These athletes share the same motivation for choosing to race on the demanding Belgian scene. As Backstedt explained, “I decided that I wanted to pursue cyclocross and the best place to do that is Belgium!”

As compared to their home country, the riders enjoy living in a country where cycling is so popular. “In no country are there as many spectators as in Belgium,” said Kopecky. “For example, the World Road Championships in Leuven were amazing! The fans were there not only on the race days but also on training days. Fans asked for high fives. It really gave you goosebumps.”

There are other practical considerations that make Belgium an excellent place to be a cyclocrosser. “I like training on the roads here,” said Backstedt. “When I am at home, we don’t have any bike paths. Training can be a bit dangerous, so I quite like having bike paths here.”

The riders also appreciate team cyclocross training sessions. It's a convention for Dutch and Belgian teams to train together in the forest during the week. “When I was in Italy on the team before this one, the training was more individual,” said Masciarelli. “In Belgium, you go cross training with the team once a week. That’s important for cyclocross. You can copy other riders. The training is important for the race and the feeling.”

“There’s a social aspect to it,” said Backstedt. “When I am here I can get to team training or just message the girls and say, ‘Do you want to go ride with me?’”

While the athletes speak enthusiastically about their lifestyle, they acknowledge there are challenges as well.

Each athlete misses aspects of their home country.

Speaking from cold, gray Belgium, Masciarelli recalls the Italian climate: “I miss the weather. It’s a bit hotter where I live in Italy. I also miss the long climbs and the sea and the beach.”

“I miss being with my family and I really miss my bed. I really miss my bed,” said Backstedt. “I haven’t seen my mum in three weeks or so. I haven’t seen my friends at home since the start of September. I’m looking forward to coming home at some point and just being there and being in a country where everyone speaks the same language as me.”

Language can also pose a challenge for the riders. Masciarelli lives his life mostly in Dutch, as he attends a local school in Oudenaarde, Belgium. Backstedt’s team operates in Dutch but pauses to translate for her. On the other hand, Kopecky grew up speaking Dutch. She is working to improve her Czech, her father’s first language, since she rides for the Czech National Team.

While each of these athletes has chased their dreams, their parents have stood by them. Backstedt lives with her father in Belgium. Similarly, when Masciarelli travelled to Belgium to compete in the 15–16 year old category, his father went with him. This fall, Masciarelli’s first full season abroad, his mother and brother have joined them.

It’s common on Belgian and Dutch teams for family members to act as mechanics and soigneurs. These three athletes have been able to follow that convention (with team support as well). All of them have their father for a head mechanic and are also supported in the pits by team staff. Family members or friends often take on the soigneur role as well.

Serious matters aside, the athletes unanimously choose waffles as “the best food in Belgium.” While Backstedt is a fan of plain waffles, Kopecky’s tastes are more elaborate: “Waffles, of course, with every unhealthy stuff you can put on it!”

Challenge wishes these athletes many victories and waffles!

All the mud! (#)

Inuits have hundreds of words for snow, ice and various winter conditions. Similarly, professional crossers and support staff spend an unusual amount of time considering and planning for various types of mud.

U.K. rider Anna Kay, who rides for Star Casino CX Team, chatted with Challenge regarding mud types, tire selection and pressure.

Like all riders, Kay has particular courses that suit her more than others. “I really like Overijse and Namur,” said Kay. “Both venues are on a steep hill so they drain well. The courses get really cut up, but it’s never like a thick bog. It’s really muddy, but it slides away. The mud is on top rather than deep in the ground.”

Showing a cyclocrosser’s affection for mud, Kay concludes: “It’s a nice mud.”

Conversely, Kay strongly dislikes thick mud, like that of last year’s Dendermonde World Cup. “I don’t like to splodge through horrible thick mud,” says Kay. “I like when it’s still muddy enough to be technical, when you can kind of pick a good line around it. I don’t mind running if I am running uphill like Overijse, but running flat or even grinding through really deep mud like Dendermonde, that’s not for me.”

Describing her favorite conditions, Kay said, “I like it when it has rained, but it doesn’t rain during the race, so the mud has dried a little bit and it is not wet and cold when you are riding.”

For such conditions, Kay’s preference is to run Limus 30s. Limus 30s have the traditional Limus tread pattern but a narrower width than the more common 33 mm. “You get the grip of the Limus, but the narrow width cuts through the mud a little more,” said Kay.

For Kay, who is both short and slender, the 30s have another advantage: “I really like the 30 over the 33 because I don’t feel like I am heavy enough to use the whole 33 anyway. There is no point in carrying extra weight.”

It’s always interesting to dig into the methods the pros use to determine tread and pressure on race day. “For pre-ride, I always start at the same pressure,” said Kay. “It’s a number I will almost never go above.Then I will just drop it down as I need to during pre-ride. If I get out there and find I definitely need a lower pressure, I will just drop it with my finger. Otherwise, I will do one lap and then have my mechanic drop it at the pit before doing another lap.”

When it comes to tread, Kay suggests a more conservative approach: “You should never sacrifice grip for speed. If you are between tires, go with the grippier one. If you think you can get away with a Grifo, but it’s a little bit muddy, maybe just go for the Baby Limus instead.”

Kay understands how to use tire pressure to adjust grip. “For pressure, run as low as possible,” said Kay. However, she warns: “But if it’s rocky, you have to think about punctures. Like at Namur, it’s actually rocky underneath the ground, so you can puncture. I run a bit higher there.”

Kay had to miss Overijse as she recovered from a broken collarbone. However, she is back to 100% and looking forward to Namur. We hope the track provides “nice,” slick mud!

See all CX tires.