pray and there would be Jesus statues and stuff. You never know what you're going to find."
Thinking ahead, Smith says he would do a few things differently next year.
"I would take a better mid-season brake and maybe not race as much," he said. "I would do the big races and make them count and go over for Worlds and stay. And if I go back, I would make sure I'm running faster, because they run pretty fast."
Smith plans on racing the road this summer in preparation for next fall's cross season. He will always have the great memory of his first European cross tour.
"The racing was cool," he said. "To see what it’s like at the highest level of the sport and to see what they do differently, it was amazing."
Story by Vicky Sama
Header photo by Kurt Van Hout