Raised in the cold and mud
Young Minnesotan Josey Weik races roads and cyclocross in Europe and across the U.S.
by Chris Schotz
Hobbled and cold and an ocean away from home with the stars and stripes on his back, Duluth’s Josey Weik wasn’t ready to quit. He’d made it to the center of the cyclocross universe, the 2013 World Cup around the citadel of Namur, Belgium, surrounded by the infamous summits of the Ardennes.
A few days from Christmas he was chasing hard for a spot on the national team for the World Championship, a spot he’d lost in a sprint the year before. A month earlier Weik had turned in the second highest World Cup finish for an American junior on the English Channel beaches of Koksijde. Now on the muddy hills of Namur, the race was heating up and it was time to make a pass wherever he could.
On previous laps he’d ridden a line with a twist and a jump off a root that others found unrideable. There would be few chances to gain ground on this tight course at the World Cup level, so Weik took the toughest line again.
That should have been the moment, but earlier another rider had stalled in front of Weik and forced him to dive into the mud hands first. With the temperature near 40 degrees, he faced the drop off the root with cold slippery hands. He lost his grip and flipped over the bars, shoulder to rock. Still he labored on, riding one-handed until he had to pull off the course with two laps to go.
The injury and illness put him in the audience at the World Championship that January. He was disappointed but proud of what he’d accomplished and in no mood to hang up the bike. Duluth had made him tough before Namur, and returning home to continue training would make him tougher still.
It’s just a matter of time until Weik breaks through. His days as a junior racer ended this year, but he’s still growing as an 18-year-old racing U23, often against Cat 2 men and pros. With power numbers off the charts for a rider his size, it won’t be long before his stature grows to match his experience and grit. The big results will come.
Weik was born into toughness on a pasture-raised pig farm in the hills west of Duluth. The son of an Iditarod musher, he was raised on the adversity that comes from scratching out an organic livelihood in a northern climate. He’s braved a Duluth winter in the barn with the chickens while his family built their timber frame home on site.
Now the circumference of his rough-sawn loft is adorned with race numbers from his first Wisconsin Off-Road Series race a half dozen years ago to the World Cup and foothills of Spain. With several hundred races in his youthful legs, the bib numbers are four rows deep around the room and threaten to obscure the books that line his walls from floor to ceiling.
From a young age Weik was fed on cold and mud, so it should be no surprise that he thrived on the inclement conditions and adversity of cyclocross.
Three years ago, his domestic results had placed a leap of faith before his wheels. He had been selected to attend elite coach Jeff Proctor’s Euro Cross Camp as a 16-year-old. It was an honor and a thrill, but it took courage to leave home for two weeks of Belgian racing. He would be racing against huge fields of blue-collar Belgians looking for fame and a way out. Anything goes over there, as long as both hands stay on the bars, and Weik would be without his dad as mechanic and travel agent for the first time.
They are crazy for cyclocross in Belgium. Weik always felt like he was being watched. Up to 35,000 fans would crowd a ‘cross course but remain silent until one of their favorites passes by.
Back in the United States, cyclocross is a participatory sport built more on fun than ambition. There may by fewer spectators for American ‘cross, but American events do feel like attending a party with more cheering and costumes.
Belgian ‘cross courses don’t sound like a party. With an abundance of November rain, it’s normal to have long tractor-pull sections of mud that riders slog through or run when the riding becomes a waste of energy. Belgians don’t have to build wooden hurdles to force riders off the bike. Their courses are steep and pulpy enough.
Weik said he rode more than one course that was all sand, like the Koksijde dunes, but he only saw one artificial barrier in 22 courses. Belgian riding is all about staying on your bike, and Weik is able to ride more than most. When he returns to milder American courses, he can still manage a nifty bunnyhop over double barriers, and he knows how to carve the corners which are more of a factor in the U.S.
American racers will gasp at the dirt cheap entry fees in Belgium. Ten euros will get you in a race. This includes the five euro deposit on your race number. Belgian races don’t have to charge big fees because they earn enough from beer sales.
This may be why the Trek CXC Cup had a Belgian feel to Weik. Though still not old enough to drink, he calls the CXC event “American cyclocross at its best.” The only thing missing is the abundant mayonnaise Belgians drool over the French fries they’re proud to have invented.
Primed to suffer
Weik returned to Euro Cross Camp at the end of 2013 and stayed an extra month to fit in three World Cup races and a dozen Super Prestiges. Even while racing several times a week with the national team, he was still able to explore by bike. Unlike northern Minnesota, Belgium has towns everywhere but few forests larger than 10 acres. Small farm roads with little traffic run everywhere like a maze. It’s easy to get lost on a coffee ride in the heart of Belgium where the names of towns change from French to Flemish. Weik was once lost on farm roads for three hours on a dangerously cold and wet day – or would have been if Weik wasn’t accustomed to fat biking in Duluth on minus 17-degree days. Minnesota has way of getting a young man ready to suffer.
Weik knows all about embrocation. Experienced riders don’t just smear it on their exposed skin. Sometimes it’s under the jersey and even the gloves of a rider who doesn’t want to freeze in January. Weik twice survived standing water on the personal course of the legendary Belgian cyclocross champion Sven Nys. He said thoughts of sweet croissants and pie got him through the frigid ordeal.
Weik will be spending this winter back home in the Midwest. He put in an unsustainable amount of travel this summer, and he’s happy to be back in Duluth where the trails keep growing. He’ll keep his skills sharp with a few mountain bike races and select ‘cross races. Between the Minnesota Cycling Federation and CXC Cup, the Midwest is blessed with a robust cyclocross scene with close to 60 races.
