After achieving domestic cyclocross success from a young age, frequent plane trips to Europe to race World Cups and other top races have been a regular part of Kaitie Keough’s (Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld) professional life. The approach has certainly worked for Keough, with the Little Badger finishing as high as second in the World Cup overall series during the 2017/18 season.
Last December, Keough decided she wanted fewer plane trips and more adventure in her life, so she made the decision to move to Europe along with her husband Luke and pup Lucy to live and race the Euro cyclocross experience.
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Following the U.S. World Cups, Team Keough packed up and headed to an apartment in Sittard, Netherlands—right near the USA Cycling facility—rented a motorhome and got to crisscrossing Belgium while taking on the best cyclocross racers in the world.
“I’ve been most surprised by how I’ve been able to just roll with it and be open with not really knowing what’s going to happen and being exciting about embracing the adventure,” Keough said about her first month and a half in Europe. “That’s not really how I’m wired, so maybe that’s some progress in a sense for me. This is an adventure for me.”
According to Keough, some of her results have been good, some have been bad, but more importantly, every race, every day has been a constant learning experience.
“It’s cool because here you can take away a lot from one race and then either the next day or next weekend hop in the car and go try again,” she said. “That’s been something that’s different than at home. It’s not such an ordeal trying to get to a big bike race. You just hop in the camper and drive two hours and you get to try again with the best in the world. There are a lot of opportunities to keep learning and keep trying the things you’ve already learned.”
As this goes to publication, Keough is back in the United States getting ready for Lakewood Nationals next weekend. Keough has finished on the podium at Nationals five of the last eight years, but like every other female cyclocrosser in the U.S., she has not yet been able to knock off friend and mentor Katie Compton (KFC Racing p/b Trek Knight).
Keough has entered as a presumptive favorite to end Compton’s streak before, but this time around, the 27-year-old has a bit of a different approach.
“Racing against Katie is really hard,” Keough said, understatedly. “I know I can do it and believing I can do it has been a big step forward for me. I don’t have anxiety about it, and I’m not insecure about it. I just hope all the pieces come together on that day. My only priority is making sure I show up there and being as ready as I can be and controlling what I can control.”
I caught up with Keough last week before she boarded her flight back home to Colorado Springs. You can read a transcript of our conversation below.
Cyclocross Magazine: It was pretty exciting to hear you were going to race in Europe for the full year, and talking to Stu [Thorne] last year, he kind of hinted that you might do this. How long were you thinking about doing Europe and going for it?
Kaitie Keough: Since like last December, I think. When we came over for that Christmas block, that’s why I decided I wanted to really try this. I didn’t really jump the gun on it or anything. In terms of coming over to Europe, I thought it was time to make that jump over here. I was also getting really tired of going back and forth. I wasn’t really interested in doing that anymore.
Stu is on board. Everyone who needed to be on board was on board. So far, I think it was a good decision.
CXM: You’ve been there for a good month and a half now. How has it been going?
KK: It’s been going well. Everything over here in terms of our setup has been super smooth and the transition has been easy. The racing has been some good, and some not so good, but that’s normal. Europe has definitely been an adventure.
It hasn’t been a bad first half of the season, but of course, you want a little bit more, right? I’m happy with how it’s going so far.
CXM: Where are you staying? What’s your setup like?
KK: We’re in Sittard, Netherlands, where USA Cycling is based. They have two houses here, but we’re not in their houses. We’re renting a studio apartment at a place called the Watersley Sports Complex. It’s a husband and wife team who have this really nice area for athletes. There are a lot of Dutch triathletes here. USA Cycling’s houses are just right across the way.
It’s been nice because we know the town pretty well from when I was over here before with USA Cycling. The riding is really good. We’re kind of in the countryside but close to a town. That’s been fun because there are lots of cool trails.
It’s a bit further for driving for a lot of the races, which is kind of annoying, but we really like where we’re at. It’s a compromise we are okay with. Luke and I have our motorhome we take to the races, and then at overnight races, we just sleep in the motorhome, so we don’t have to get hotels. Then Gary [Wolff] has his Cannondale van, and we normally drive to races and park near each other, but he will stay in hotels during overnight weekends. We do most of our dinners and meals in the little kitchen thing we have here. We’ve found a grocery store with a good produce cart.
It’s been pretty easy so far. Nothing chaotic, which I am very thankful for. But at the same time, we did a lot of hard work ahead of time to plan for this. I spent all summer trying to organize logistics and make sure I really knew what we were getting into so we weren’t over here stuck or something.
CXM: Is your picture on the side of your motorhome?
KK: It is not. No.
CXM: Is that going to happen? If you’re going to live in Europe…
KK: This is year is kind of the trial year to see what the kinks are. Next year, if we try it again, we’ll do the big look back with the hand on the butt picture thing. One step at a time, I think.
