If there were a Queen Stage at the 2019 Women’s Montana Cross Camp, it would have been Thursday’s jam-packed day of running, riding and climbing.
With the big day coming at the end of camp, campers were already pushed to their physical limits. That they did more stadium stairs, more hill bounds and probably the toughest group ride of the week just made it that much harder.
I checked in from Wednesday’s camp while in Montana thanks to some down time for napping and working while the young women were ripping singletrack during their afternoon group ride.
Today’s Montana Cross Camp dispatch takes a look back at Thursday’s packed schedule and adds a bonus look at Friday morning’s activities thanks to a delayed flight. I guess there are worse things than getting stuck in Montana for an extra morning.
Early Morning Fitness
During Wednesday night’s classroom session, Allison Arensman, Katie Compton and Rebecca Fahringer gave an excellent presentation on the importance of good sleep for athletic performance. That lesson was put to the test Wednesday evening thanks to the late-night showing of The Lego Movie 2 for the gifted kids camp right outside our dorm. Everything was indeed not awesome for the campers trying to get to sleep anticipating the 6:30 a.m. training session.
Even with the late-night distraction, Thursday morning’s training packed more reps into each exercise, thus the Queen Stage moniker.
Today featured five sets of stadium stairs after the usual stretching and openers.
New for Thursday was a set of agility drills using the speed ladders. Campers went through a series of drills working on foot speed and explosion into sprints after twisting, turning and shuffling through the small squares.
With camp in its fourth day, many of the young women were in step with one another.
And even the coaches took some time to break it down as well.
The morning session closed with a set of five hill bounds, again adding one to the total number of reps. There was, however, much more to come on the busy day.
Cox Lake ’Cross Loop
One of Coach Geoff Proctor’s instructions for riders as they head back to their respective homes across the country is to find a cyclocross loop that incorporates various features and skills challenges into it. Not surprisingly, Proctor has a loop of his own located south of Helena near his home.
Set around a small body of water called Cox Lake, Proctor said he swapped mowing the property owners’ lawn for the ability to use the land for Montana Cross Camp and his own cyclocross practice. No, the slowest riders did not have to stay to mow the lawn, in case you were wondering.
The roughly 5 to 6-minute loop incorporates a start/finish stretch, some singletrack, a steep hill and barriers, making it a good mix of what Montana cyclocross has to offer.
There are no cars to transport the athletes around Helena; they have to ride wherever the day’s activities take them. Thursday’s training session was a bit south of town, so the campers formed a mini peloton and rode there together.
Like every on-the-bike-session at Montana Cross Camp, Thursday’s started with starts.
Unlike Wednesday, Thursday’s were regular holeshots and not push-up or lay-on-your-back scrambles to get back on the bike after a crash.
Next up was the famed “Sven Hill.” The concept of the Sven Hill comes from a tough climb Sven Nys would ride over and over during his cyclocross training. Proctor watched Nys ride the hill back when he was working on his book “Behind the Stare,” and the presence of a perfect Sven Hill at the Cox Lake property no doubt made it an appealing location for Proctor’s camp ’cross course.
For the Sven Hill, each rider gets one practice try and then one for real try. The reward? Free ice cream from the Big Dipper on Friday afternoon. If you make it on the practice but not the for real attempt, no free ice cream for you.
As the riders lined up, all eyes were on Lizzy Gunsalus. Gunsalus rode the Sven Hill at the first Women’s camp back in 2017, and 2 years later she was expected to nail it once again.
Eschewing a practice attempt, Gunsalus rode the Sven Hill on her one attempt, earning her another free ice cream. With her record of success riding the steep incline, Proctor may need to rename this particular hill the “Lizzy Hill.”
One-by-one, the other campers made their runs at the Sven Hill.
The other successful attempt came from the youngest attendee at this year’s camp, Elsa Westenfelder of nearby Missoula. Westenfelder spends a lot of time mountain biking and it showed, as she kept her weight well-distributed and successfully powered up the hill.
The coaches gave it their best shots as well. Just like one of the steep hills in Belgium, albeit with drier air and a few more pine trees.
The Cox Lake training session closed with one hot lap around the full course. The unofficial course record was 5:05 set by Laurel Rathbun, so that is the mark the athletes were gunning to beat.
One learning opportunity campers received was again on the Sven Hill. As we saw earlier, only two of the riders were able to ride the Sven Hill in practice, meaning in a race situation, less than two would likely be able to ride it cleanly.
After the hot lap session, Coach Katie Compton pointed out the importance of dismounting at just the right moment to continue your forward momentum. Some of the riders dismounted early and some late, but the experience gave them something to work on when they find their own Sven Hill back home.
The top times for the hot lap belonged to Lizzy Gunsalus and Cassie Hickey, who both finished in 5:10. Ellie Mitchell, Lauren Zoerner and Abi Yates rounded out the hot lap wide-angle podium. It appears Rathbun’s course record remains safe for another year.
After a big morning, the Thursday Queen Stage of camp was anything but done. Like any Queen Stage, there was plenty of climbing to be done during Thursday’s group ride.
Each afternoon group ride has a different tenor. Wednesday’s ride was a bit more of an adventure ride, and Thursday’s was all about the climbing. On tap for the 40-ish mile ride were gravel climbs up Mullen Pass and Priest Pass. After rolling out of Helena, the total amount of climbing was nearly 3,000 feet. Not a bad afternoon of work, especially knowing Friday afternoon would bring restorative yoga and ice cream.
