'I was given a beer on the podium and it was just a cool vibe' - Maghalie Rochette on crossing the divide
How Maghalie Rochette was introduced to the muddy world of Cyclocross
This article is in collaboration with Hammerhead.
Canadian cyclocross specialist Maghalie Rochette grew up riding mountain bikes with her dad in search of mud. Now, at 29, she has established herself as one of the biggest names on the cyclocross scene, travelling around Europe and North America with her bike, her husband… and her dog.
How are you feeling now?
To be honest with you, I’ve been struggling with my health for a few months since I got Covid. And then on top of that, I also had food poisoning this week, which didn’t help. So it hasn’t been great. But it is what it is. We'll get through it.
How did you get into cycling?
Cycling is something I’ve done since I was a little kid. I started racing at the age of maybe seven or ten and the reason I started was that my dad was doing it. When I was a young girl I was a bit of a tomboy. I loved skateboarding and I loved everything that was a bit different than the other girls I used to play with. My dad was always coming back from a mountain bike ride super muddy, and to me the mud was super attractive, like, oh my god, it looks so fun, what he’s doing.
So I started riding with him on mountain bikes, and what I loved the most was doing stuff that scared me. So I was always asking him, like, “Okay, can you teach me how to go down these stairs? Or, can you teach me how to go down this downhill that scares me?” And I liked that because it gave me confidence and I loved pushing myself in that way. So that’s how I started racing. And then I raced triathlon and I raced mountain bikes.How did you discover cyclocross from there?
At some point I got injured from running and so I couldn’t compete in triathlon. I got more involved in cycling that summer, but I didn’t race that much. I was just kind of exploring other facets that cycling could bring. And a friend of mine just told me, “Hey, there’s a cyclocross race close to your house tomorrow, you should come and do it.” And I’m like, “Oh, I don’t know what cyclocross is. But I’ll do it.”
So I bought a bike, a really cheap bike, like, $600, and I went to the race the next day, and I just loved it. I was given a beer on the podium and it was just a cool vibe; everyone was happy and excited. I fell in love with the intensity and the fact that the sport was super dynamic. But also a lot of it was about the vibe around the event, just how festive it was.
From then I started doing more and more, and the more I did it, the more addicted I got to cyclocross. I kept doing it, I signed professionally not long after that both on mountain bikes and cross so I was doing both disciplines for a while. And three or four years ago, I started doing just cyclocross as my main thing.
Why did you choose to pursue cross over other disciplines?
I was more passionate about it. It’s hard to say exactly what attracts me the most about cyclocross but it’s so fun. Just thinking about it makes me smile, it makes me excited. I love the format of racing. I love that it’s short but really intense, and I love that the races are dynamic. Some races are going to be tactical group racing and the next day it can be like you’re fighting against a course in deep mud and it’s one by one.
I liked it better, and I felt I was better at it. But the second thing was that by doing two disciplines [mountain bike and cyclocross] I was racing 12 months a year, and I felt like I was never hitting 100 per cent. I felt like I was always a little bit tired or not able to train as much because I was racing too much. So I decided, okay, what could I achieve if I focus really just on one discipline?
What was it like as a North American rider coming into the European cyclocross scene?
At first, when I got to Belgium, it was a shock. And it took me a few years to adapt and really embrace that culture. Even in terms of the racers, like, I guess in North America, we’re all friends, but when you get to Europe, it took a few years before I was ‘accepted’ by the other racers or respected, because I think a lot of people just show up and think, “Oh, I’ll be good in Belgium,” but then they quit after a year.
For me, I feel like I’ve earned their respect over the years for always coming back and getting a slap in the face and then coming back and showing up again. And eventually I’m now able to race with them and compete at the front of these races. Now they’re all super friendly with us and helping us because we don’t have as many resources over there. It’s been an adaptation but it’s definitely a cool thing to be part of.
Practically speaking, how do you make it work coming over from Canada to Europe to race?
