Michael van den Ham’s season had been rolling along quite nicely. He’d defended his elite men’s national title in Peterborough, and pushed Curtis White to a thrilling finish at Silver Goose Pan-American cyclocross championships a week earlier.
Then, while training at home in Abbotsford, B.C. between his Belgian Christmas Cross campaign and world championships in Bogense, Denmark, that all changed. The Canadian national champion was hit from behind by a truck while riding home from work.
Van den Ham was thrown into the ditch and his bike was damaged. While he considers himself lucky to have walked away without serious injury, with only weeks remaining before his flight to Denmark it threw his ability to race world championships into doubt.
After an intense period of physio and recovery, the decision was made to go for worlds, but skip World Cup finals in Hoogerheide to allow more time for a full recovery. Before he hopped on a plane to Denmark, I talked with van den Ham about how his approach to Bogense has changed, what he thinks about the Danish world champs, and how we can make our roads safer for cyclists.
Canadian Cycling Magazine: You had a run in with a truck a couple weeks ago. How are you feeling since that?
Michael van den Ham: It’s taken a little while but I’m getting closer and closer. I wouldn’t say I’m 100% yet but I’m certainly well enough to race. When it happened, it was pretty up in the air. Especially for that first week after, I wasn’t recovering super quickly and I just really didn’t know what to expect. I did end up pushing my trip back by about a week, so I missed the Hoogerheide World Cup there, but I’m happy just to be able to make it to worlds.
CCM: How did that change your approach to Bogense? Physically, as far as training you could do, as well as on the mental side knowing you might not be going in at 100%?
MvdH: It’s interesting, since I have had the chance to get a couple good weeks of training in, as far as the actual pedaling of the bike goes I’m actually riding really well, at least according to the numbers. Now, I’m taking that with a grain of salt. So far as I haven’t done any off-road training for the better part of a month and I haven’t, well, I’ve been for one run yesterday whereas normally I’d be running every other day or at least two times a week.
I don’t know how that will transfer over to racing cyclocross yet, so my expectations are that if my body holds up I’m capable of meeting the goals I set out before I got hit. That was a top 30, maybe top 25. I’m not necessarily expecting myself to do that, but I’m going in optimistic that’s still possible. But if my body doesn’t hold up I’m not going to beat myself up too much about it.
Once I got hit, my goal from that point on was sort of ‘I need to do everything to put myself in position where I’m prepared as I possibly can be to go to worlds’ and I think I did that. I wouldn’t have been happy with myself if I had sat back and given up, and said ‘This is impossible, I’m not going to make it.’ Then this week would have rolled around and I would have been watching worlds and I would have been thinking ‘This is terrible, I didn’t give it a shot.’ I’m happy I was able to give it a full effort and whatever comes out of this is sort of a bonus.
CCM: Knowing you’re not going in at 100%, what are you hoping to get out of racing world championships this year.
MvdH: I’m not writing myself off for a good result yet. I haven’t really ever had a ride at world championships that I’m really really happy with so I’d say there’s still that opportunity to have that this year. My best placing in previous years was 34th last year, but racing with a stomach bug, so I really do think that meeting those results expectations is still possible.
CCM: Worlds are in Denmark this year. Do you think having it not be in the core Belgium-Netherlands area will make a difference?
It is actually nice to go and race a course like that because it’s a little bit more of an even playing field. Obviously the Belgians are still phenomenal riders, and the Dutch, and they’re still going to excel. But having a course where not everyone knows how the race is going to play out and what it’s going to look like in different conditions is almost a little bit more fair. If you go race the Zolder course, there’s guys there that have raced that 15 times over their careers, and that’s fine, but that definitely puts anyone that hasn’t raced there 15 times at a little bit of a disadvantage.
CCM: Did you watch Hoogerheide World Cup over the weekend? How was it sitting at home, knowing you could have been at that race?
MvdH: Yeah, it was a little tough. Hoogerheide is actually one of the races I’ve done the most out of any of those bigger Euro crosses. I knew it was a good decision not to go even though maybe I could have lined up. I needed that extra week of training after missing a couple weeks after getting hit, just to make sure that if I did tweak something in my back that it wasn’t going to affect me at worlds.