Like any good group ride, the campers rolled out to the climbs together. Helena resident and men’s camper Andrew Frank volunteered his afternoon to sag the ride and give me a lift. His presence proved invaluable due to untimely flats and one camper who had to abandon before the climbs due to issues with her knee.
The Mullen Pass QOM officially starts at a railroad trestle, but there was no mad dash for the start, as the young women politely waited for their colleague with a flat. The coaches and I spent Thursday dinner trying to figure out if that would happen at the men’s camp—probably not was the verdict ¯_(ツ)_/¯.
The Mullen Pass climb was a particularly gnarly one, gravel-wise. More than once Frank asked, rhetorically, if Proctor would cover the cost a flat tire. (We did not flat, for the record)
Lizzy Gunsalus continued her strong day of climbing by taking the Mullen Pass QOM. The entire squad paused to get some water and pose for the traditional group shot at the top of the climb.
On the second climb up to Priest Pass, Coaches Compton and Fahringer decided to send it a bit and see who wanted to play a little game of beat the pros. Aubrey Drummond and Ellie Mitchell answered the call and joined the charge toward the QOM.
The climb was a bit of a two-parter, and the group of four stuck together right up until the last kick up to the top.
Mitchell ended up taking the QOM, with Drummond following in a close second as they both attacked on the final kick toward the top.
Perhaps knowing the toughest part of camp was in the books, Gunsalus was all smiles at the top.
After cresting Priest Pass, it was a ripping descent and then a downhill roll back into Helena, straight into dinner. Thursday night’s classroom session featured a completely mediocre presentation on dealing with the media—one we may share soon—and it closed out, as it always does, with topical videos presented by Proctor.
Fortunately for all of us, there was no encore movie screening in the Carroll College courtyard Thursday evening.
Bonus Friday Coverage
Your 2019 Montana Cross Camp coverage was set to wrap up Thursday evening, with your camp correspondent slated to head home B&E Friday morning to make it back to announce Saturday’s Wisconsin State Criterium. (Big time sched, I know).
Due to a delayed flight, however, I got to stick around for Friday morning’s training session. Did that include the 6:30 a.m. training at the football field for me? Lulz, no. I slept in.
Friday morning’s on-the-bike session started at Helena High. After the squad rolled up, it was to the start for, you guessed it, holeshots.
Backing up a second, in 2.5 days of watching Proctor’s camp, the two skills campers worked on the most were running and holeshots.
With the amount of running at certain European courses and the chaos at the starts of Junior and U23 World Cup races, the focus on these skills certainly demonstrates the Euro-focused nature of Proctor’s camp.
The atmosphere will be much different come the first-ever Junior Women’s World Championships in Dübbendorf in February—I am pretty sure the only spectator Friday morning was the guy mowing the lawn—but as Proctor stresses, success in Europe starts with work done now in July.
After the holeshot drill came another Euro-focused drill in pit exchanges. Proctor again tried to convey the chaos of Euro pit exchanges, especially at super muddy races, but on Friday, the Helena High track would do.
Riders focused on one, raising their hands to let the pit crew know they are coming and two, telling the pit crew what is wrong with the bike. Since it was practice, the smart ones said something along the lines of “broken rear derailleur,” while those who said, “flat,” received the response, “front or rear?” The lesson was to be as clear as possible about why you are pitting.
Riders practiced both the standard dismount into receiving a new bike and the Louisville-Nats-inspired dismount into shouldering the pit bike.
Next up was another Friday camp staple, the relay race. Coaches Fahringer and Arensman got the opportunity to jump on the other side of the barriers and play course designers.
Not sure if we will see speed ladders on a Euro course any time soon and the W section may not have been 3 meters wide, but they did a good job creating a course that included cornering, off-cambers, running and barriers.
Proctor chose three captains and divided up teams of five. Each rider did two laps of the relay course after a holeshot start led by Teams Zoerner, Dyas and Drummond.
As the relay progressed, campers rode…
Their way through the course.
The relay eventually came down to a close battle between two of the teams, with the women waiting at the exchange area positively supporting all the riders while out on course.
With the relay in the books, it was back to Carroll college for one last on-the-bike session: sand. Proctor purposely leaves the sand session for last perhaps because it is best, but most likely because of the toll it takes on campers’ drivetrains. The mini-Zonhoven is a sand volleyball course located in a park next to campus.
Riders took turns helping dig in a rut—perhaps not quite as deep as what they might see at, say, Superprestige Gieten—and then trying to ride the corner with the rut.
Proctor stressed the importance of staying loose in the front, keeping your weight back and modulating speed to carry momentum through the turn but not go flying through the far side of the corner. As the reps added up and the rut deepened, more of the young women were riding the sand feature cleanly, demonstrating that perhaps practice makes perfect?
With the sand section done and dusted, the hard work of the 2019 Women’s Montana Cross Camp was in the books. Friday afternoon included yoga, ice cream (!) and then the sad activity of breaking down bikes and boxing them up to ship home.
As we publish this, the 2019 Men’s camp is currently nearing its completion in Helena. All told, 36 young athletes from across the country had the opportunity to spend a week in Helena and get an early #crossiscoming kickstart to the 2019/20 season.
Thanks again to Geoff Proctor for inviting Cyclocross Magazine to attend this year’s camp. To get ready for a 2020 return, I think I might need to find a set of stadium stairs and a gym membership to get me prepared.