Claire Steciuk Cyclocross

Claire attended Camp Ak-O-Mak in the summers of 2013-2016. She came to camp as a top swimmer and quickly emerged as a talented all round athlete. In particular Claire showed tremendous promise in both running and cycling.

There was a particular mountain bike race where I knew we had a rising star. It was then that I told Claire she should pursue cycling when she had the opportunity. Claire had that “It” factor that as a coach I see once in a while. Her talent, tenacity and work ethic would make her a champion not only at camp, but in the world.

This past year Claire represented Canada in three World Cup Cyclocross races and the 2020 World Championships for Cyclocross. We are all so proud of you Claire!

-Jocelyn Saunders, Camp Ak-O-Mak Athletic Director

Claire Steciuk Camp Ak-O-Mak

Getting ready for a heat of the Ak-O-Mak Mountain Bike Race 2016. Claire had the fastest time on the day.

“Toadie” is what my dad used to call me because I was like a little tadpole, an aquatic animal. I was a competitive swimmer from when I was five years old to sixteen years old. I grew up in the sport; however, there came a point, about two years ago, when the swimming world that I was involved in was no longer a healthy atmosphere. So, I transitioned out of the sport and decided to look in another direction.

I had many influences in the mountain biking world including my father, brother, and school friends, and Camp Ak-O-Mak introduced me to road riding through triathlon. Being a bit desperate for cardio and some competitive fun, I decided to try a few races during the summer of 2018. I immediately fell in love with the “chill, but still competitive” atmosphere of mountain bike races, the addictive fun of trail riding, and the suffering of endurance sport. I have been absolutely in love with it ever since.

I joined my local cycling club, Team Hardwood Next Wave, the following autumn and began training with the focus being on the mountain bike season the following year. Little did I and my parents know that I would be completely engulfed in the crazy fun of cyclocross – a ridiculous sport that adds run-ups, obstacles, sand, mud and a lot of slick cornering to a course raced on a hybrid road bike.

Claire Steciuk Cyclocross

Since I started training on the bike in September, and the cyclocross season runs from September through to February, it only made sense that I try a few races – for training purposes, of course. My parents agreed to three races, rolling their eyes that I wanted to race in a sport that I didn’t even know existed until a few weeks prior. I ended up competing in just under ten, including the Pan American and Canadian National Championships.

The following season, I became pretty serious about cyclocross. I had three race weekends in the United States, and fourteen domestic races in total from September to November. I competed at the Pan American and Canadian National Championships with more performance-related goals in mind, in hopes of qualifying for the 2020 Cyclocross World Championships.

When I opened the email that I made the National Team for the final European World Cups and the World Championships, my heart truly skipped a beat and I was overwhelmed with happiness, relief, and new nerves for an entirely different season to come.

Claire Steciuk World Cup

Representing my country for the first time was a very special feeling.

I was eaten alive in Europe, to say the least.

The UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) is lagging in the women’s rights department. There is only one women’s category for World Cups, whereas the men have three separate races depending on age. So, I was called up on the eleventh and last row of my first World Cup in Belgium against professional Elite Women, including the Elite World Champion.

Being a junior (17 years old) racing against the fastest, most talented female cyclocross racers in the world, I was highly intimidated. However, I knew that I had come to Europe purely for the exposure to big races, so I tried to take in the entire World Cup experience.

If I could describe European cyclocross racing in only a few words I would choose chaotic, aggressive, gnarly, and grand. The start of a cyclocross race is an absolute free for all, as there are sometimes over one hundred people on the start line, sprinting to get to the first corner in the best position possible. Whether you’re racing for first place or second last place, every spot counts, so there was a lot of shoulder checking, cutting people off, taking other rider’s lines, etc..

Claire Steciuk Cyclocross World Cup Belgium

My first World Cup in Namur, Belgium on a course known as the “gnarliest course on the cyclocross world cup circuit”.

Claire Steciuk Cyclocross

Cleaning up after a cyclocross race means power washing your legs and kit, and nearly destroying laundry machines.

European cyclocross courses are overall much more intense than North American courses and everything is bigger, tougher, gnarlier. I would pre-ride some courses as slow as possible while still dialling lines, and my heart rate would nearly be at race-pace – that’s how vigorous the courses could get.

It was such an eye-opening and quite shocking experience to see, first hand, what racing is like across the pond. It’s almost an entirely different sport in Europe than North America.

Claire Steciuk Cyclocross

This photo is from the World Cup in Nommay, France. There is a left-hand turn followed by a staircase, 30 seconds after the start. It is mass chaos with bikes flying everywhere to try to get up the stairs at the very start of the race

From mid-December to the end of January I competed in four World Cups and three UCI races. I gained a tremendous amount of race experience over the course of the winter that I brought through until the last race of the season: the 2020 Cyclocross World Championships in Dübendorf, Switzerland.

Claire Steciuk Cyclocross World Championships

The World Championships in Dübendorf, Switzerland. Although the venue was on a flat military base, there were some steep man-made runups and we could see the beautiful mountains in the distance.

The World Championships was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Warming up in the National Team kit, having my bikes dialled by world-class mechanics, spinning through the start corral with kids holding out their hands for high fives, and getting called up to the line in front of the whole cycling world was so surreal. I raced with dense crowds screaming “Go Canada!”, was greeted by interviewers at the finish line, and was able to rewatch my race on television.

Everything was next level and I felt like a professional athlete. I was living my dream, and I am still living my dream. Now, I am in Tucson, Arizona training for the upcoming mountain bike season and I have a few pieces of advice that I wish I could have told my eighteen-months-ago self.

First, trust the process. If you want something badly enough, you will make it happen. Sometimes you have to take a step out of your brain’s little bubble and try to determine if what you’re doing today is leading you to where you want to be in the future. Most of the time, feeling recovered is a good thing; even if you think you can do more training, more is not always better.

Second, have mantras – they get you through the tough sh*t. One of my favourite lines is, “You will not regret suffering, but you will regret not giving it absolutely everything”.

Third, never, ever, stop chasing dreams and working towards goals. Even if they seem unrealistic at first, you truly never know which turns life will take, which roads you will end up on, and what you might experience and learn along the way. The harder you work, the luckier you are.

Finally, I’ll repeat the most important piece of advice: trust the process. And have fun doing it.