My biggest concern is sitting there watching and seeing how a lot of other people that came over just before that race are struggling a bit with jet lag. I think you can see that in the results, that the people who showed up on Thursday or even the Wednesday struggled, and I’m going and doing that to myself this week by flying in on the Wednesday. I haven’t struggled too much with jet lag in the past and I have strategies to help cope with that, but it’s definitely a concern showing up that close with a nine-hour time change and having the biggest race of the year right away.
CCM: The flip side is you’re not hanging around in cold weather risking getting sick.
MvdH: Yeah, there’s a couple advantages to missing Hoogerheide. One is that I don’t have to travel from there to Bogense. There’s not really any good way to fly there, and it’s about an eight-hour drive. You can’t underestimate the effects of transport like that. So flying directly there, I’m cutting down that. I don’t have any risk of getting sick this week, we’ve had phenomenal weather here in the lower mainland right now. I’ve barely trained in the rain the last few weeks, which has been great. So yeah, there’s trade-offs either way.
You almost never show up at a race with everything being the ideal circumstances and this is no different. I think if you approach it with an attitude of resiliency and sticking to your routines as best you possibly can, good things can come out of all sorts of different situations.
CCM: Back to the accident with the truck. Has there been any follow up since?
MvdH: As far as getting hit by a truck goes, I think I probably have the best relationships possible out of that. The driver has texted me a few times just checking in. It certainly wasn’t a case of road rage or where I got hit and the driver drove away or anything like that. I think they felt pretty bad, and are definitely invested in making sure I made a full recovery.
CCM: Do you think there’s anything we can do – as riders and drivers, since most of us are both – to improve safety on the road?
MvdH: I was already a believer in running daytime lights and I’ve definitely doubled down on that. Being seen is the number one thing cyclists can do to prevent being hit, but that’s only a small part of the problem.
It’s so easy as a driver – and I think we’ve all been there as drivers so this isn’t to throw people who don’t ride bikes under the bus or anything – but it’s really easy to get complacent. Especially when you’re on what you think is a quiet back road, it’s easy to miss something. For example, when I was hit it was just starting to rain and there was a lot of reflections going on.
I think it’s a reminder for drivers to be really diligent and keep paying attention to whats ahead of you. It’s also a reminder for drivers to look for cyclists. I think that’s not something ingrained in people’s minds yet. You’re used to looking for pedestrians, you’re used to looking for oncoming traffic and for all this other stuff, but not necessarily for cyclists.
At the same time, for cyclists, absolutely we have the right to be on just about every road out there. But every now and then you have to ask yourself ‘Is this the road I want to be riding on, is this a road I feel safe riding on.’ Yes, we can share any road out there, but if you know it’s a road with no shoulder that people are often doing 80km/hr on, maybe it’s a good time to find a different route.
CCM: You’re currently working as the Marketing Director at NOBL Wheels. Does working for a cycling company make managing the work/training balance easier?
MvdH: I’m really fortunate that NOBL’s a flexible company and that they very much believe that employees with flexibility make better workers. Obviously that has benefits for me. For example they let me work remotely when I’m traveling. I work a slightly shorter, 32 hours week, not quite full time. That makes training possible, really. So I’m very fortunate to work for a boss that sees that flexibility as a benefit both for the employees and for the employer in terms of workplace productivity.
CCM: Do you have plans for the rest of the year? Or are you just focused on crossing the finish line at worlds and then figure out what comes next from there?
MvdH: Yeah, I’m focused on worlds and then a mixed mountain bike and gravel season. As far as mountain bike events I’ll probably kick off my season with the Bear Mountain Canada Cup and then do some of the longer XC and marathon events – Nimby50, Sp’akw’us 50, Vedder Mountain Classic – and then swing out and do nationals and hopefully the Whistler Canada Cup as well.
As far as gravel events go, right now I’m planning on doing Land Run in Oklahoma, Lost and Found gravel, Ride for Water around here, and then Paris2Ancaster. Maybe one or two others, I’m not totally sure on that schedule yet.
CCM: Do you find racing a mix of gravel and mountain helps when you come back to cross season in the fall?
MvdH: I think the mountain biking in particular has pushed the envelope a little on technical skills. Not that in the sense that it’s the same type of technical skills, but the speed that your moving in mountain biking and the speed of processing that you have to have in mountain biking is so high that that often makes – even though the cross skills are trickier on so many levels in terms of the finesse aspect – it makes any of those steeper or more daunting drop-ins and things like that seem quite a bit easier.