December 29, 2015 – Canadian cyclo-cross racer Aaron Schooler is currently based in Germany racing for the Focus CX Team. We caught up with him after he did a stint in Belgium with Team Canada on their CX Christmas Project that was a result of the newly formed Canadian Cyclocross Working Group. The crew competed in the UCI World Cup in Zolder on Boxing Day, followed by the Superprestige in Diegem on Sunday evening. Schooler gives us insight on the races, his Canadian teammates, the CX scene in Europe, and his plans for the rest of the season.
Tell us about Zolder first – the conditions, the course and how the race unfolded.
Aaron Schooler: Zolder is always a super hard race, and any race during the Christmas period in Belgium, let alone a World Cup being hard to begin with. This year there were more riders in numbers than we’ve ever had at the World Cups, so it was definitely a full field. The course in Zolder is identical to what the World Championships will be like this year at the end of January, so it’s even more important to be able to race on the course with a similar field ahead of time. There is really no better preparation.
The start is hectic like always, but I was pretty lucky and moved through the mayhem pretty easily. Once I had some open space in front of me I was able to really open up the legs. I rode a very clean race, and felt I was able to put the power down all race. It seems the older I get the worse my starts get, but the stronger I become in the second half of the race. After the halfway point, I had quickly moved by many riders (with lots of them DNF’ing from mechanicals) and it wasn’t until two laps to go when I finally reached the group that MVDH [fellow Canuck Michael van den Ham] was in. I was tailing on the back of that group for a while before it broke apart from guys attacking and guys getting dropped. I was able to play my cards right and ended up picking two more riders out of it on the last lap. MVDH being the last one I passed after he crashed over the handlebars on the last lap. It’s a very tactical crit style course, with MTB type sections thrown in for good measure to test your skills, so you really need a wide range of skills to excel here.
Describe the scene in Zolder and the group of Canucks racing there.
AS: Zolder is and always has been a World Class venue. Not only for CX, but BMX now, road racing in the past, and originally motorsports. It’s a venue that’s perfectly setup to handle a World Cup and World Championship type event, and being in the heart of Belgium, there will be a great turnout of spectators for Worlds.
The group of Canucks in Belgium right now is stellar. We’ve done a lot of work on the back end with the Cyclocross Working group to bring some order and structure to Cyclocross in Canada which hasn’t ever really been there before despite various annual best intentions, so the group of people who are part of this first ever Canadian Christmas Cross Project are really leading the charge with this.
I tagged on to the project as a coach for a few days to help out where I could and offer some advice to those with less experience. All of the people who are part of the Working Group do it on a volunteer basis, and do it because they love the sport, and want to see Canadians flourish in cyclocross around the world, so being there on hand to help out or see it come to fruition is quite a great feeling.
Most of the riders on the project are in Europe racing CX for the first time so it’s been a very steep learning curve, with the exception of Mical Dyck. Jeremy Martin has been part of national team MTB projects in the past, but this is the first time he’s really focused on CX, so it’s great to see more riders so keen on the discipline, and Jeremy is starting to show his true ability. Also, most of the riders will be staying on and racing Worlds, so this is a great way to get comfortable and hash out all the little details.
Were you guys motivated for Diegem as you placed even better – what happened there?
AS: Diegem is a very cool event. I was a bit shattered from my efforts the day before in Zolder, and haven’t really been able to race hard on the second day of a double header yet this year, but hats off to MVDH and Jeremy Martin for having an amazing ride in Diegem. Mical is starting to feel a bit better lately and her result in Zolder didn’t tell the whole story as she rode a half lap on a flat tire. Diegem’s result was a bit better for her. It didn’t have near the same amount of riders compared to Zolder though, hence the higher placings, but the race a night race for the Elite men and the atmosphere at night there is unbelievable. This course is like an uncle that always gets drunk at family gatherings and makes a fool of himself. Rough around the edges, hard to be comfortable with, and has his quirks, but you see him every year at Christmas time, so you might as well give him a hug, and hang out with him for an hour or so and talk about how things are different this year compared to last.
How much different is evening racing vs daytime?
