Name a surface and there’s a pretty good chance Michael van den Ham has raced a bike over it.
Pavement, grass, mud, sand, snow: van den Ham has covered them all, sometimes in a single lap.
Now, the 20-year-old Brandonite is preparing for the ride of his life, having qualified for the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships, Feb. 2-3 in Louisville, Ky.
Cyclo-cross involves racing bicycles on a variety of surfaces on a closed course, usually about 3-3.5 kilometres long. Van den Ham said laps can take 6-10 minutes, with high-level races lasting roughly an hour. As an added twist, the courses feature barriers —often man-made, but sometimes more rudimentary objects like logs — that require the riders to dismount and carry their bikes to the other side.
"I feel that cyclo-cross takes the best elements of almost every part of cycling and puts it into one hectic, chaotic hour," van den Ham said this week from North Carolina, where he is training for worlds. "… It requires bike-handling skills, it requires a lot of power when you’re pushing down on the pedals, it requires a certain amount of finesse. It’s a mixture of all these different things."
Van den Ham began cycling seriously while working at Stream ‘n’ Wood in Brandon, borrowing a mountain bike from shop manager Ethan English. He took up cyclo-cross in 2010 after moving to Edmonton to attend The King’s University College.
"I got a bike and maybe raced half-a-dozen races that year and I really enjoyed it," he said. "I didn’t do particularly well, but I really enjoyed it."
It didn’t take long for van den Ham’s results to start catching up with his enthusiasm. In 2011 he advanced to the highest level in Canada, finishing third in the Alberta provincials and seventh in the under-23 age group at the national championships.
After spending his summer in Penticton, B.C., with a road-racing team, van den Ham has reached new heights this season, topping Alberta’s cyclo-cross tour standings and finishing fourth in his age group at nationals last month in Surrey, B.C.
Now a member of Cycle-Smart, a team based out of Northhampton, Mass., van den Ham has also competed in a number of events Stateside this season, introducing him to a higher level of competition.
"Edmonton has a pretty high level of competition but there’s only a few riders — there’s three or four really strong riders and the fields in total only have 20 guys," he said.
"So all of a sudden, going to these races down there, instead of being one of the strongest riders myself, there’s 20 or 30 riders who might be stronger than I am, so it means I really have to focus on those technical skills."
The calibre of riding will take another leap at the worlds, which are typically dominated by riders from Europe, where the sport is much more popular. Van den Ham said his primary goal the first time out is to stay on the lead lap, since riders who fall too far behind can be pulled out of the race to keep the course clear. Beyond that, he said he’d be very pleased to finish in the top 30 or 35 in the U-23 race.
The affiliation with Cycle-Smart has helped to outfit van den Ham with equipment — the team has provided two bikes for his use this season — as well as training and even some funding, although the vast majority of his travel expenses still come out of his own pocket, as well as from supporters who have chipped in for the cause.
Van den Ham dreams of becoming a professional, which would help alleviate that strain, although he’s not willing to sacrifice his studies to make that happen. It’s a long road, but one he believes is realistic given how far he’s already come.
"Up until the end of last year, I don’t think I ever thought that I could even get to this level," he said. "I sort of dreamed of representing Canada at something like the world championships, but I never really thought that it would be a dream that could become a reality."