CXM: With your racing, last domestic season was tough for you, but you really hit your stride at the end of the season. I remember how stoked you were about your ride at Worlds. How did you build on that and take that into the offseason versus dwelling on some of those tougher times?
KK: Yeah, I was really motivated at the end of last season because I figured out a lot of stuff that needed to be figured out. I switched coaches and added a new coach to my team. Actually, two new coaches for gym work and on-the-bike stuff. Then I was excited about doing this move to Europe. I’ve had a lot of motivating and inspiring things going on.
I worked really hard this summer and was open to the new changes I made. I came into this season with my goals in mind, and I knew I had worked really hard to reach them. I was also open to something new, because this is something new. I’ve gone back and forth and raced over here, but it’s a little different not going back to America after the bike races.
Being open to the unknown has been motivating. There have been some good races so far and then some not so good ones. It’s cool because here you can take away a lot from one race and then either the next day or next weekend hop in the car and go try again. That’s been something that’s different than at home. It’s not such an ordeal trying to get to a big bike race. You just hop in the camper and drive two hours and you get to try again with the best in the world. There are a lot of opportunities to keep learning and keep trying the things you’ve already learned.
I’m always learning new things, and I think no matter how old you are, there are always new things to improve on and to learn. The level of the racing here is so high, it’s crazy and it’s fun at the same time.
CXM: When I talked to Katie Compton a couple of years ago, she talked about her Bucket List races. What has it been like doing some of those races like the Koppenberg?
KK: I’m glad I’ve done it now because when you go back and do it next year, you’ll know how to race it better and how the course looks. With these DVVs and Superprestiges, you don’t get to spend a lot of time on the course, especially if you’ve never done the races before, so it all happens really fast, and then you’re just like, ‘Dang it, can we do that again tomorrow?’ Because you have like 50 different things you want to do differently to make your result better.
That’s a bit different than the World Cups where you get to pre-ride the day before and the day of. You know the courses because you’ve done them already, and you get to spend more time on them. That’s been a frustrating but fun thing too. You’re like, ‘Okay, I learned a lot from that 50 minutes and I know the course and how it races and what people do and everything.’
The Koppenberg was a really cool one, and I definitely want to do it again next year because I took a lot away from it. There are a couple of other ones I’ve gotten to do like Gieten and Ruddervoorde that were really cool.
The single-day ones are pretty hard because they happen so quickly. Unless you’ve done them before, then you know what to expect. Going in blind has been harder.
CXM: One thing that seems a little bit different this year, racing-wise, is the young Dutch women are starting super fast. You’ve got these new riders you need to get to know. How have you been managing that? The racing seems different from the outside, is that the case inside?
KK: Yeah, I feel it, and that’s one of the reasons I’m getting my butt kicked in a few of these races. I can race like I normally do, but then I’m not going to be in the bike race. I’ve definitely had to get my head around going out a lot harder and staying in the group from the beginning. Or at least trying to stay in the group from the beginning, because I’m not going to be able to come from behind like I’ve done in the past. That’s not how it is anymore. The level is so high, and the dynamic has changed. You have to adapt to how it’s changing.
I think I spent the first part of the season learning that and trying to figure out how I can adapt. So yes, you have detected correctly.
CXM: Did you have that sense from the past? Was that something you addressed in the offseason? Are you making plans to change things up for next year?
KK: Yes, it was like that a little last year, but this season, I think it’s more so the case. I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve taken away from this first block. Every race, this is going to happen, and I need to adapt to it if I want to be in the bike race. It’s been hard for me to start that fast because that’s not really the kind of rider I have been in the past. But I’ve been trying to figure out how to change it and try to go hard from the start every race.
It’s definitely been an adjustment though. In the past, I’ve been able to ride into the race, but that’s not really the case anymore.
CXM: At the start line, are you starting to make friends and getting to be part of the scene? Do you have your own fan club yet?
KK: I don’t have my own fan club. I mean, Gary and Luke are my fan club, but I don’t have any fan club with people I don’t know. At least that I’m aware of.
The women are all really nice. I wouldn’t say I’m friends with any of them where we would hang out, but we’re all super chatty before we get called up. It’s been fun to joke around with them.
Mostly for me, it’s been small talk with a few of them. There are a couple of women I talk to a little bit more. Everyone is super nice though. I haven’t felt unwelcome or uncomfortable, it’s just different. I don’t live here, and I’m not a resident. Sometimes it’s like, ‘I really don’t know what you’re saying,’ but everyone speaks pretty good English, and it’s been fun to try to learn a couple of new Dutch words.
CXM: You’ve been with Cannondale most of your adult life. Have you been maintaining those relationships and kind of following along with what’s going on with the squad back at home?