AS: I’ve always loved racing at night, but Diegem honestly felt like racing in the day it was lit up so well!! It didn’t feel like a typical night race we might experience at home with poor visibility. This is the big time, they spend the extra money on proper lighting.
Are the efforts of the new Canadian Cyclo-Cross Working Group making a difference?
AS: Yes. The projects are starting to feel more like a real Cycling Canada project and less like a band of hooligans all trying to race CX in Europe. Like I said, we wanted to try and bring some order to Cyclocross in Canada, and it’s still a work in progress, but we are getting there. The main factor that will help from the general public, will be the fundraising campaigns that we have. This will also help a lot as we don’t get any type of funding from Sport Canada. It all has to come from other means and is mainly driven by support from the general public. (To contribute to the Canadian Cyclocross program click here.)
Are North Americans gaining stature in Europe ?
AS: The Americans have been doing for years now what we have just recently been able to organize. They are still growing, and this year for them is even more professional than last year, they are a great big brother to learn from as they have had great results in the past on the World stage. For us, it’s also a matter of ensuring that our top athletes also have the ability to race the big races in Europe. One more thing on the list of To-Do’s I guess. But because we need to be racing so much in the States as a way to get faster and build our athlete strengths, the pro team and sponsors systems are very much similar. I really wish we could have more top level racing organized in Canada, if we could get the Canadian World Cup off the ground that would help, as well as a possible Canada Cup of Cyclocross would be great for our own riders to gain points and valuable experience. Doesn’t have to be many, just a few weekends of racing would make all the difference.
How do the Euros view Las Vegas and a possible Montreal World Cups in 2016 ?
AS: It wasn’t great to hear of MTL falling by the wayside. The assumption from the Euros is that it won’t ever happen which is quite a kick to the junk for Canadians. I really hope that we can pull something together to prove them wrong. Las Vegas was good, and a step forward if continues as a recurring thing, which I hope it will be. It’s great for the sport to become more international, we need this to improve over here.
Give us a brief history of your CX career and your take on the current scene in Canada?
AS: I started racing later in life compared to most athletes. I never really got the experience of growing and learning through the typical Junior and U-23 provincial and National team projects when I was younger. I was in the Army Reserves through high School and College, and never started racing until I graduated college, so for me, starting racing as a first year elite was very hard, and I never was privy to all the existing options for projects. I trudged through the ranks while paying my own way. It’s possibly why I ended up finding comfort in cyclocross it being that fringe sport but that also had to do with the skill set that I have. For some reason it just suits the style of cyclocross. If you line me up against other riders who finish around me, the physiological capabilities of myself I know are lacking, but I’m able to hold my own because of my technical ability. Everyone works with what they have, and I think I’ve been able to do quite well with the cards I was dealt in life.
What’s up next for you and the CX Christmas Project ?
AS: For me, I drove back to my home in Tübingen, Germany for a bit of down time before the next races. I’ll be doing the Swiss EZK Cross Tour C1 Race in Meilen on Jan 2nd, followed by a more local UCI race in Albstadt Jan 6th where the MTB World Cup happens in the summer. After that I’ll be gearing up for the final World Cups before Worlds. This Worlds will be my last World Championships for a while (at least for the foreseeable future) as after this I’ll be heading back to work to get started on my engineering career in Canada. I’ve been out of work while living in Germany, which has helped me be able to focus on racing for the last two years, but given that I’ve never been able to make money in the sport of cycling, I really need to get back to a balance that brings home some income. I’m not leaving the sport by any means, there are still things I would like to do and goals that I have, but the priorities will be changing personally for me come next year.
For the Christmas Project, they are racing in Loenhout today, then hit up more of the races during the Kerstperiode like Baal etc… before the Christmas project closes up shop, and everyone will take a break from racing before joining back up once the Worlds project gets off the ground in January. We are very lucky to be able to use some of the existing infrastructure that the road and track teams have setup here in Belgium, so we base ourselves out of the Cycling Canada base in Tielt-Winge and are able to use the Canada buses as well. Makes us look a bit more professional at all the events.
Thanks for spending time and good luck going forward.