For a while, Weik will be most interested in raising pigs and recharging the legs for a breakout road campaign next year.
Basque Country roads
2014 was a year for Weik to stretch his legs in new directions. While in Belgium, a Scottish contact told him about an exchange program with some serious junior teams in the Basque region of Spain. A few emails later, he was accepted to live with a host family at the doorstep of the Pyrenees.
He soon learned that the Basques act like an independent nation in every way they can. Weik bought along some basic Spanish, but heard a whole different language at the dinner table. Speaking limited English, his host father showed him around, and his host mom lovingly patched up his recurring road rash.
Weik was part of Beste Alde, a serious cycling team that often assigned loose roles to riders in particular races. Always the sole American in a race of up to 200 juniors, Weik became close to his teammates at they trained and traveled together. He was among those fanatic Basque spectators singing Basque songs and waving those orange and green flags as the Tour de France passed through the Pyrenees.
In Basque Country, cyclists rule the roads rather than motorists. The cycling friendly public allowed his team to ride two abreast or take a whole lane on the freeway. Drafting behind cars was mostly accepted and often encouraged by drivers with an affinity for the sport of cycling.
Basque Country was a bit of a dream world for Weik, a rider barely over 130 pounds but suited for stage races and long climbs in the mountains.
He found his way into three junior stage races complete with closed roads and full caravans. The stages, around 70K in length, were intense with riders attacking from the gun and 50 mph descents. Racing was more aggressive than anything Weik has seen in the U.S. The pack was full of Europeans who saw racing as a way out of hard economic times.
In the Tour of Pamplona, Weik made a winning break but was pushed into a ditch and couldn’t close a 10-second gap. He did get a sprint point and finished three days in the mountains that culminated with cobblestones, a drawbridge and a finish inside a castle.
An international field of 180 juniors started the mountainous five-day Tour of Bizkaia, and Weik was one of only 80 left at the finish. His Basque squad travelled north for the Tour of Wales where Weik was enjoying miserable weather of the fifth stage in the moors. He worked with a teammate to catch the leading break and build a 90-second lead, but with 4K to go, his all-day break came apart.
A British reporter wrote, “Basque rider Josey Weik was stuck in no man’s land between the leaders and the peloton.” That was Weik’s last road race as a junior. He’d ridden with courage and panache, one of those daring riders unafraid to break away.
He returned home with one more act of daring on his mind. He’d been trying to win the Short and Fat at the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival since he was 12. And in his final year as a junior, he took a big chance and brought his ‘cross bike to the start line of the 16-mile mountain bike race.
Many had tried this approach and none had succeeded. Weik, however, had a feeling that this would be the year for a ‘cross bike to win at Chequamegon. He attacked on a longer gravel climb and brought only Fletcher Arlen of Wausau with him. After working together, Weik himself was the victim of an attack on a rocky section where the ‘cross bike was a disadvantage, and he was dropped.
ut as the race approached the finish at the Telemark Resort, the gravel started to pass more quickly under Weik’s wheels, and Arlen was overtaken for good.
That race was followed by hours of sub-zero fat biking around Duluth last winter. After Cat1 ‘cross racing in Minnesota came training camp in Arkansas in February. March and April saw him stage racing in California, culminating in the five-stage Tour of the Gila in New Mexico where Weik was a guest on the Rockform team. Some 320 miles and 21,000 feet of climbing later, Weik ranked 16th among the Cat1/2 men.
By June he was back racing in Belgium and France, this time against adults in a style of circuit racing called the Kermesse that features tight bends and occasional cobbles. He found himself in a pack of 200 charging hard down narrow roads. He returned for the U.S. Nationals in California before racing Oregon’s Cascade Cycling Classic stage race in July.
The Cascade Classic saw him on a 94-mile breakaway that crossed Mount Bachelor twice before turning into a headwind for the last 10-mile climb. His dwindling group was caught with three miles to go, but he was getting closer to victory.
All of this travel must sound incredibly expensive, and it is, especially in the United States. A week in New Mexico costs as much as a summer of racing in Spain. Events in Europe are plentiful and close together so it’s not necessary to travel 1,000 miles to the next race. The U.S. does offer numerous criteriums, but Weik is built for the mountainous stage races that are harder to find.
He says his exploits wouldn’t be possible if not for the generosity of his host families and the Chainstay Hostels. His tenacity and attitude have impressed a wealth of sponsors that keep his dream rolling. His second Belgian trip wouldn’t have happened at all without the bigheartedness of GoFundMe contributors, like the Dakota Valley Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery clinics in Minnesota. He’s enjoyed unflinching support from Focus Frames complete with HED wheels.
Weik says that tire selection and pressure is of almost spiritual importance to ‘cross racers, and he’s hooked on the Challenge Limus tires generously supplied to him. And Lazer helmets and Enzo’s creams keep him safe and comfy.
His biggest boost undoubtedly comes from home. His parents, Matt and Sara, have turned YKer Acres into a successful operation that fetches a premium for its humanly raised pork. They sacrifice deeply to fund Josey’s continued march up the cycling ranks. But they aren’t the kind to bet the farm on a pro career.
Josey has mom and dad’s unwavering support for as long as he’s in love with cycling and can find the drive within himself to put in the hard miles. All that thick bacon should put some serious muscle on his frame eventually. It’s only a matter of time before this tenacious young man breaks out into the spotlight. He’s ready to trade the bike for a tractor if that doesn’t happen, but for now he’s thriving on the chase.
Chris Schotz is an extreme distance mountain biker, race director and trail builder in Chris Lincoln County, Wisconsin.