It’s muddy, vicious, fast, tricky, taxing and technical. It’s the NASCAR of cycling — it’s cyclocross. And 19-year-old Joseph Schmalz is heading to Belgium today to compete in Euro Cross Camp.
“When you go to Europe, you’re racing against the best athletes in the world,” Schmalz said. “It’s a whole different atmosphere.”
Cyclocross is set on a closed, one- to two-mile course, and racers try to do the most laps in one hour. Like NASCAR, the racers have a pit crew to clean and service their bikes, sometimes up to six times per race. Cyclists ride on grass, mud and sand, and often have to dismount their bikes, jump over barriers and get right back on.
“It’s a mix of mountain biking and road racing,” Schmalz said. “It’s the hardest discipline within cycling. You only race for an hour, but it’s the toughest thing you’ll do all week.”
Schmalz is one of 18 cyclocrossers across the country selected to participate in Euro Cross Camp. He will race every other day from today through Jan. 4.
Schmalz raced for the first time at 9 years old and pedaled to a first-place finish in the Sunflower State Games 9-under race when his grandfather, Gary McGregor, saw a flier for the race and signed him up. McGregor owns a bike shop in Atchison.
But Schmalz only started cyclocross in 2006 to keep in shape during the offseason. Since then he’s had incredible success in the discipline. He is currently ranked second in the U-23 division and has been placing in the top 20 in pro races.
“How often do you hear a 19-year-old talking like a veteran rider?” said Adam Mills, Schmalz’s trainer and CEO of Source Endurance, a cyclist training company. “Joe has so much talent, I feel kind of obligated to help him be the best he can be.”
Schmalz rides every day, averaging 10 hours a week. The recent Free State High graduate is taking the semester off to train and travel for cyclocross.
Mills said Schmalz’s success was surprising because of his age.
“The thing that makes cyclocross difficult is that you must draw on all of your experience,” Mills said. “It’s rare to find young riders as fast as Joe because they don’t have the experience. It takes emotional maturity to be able to handle this. Joe might be 19, but he races like a 28-year-old, mentally.”
The nature of cyclocross means a lot of pedaling, a little bit of running, a little bit of jumping, and a lot of falling. The object, Mills says, is to make mistakes (of which there are many) at points that won’t be detrimental.
“He just doesn’t get frustrated,” Mills said. “The hardest part for most riders is patience. There are not a lot of ways to win, but a lot of ways to lose. You don’t need to punch guys out, you just wait for them to do it themselves. Wait for them to make a mistake. No one ever rides perfect.”
Schmalz said he looks forward to the intense competition in Belgium, and hopes to eventually ride professionally. His next goal is to make it onto the World Championship Team.
“He’d be bored to death on a float trip down a river,” Mills said. “But some people think that’s fun. Joe would rather be riding his bike at 30 mph.”