KK: Oh yeah, I’ve been following them. It’s cool to see that Katie [Clouse] has had some really good rides so far. Stu [Thorne] and I talk almost every week on the phone to stay in touch and make sure I’m doing alright and hearing about how the weekends are going back at home. Curtis [White] has been doing super well, which I am really happy to see because it’s about time for him. Katie’s new and I only had one weekend with her, but I’m excited to be reunited with them at Washington Nationals.
CXM: What about this whole experience has surprised you the most?
KK: I’ve been most surprised by how I’ve been able to just roll with it and be open with not really knowing what’s going to happen and being exciting about embracing the adventure. That’s not really how I’m wired, so maybe that’s some progress in a sense for me. This is an adventure for me, and there are going to be some bad days, but there are probably going to be more good days and this is a super cool opportunity I have. Just rolling with it and being open to whatever happens.
I’ve been over here before, but this is the first time we’re really submerging ourselves in it, so it’s been good to remember that nothing happens overnight. It’s forced me to be humble and open to learning. I still have a lot left to learn, for sure. I’ve kind of been taking the beginner’s approach by being as much of a sponge as I can. I think I’ve done a good job of that, and I haven’t been too hard on myself.
CXM: It seems like you have a good support crew with you. When you finished at Koppenberg, we could see Luke right there with your jacket and stuff. What’s been like being married, doing this adventure together, but he’s also supporting you. What have the keys to your success been?
KK: It’s been super great having Luke here. I definitely couldn’t do this without him being here. Gary is great, but it’s not the same as having your partner with you. Having Luke here has made a big difference. Having Lucy [the dog] here has also made a big difference because during the day and after training, it’s just like normal life having her around. It lets me kind of step away and have it be normal for a minute.
Luke is great because he sometimes knows me better than I know myself. He’s able to say, ‘Do this differently’ or ‘Try a little harder here.’ It’s really helpful. And he is in contact with my coach Jim as well, which has been helpful because Luke sees me every day. It’s nice to have a piece of normal life with me here, but then Luke is also very involved in the riding side of things. He definitely helps keep my head on straight.
Lucy has been fun, but she won’t be back for the second trip. I’m going to leave her at home with my sister during the second trip. I’m just thankful we got to bring her the first time around.
CXM: Did you find some Dutch treats she likes?
KK: Yeah, we had to find new ones because we obviously weren’t going to fly with like 50 pounds of dog food. Now she eats some stuff called Willoughby’s Kitchen that she really likes.
CXM: You’re going to race Nats, right?
KK: Yeah, I’ll be at Nationals for sure.
CXM: We were looking and in the races you’ve done against the other Katie, every other race you switch in terms of who finishes better. I know in the past, you’ve done well at Nats, you’ve had high expectations, what kind of approach are you taking this year? This year is as good a shot as any to beat your friend and mentor.
KK: I know, I know. I would really like to win, of course, especially at this point. It’s kind of like, ‘Okay, come on.’ But I feel instead of putting a lot of pressure on myself, I’ve made it a more healthy goal to go into the race wanting to win. Yes, I’ve said that before, but this time it feels a little different when I say it because I know I can actually win, but I know all the pieces need to come together to do it.
Racing against Katie is really hard. I know I can do it and believing I can do it has been a big step forward for me. I don’t have anxiety about it, and I’m not insecure about it. I just hope all the pieces come together on that day. My only priority is making sure I show up there and being as ready as I can be and controlling what I can control.
I think it will be a good battle. Some of the races I’ve had against her have been good and I’ve beaten her, but also, the racing dynamic is different because we have been mixed up with a number of other women. Nationals will be more head-to-head with maybe a couple other people in the mix. That changes the dynamic of the race as well because over here I’m not so much paying attention to Katie, I’m paying attention to the course and 10 other people around me. At Nationals, I think it will be more focused on Katie because she’s there and there’s not like Lucinda Brand in the way.
CXM: With Katie as a friend and mentor, is it weird for you knowing you’re trying to knock off the greatest streak in U.S. cycling history?
KK: Not anymore. Yes, I respect Katie, but I can’t look at it like that. If I take that attitude where, ‘Oh you’re so good, you’re so amazing,’ no, I can’t look at it like she’s better than me because on certain days, she’s not. I don’t want to sound snotty, but you can’t start a race looking at your competitors as idols, you have to look at them like equals where on any given day, they might not be better than me. That’s how I approach it now, and I think that’s how you have to approach it with everyone you’re lining up against.
CXM: One last question, you’re from Wisconsin, you’re our favorite ’cross daughter, biggest Wisconsin thing you miss so far?
KK: Kringle. Kringle and my family.
CXM: I love it. It’s been a lot of fun seeing you on the live streams and looking forward to seeing you at Nationals.
KK: Cool, thank you so much.