[Editor’s note: Mark McConnell, a/k/a Hot Sauce, has a great story, which you will enjoy in full, below. Mark is a guy I’ve loved rooting for over the past year and he was one of the first people I asked to contribute a rider’s journal to In The Crosshairs. As the weeks go by, and we get farther into the season, more racers will appear on the site telling you their first person story of racing cyclocross in the U.S. and Europe. I can’t tell you how excited I am to help share these stories. If you like what you read, or have any comments or questions, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. And thanks for reading.]
The buzzer alarmed at 7:50am on a Sunday. Enough time to wipe the sleep from my eyes, brew a coffee and load the stream of that morning’s race on the desktop. In the Netherlands, eight hours ahead of my just waking schedule, the legends of cyclocross were counting down the minutes as well. Called into waves of a grid with country flags sublimated across their backs, today was the World Championships in Hoogerheide and I had a front row call up—five thousand miles away from my couch side. Before the start, the riders looked on with great apprehension, more than any other race I had witnessed from afar all season prior. Little to my knowledge on that suspenseful Sunday, merely one year later in Tabor, Czech Republic, I would be lining up behind the giants I had grown to admire, wearing a Maple Leaf on my jersey back, anticipating my self destruction like the rest of the riders around me. But it was more than just another bike race; everyone knew it and they didn’t pretend it wasn’t. The hunt for the Rainbow jersey comes but once a year, and for even a neo pro like me, the idea of having a chance sent chills down the back of my spine.
So how did I go from the couch side in Canada to racing professionally in Europe? After spending years toiling unconventionally as a bike courier—schlepping packages by day on the mean streets of downtown Calgary, Alberta—I pursued my bike dreams by night, training late and racing on the weekends; climbing the North American Cats quickly. Between playing in traffic for a living and flying across North America, hunting UCI races through my budding years in the sport—in 2012, I finally got lucky. Winning my first UCI C2 in California’s SpookyKross. That Winter, I was motivated to test my mettle in Europe; traveling to Belgium for the first time to compete over the infamous Kerstperiode: a block of highly condensed professional cyclocross races that brings out all the World beaters. But the Euros were swift in their deliverance of handing my own ass on a platter to me with a side of humble pie. On their turf, I raced for survival and it proved to seem impossible to compete, let alone finish the race before being pulled to clear the path for the leaders lapping, booming wheels. I left Belgium that year completely crushed of my confidence. But all the best bike racers have terrible memories, at least that’s what I keep telling myself. And after a year removed from UCI competition, a fire was rekindled on a Sunday at 8am, while sitting on my couch watching not just another bike race.
From that unassuming morning on, I day dreamed about my return to race in Europe. But dreams are for free, and the reality of actualizing them would costs dollars—a lot of them for a working ‘pro’ without a contract like me. And if I was to return to Europe, I decided to commit myself to an honest stint of racing, by quitting my job as a courier and moving to Belgium to race a full season through to the next World Championships. Without a pro contract to see me through the campaign, I embraced a more entrepreneurial spirit and turned to crowd funding for my European voyage. Enter: Hot Sauce Cycling. Racing nickname turned fundraising campaign, I sold custom designed cycling caps and t-shirts with a moustachioed caricature of myself along with my nickname “HOT SAUCE” printed on every brim and shirt. I sold the apparel at local ‘cross races back home in Alberta where the community flourished with support for the campaign; buying up all of my inventory. So between a memory faded, money saved, a few sponsorship dollars gained, and a large investment from the Hot Sauce Cycling community—I was prepared to take on Belgium once again.
Upon my return to the Heartland of Cycling, accompanied this time by my love, Aimee Ferguson; I targeted the remaining World Cup and Kerstperiode schedule. Submitting myself to the Euro CX forge with nearly three months of racing against the World’s best ‘crossers through sand, mud and unexpectedly, shedding a lot of blood along the way. Before the campaign, I recall reading several cycling authors of past say that racing and training in Belgium had a hardening effect on riders. I found this to be absolutely true. Not because Belgium was generally a dreary place to live and train, nor even could I say that the caliber of riders I competed against had any hefty contribution to my improvement as a cyclist. But it was because when one is living the life of a pro cyclist committed, they can’t help but improve. For myself, going from the juggle of couriering full-time, riding after work, cooking meals, cleaning the house and ‘having a life’ enjoyed with family and friends to riding, eating, sleeping, and repeating. All of life’s “distractions” had faded. All there was, was to ride and recover.
With improved placings and lap times compared to my debut Kerstperiode of 2012, I was still time trialing for survival against the leaders, but was able to enjoy the process and had a lot of fun along the way. I had a become a crowd favourite thanks to my luscious beard and unique style. The Belgians witnessed my progression with every race and encouraged my bootstrapped pro season; hoping I would return again next year. I was a rider funded by the people, blue collar racing in Europe, trying to step into the shoes of the Euros I had wrongly worshipped for years at a distance. Not because they didn’t deserve my admiration, but because by putting them on such a pedestal, I was inadvertently empowering them against me; turning them into giants out of my reach. But with every pedal stroke gained in Europe, my fear and self afflicted discouragements to compete against the legends were fading too. The seasons work was done with a smile across my face; I knew how lucky I was to be there and refused to lose sight of that along the way.
Even though the local Hot Sauce campaign helped bring me to Europe, I was also selected for our Canadian national team to represent my country at the World Championships in Tabor, Czech Republic. Such an honor also came with extra expenses beyond our budget. So I returned to my saucy ways, this time overseas, and ordered more cycling caps through BioRacer to sell at the races similar to way all the other major sponsored teams did. Only by the time the caps arrived, we were mere days from leaving for Czech Republic and my opportunity to sell the caps at the races had passed. But amazingly, every cap I ordered had already pre-sold to people online via Instagram, Twitter or Facebook—all before they even reached my Belgian doorstep. The power of social media helped fund a broke bike racer and put a few dollars towards the dream. I shipped them out upon arrival; this time to strangers by name, but brothers and sisters in ‘cross from around the Globe.
Before the green light at the World Championships in Tabor, I was called up to my familiar back row start position when a smile flashed across my nervous face. I recalled just one year prior sitting alone on the couch in Canada, wiping the sleep from my eyes while watching not just another bike race—wishing that I was a participant. Thanks to the overwhelming support from my community, sponsors and even strangers from around the World who rallied behind me, just one year later I was back in Europe; realizing my once self disheartened dreams of racing against the best—only this time with a Maple Leaf on my jersey back and smile across my face. I went on to finish a humbling but deserved 42nd (/60) in my first Rainbow jersey hunt. Not even a broken, gushing bloody nose could stop me that day—after slipping up on a staircase and smashing my face on my own handlebars mid race. I continued around the slick muddy track in a haze, committed to my craft. This experience will live on in my memory, long after my broken bones heal.
I once had a highly romanticized view of bike racing in Europe. I sat comfortably with wide eyes, watching heroes I’d never met destroy one another and themselves on tiny screens. But after the experience of extended racing overseas against the great names, ‘Nys’, ‘van der Poel’, ‘Van Aert’, and a long impressive list of others, up close and over time I realized that they were human after all. Nothing I’ve ever done was more arduous or so profoundly humbling—but even spending a few months riding against the Euros, I found solace in my progression and could see a glimpse of the rider I was turning into: a Canadian in Belgium seeking Belgianess.