I’m doing it with my husband. Now that we’ve done our own team, basically I race and he does everything else. He’s my mechanic and he drives the car and stuff. The fact that he’s there with me is super helpful, because if you live away from home for, like, three or four months, it can be lonely.
We’ve done it many years where our setup hasn’t worked at all, like we weren’t comfortable, or we didn’t have what we needed. But I think over the years, we’ve been able to learn from other racers who are doing it in the same way, but also from our own mistakes. Now we stay in Watersley, at the Sports and Talentpark. It’s in the Netherlands, but it’s really close to Belgium. They have really nice facilities for athletes who come from somewhere else. They have nice houses, there’s a gym and there are massage therapists. There’s everything you need there, which is really helpful. And then we rent the RV, which makes the racing more comfortable.
We’re a small production. It’s just the two of us and our dog Mia, and we make it really in a simple way. But it’s working for us.In the 2021-22 cyclocross season you achieved some of the biggest results of your career. What led to that?
It was my first time having podiums in Europe, actually. So definitely a breakthrough for me. I think it’s a culmination. I’ve been trying long enough in Europe where I was, like, knocking on the top five and being in the top ten and slowly being competitive more regularly. But at some point, I think I got to a point where I’ve raced so many times at that level. That’s a cool thing in Belgium, it’s like, every Saturday and Sunday; it feels like a World Cup. So at some point, I felt like I was used to racing with those girls and it wasn’t as intimidating for me any more. I knew how to deal with it better.
That’s why I was able to perform better. I wasn’t necessarily stronger than in the past, but I think that with experience gained now I’m able to actually use the strength that I had maybe to perform and have a result.
You run a cyclocross-themed podcast – Fever Talk. What made you want to do that?
I think, in a selfish way, I’m just super curious. I love chatting with people. And I love asking them questions. I feel through cycling we’re lucky that we get to meet a lot of interesting people who are passionate about what they’re doing, but also really good at their craft. And those to me are interesting people.
That’s why I started, I’m like, well, I’m already asking all these questions to people. Maybe I should record the conversations. Recording them gives me an opportunity to ask even more questions…Curiosity, that’s why I started.
It’s been so cool. It was a simple thing. A really simple reason why I started, but I’m really glad it did. Because it’s grown into nice relationships and more people that I know.
Do you enjoy riding beyond racing?
Whereas I’ve always seen the bike as a tool to perform, I’m slowly seeing it also as a tool to explore. This summer, really last minute, I got the opportunity to go to Iceland to do the Iceland Westfjords challenge. It wasn’t on my calendar, and I reached out to Hammerhead and my other partners and everyone was like, “Yes, you can go.” That trip was four days, bikepacking 250 kilometres a day in Iceland. It was such a cool experience, and it really opened my eyes to what the bike can bring.
As much as I still have performance goals, now I really want to include that in what I do. Like, try to explore new cultures and new places with the bike. It was a totally new experience that expanded my horizon of what the bike can do. But also such a cool way to travel. Because if you’re riding through a country, you experience it with all your senses, you smell the smell, you can feel the air, you can talk to people... I’ve been really lucky because when I proposed that to my partners, like, a week before it started, everyone was on board and especially Hammerhead.
Are they equally happy for you to pursue racing and adventure riding?
I said to them, hey, I could do a podcast series about this thing. They were the first to want to sponsor it. Whatever I choose to do, whether it’s trying to win World Cups or trying to go on biking trips to explore the world, I’ve really felt the support of my partners. Hammerhead are a tool that I can use for training and performance but also for exploring.
What are your goals for the upcoming cyclocross season?
It’s a tough one right now, because I’m just not healthy, so I've been able to do maybe 40 per cent of the training I’m normally doing. So it’s hard to have performance goals, because right now my health is just not there. I guess my first goal is to get back healthy and then progress throughout the year.
I think from where I’m starting now, I’m looking at the World Championships at the end of the season, or the last part of the season is potentially where I could be fit enough to perform.
I’ll say that before I retire, I would love to be on the podium of a World Championships. That would be a really cool thing. So if we keep the answer simple, that would be it.