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Why the last Canadian racing cyclocross in Europe had to flee for home

Siobhan Kelly’s season in Belgium was cut short by one race

Siobhan Kelly Photo by: fellusch.com

A broken nose, an evening visit from the police and changing travel regulations—Siobhan Kelly faced many challenges out of competition during three months of racing in Belgium. Recently, that campaign in cyclocross’s holy land came to an end, a bit early, in an airport that was more argy-bargy than Superprestige race start.

Kelly, a privateer on her own Black Dog Racing, started planning her CX season in Europe more than a year ago, near the end of the 2019-20 season. Then came the pandemic and shifting expectations and plans. “I finally settled on trying to go to Europe in November—since we weren’t going to have a season in North American—and staying for as long as I could. I told my family, ‘I might see you in a month. I might see you in three months.’ The way the pandemic was, I wasn’t sure if we’d get through kerstperiode.”

Kelly relied on careful, diligent planning to make things work amid all the uncertainty. She couldn’t show up to Belgium with just a passport. She needed a travel authorization. That could keep her in the country for 90 days. Then she needed an extension to remain, which she got. But even the best plans can’t dispel a certain level of anxiety, especially when bureaucratic paperwork is off somewhere getting processed. And even all the right paperwork can’t keep the police from showing up.

Less than a week ago, two days before Kelly was to leave Belgium, the police arrived at her place. She had been living at the ChainStay, a cycling-centric accommodation in Oudenaarde. The place had a bike room, tools, a big kitchen and laundry. It was the perfect base or a foreign rider far from home. Kelly got comfortable there. One of the bonuses of cyclocross racing being redistricted to Belgium because of the pandemic was that Kelly could return to the ChainStay and sleep in the same bed at the end of every race day. “That never happens,” she said.

The cops came to the ChainStay because they believed Kelly should have already left the country. Their paperwork indicated that the Canadian rider should be gone, and they wanted to double-check. Kelly’s paperwork said she was clear to stay. Once again, everything worked out.

Kelly’s first race was Superprestige Merksplas on Nov. 22. It was tough for the Canuck. “Throughout the pandemic, I didn’t really ride with people. I hadn’t ridden next to people let alone race down a start grid with Europeans who’d already been racing,” she said. “I thought, oh my gosh, there are a lot of us. I am not comfortable.” Her second race in Kortrijk was a bit better, but it still took some time to adjust, to remember how to race.

While the racing was hairy, it wasn’t in competition that Kelly got injured. In December, she was on a training ride. “The roads here are very small,” she said. “There happened to be hedges that were quite tall and blocked the view around a turn. I made the turn, and there was a very large van coming at me that took up the entire road. It was either stay on the road and hit the van, or swerve out of the way and hit a sign. My nose broke my fall.”

At the ChainStay, the riders were in their own race bubble. They even shared mechanics, the Belgian outfit Cyclocross Custom. (“You can’t do ‘cross without mechanics,” Kelly said.) The members in the bubble throughout Kelly’s time there included Sidney McGill, Jonathan Anderson and Andrew Giniat. U.S. rider Rebecca Fahringer’s stay at the ChainStay matched Kelly’s almost exactly.

The cyclocross racers had a consistent COVID screening regimen. In order to race, they had to have a negative test result no more than 10 days old. The “quaran-team” at the ChainStay would go to the same doctor together to get their PCR tests. They went soon after Kelly smashed her nose. The doctor told her that it was, in fact, broken; there was nothing to be done. The test, especially in her more-sensitive right nostril, hurt more with the injury. “For a few COVID tests after that, I would constantly get nose bleeds,” she said. Still, she kept racing. Even though everything has healed now, she still prefers to get COVID tests in her left nostril.

Belgium in December and January is a really dreary place. Often riders, even locals used to the climate, will take trips to Spain sometime within the season to reset their training and take a break from the bummer weather. Kelly, however, toughed it out. “I actually really love Belgium, even though it’s rainy and dreary,” she said. “I could have stayed home in Canada, with inches of snow. There, it’s cold and there’s no racing and you can’t ride outside. In Belgium, there were a lot of days when it was 6 to 10 C and drizzling, and I actually really enjoyed it.” When she had her layers dialed, she was fine. The times she got her kit wrong, she’d finish her rides shivering, totally chilled as she cleaned her bike. Despite the challenging conditions, she found herself getting comfortable living and racing in Belgium—a small, but notable, win.

Near the end of January, the Canadian government announced new travel protocols were on their way. Canadians returning from abroad would need to quarantine in approved hotels for three days, at their own expense. The price tag bandied about was $2,000. With that news, Kelly began researching. If she raced right to the end of the season, lining up for Internationale Sluitingsprijs Oostmalle on Feb. 21, would she have a $2,000 hotel stay when she got home? Were there exceptions for an athlete like Kelly? Three days before the final race weekend, she made her decision: she’d race the Saturday race in Sint-Niklaas, and fly home Sunday, missing the event in Oostmalle. “I did a lot to have this season start and to have this season keep going,” she said, “so I planned to get home with hours to spare. I wanted to see the season to the end. If that meant missing the very last race because I had to get on a flight home to avoid a $2,000 paid quarantine, then that’s what I’d do. At least it got me one more race day.”

The trip home was an adventure. The Frankfurt airport was as chaotic as a cyclocross race start. Toronto’s Pearson International made for a twisty, technical course. “My luggage and two bike bags did not make some 40 tight corners easy,” she said. She arrived in London, Ont., Sunday night, where she could spend her 14-day quarantine, at home.

Kelly competed in 18 races. Her best finish was 24th at Cyclocross Gullegem. “I wish the racing was better,” she said looking back. “I wish I had better results. The season has left me hungry for more. It was a really weird year. I definitely wish I had raced better than I did, but it’s a good building block toward next year. I’m not content with how I finished, which just fuels the fire.” Still, Kelly was grateful that she was able to race for so long in Belgium.

She’s planning for her return, next cyclocross season.