Crossland: ‘Epicness’ sets European ’cross apart

Our man in the Belgian mud answers reader questions on disc brake adoption in Europe and what sets European ’cross apart from the U.S.

Photo: Dan Seaton

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Editor’s Note: Dan Seaton has been literally crawling through the Belgian mud covering European cyclocross since 2008. Each week this season he’ll look ahead to the weekend’s races and answer your questions about ’cross on the other side of the Atlantic. Got a question for your favorite Euro star? Want to know the inside story about the legendary Flemish fields? Send your questions to

Ukkel, Belgium (VN) — This weekend brings us the second round of the World Cup, which returns to the Czech Republic, this time to the city of Pilzen, about two hours northwest of Tabor, host of last weekend’s kick-off race. While Pilzen is most famous for its namesake lager, Pilsner, it’s also home to Skoda, a Czech car company well known for sponsoring bikes races including the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, as well as a number of pro teams. Now hosting its fourth consecutive World Cup stop as well, the city is well connected to the world of cycling. Not surprisingly, Skoda is also the title sponsor of Sunday’s World Cup event.

The weather across northern Europe is forecast to take a more fall-like turn this week, with race time temperatures in the mid-forties Fahrenheit and the possibility that a little snow could fall in the days before the race. But the track, which is fast, grassy, and not extraordinarily technical, will probably be dry and tacky for Sunday’s race. Expect much the same results as we saw last weekend in Tabor. Some longer straight sections could benefit a rider like world champion Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus), but Belgian champion Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet-Euphony) will likely be fired up this weekend. Nys suffered a broken chain on the third lap of the race in Tabor, but drop that lap and he would have been five seconds faster than winner Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor), and will certainly want to make a statement in Pilzen.

The track in Plzen is, in some ways, similar to many American courses, and both American men and women could do well there. Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus) notched the best-ever World Cup result by an elite American man last week in Tabor with seventh place. (The previous best was eighth, which Jonathan Page managed twice during the 2009-10 season.) If Powers can summon the fast start and focused ride he had last week, expect another great result. Meanwhile, Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective) finished a close second to Sanne Van Paassen (Rabobank) last weekend, and will certainly want to reestablish herself as the woman to beat in international competition. Expect her to be a tough competitor as well.

Now for a couple of questions.

Americans leading the disc brake revolution

Did any of the top Euro riders have disc bikes in the pits in Tabor? Were JPOW [Jeremy Powers] and TJ [Tim Johnson] the only riders sporting discs?
—Thomas In Utah

Jeremy Powers’ successful ride in Tabor on disc brakes actually prompted more than one reader to ask about discs in Europe. I wasn’t able to be in Tabor on Sunday, so I can’t say for sure whether there were other disc-equipped bikes, but I have not seen many European riders using disc brakes so far this season.

However, I actually asked Sven Nys about disc brakes a while back, and he told me he thought they would be the next big thing in cyclocross.

“I’m used to them from the mountain bike,” Nys told me, “but it’s something new for cyclocross. There are some dangerous downhills like the one in Zolder, where disc brakes give you a little more control over your bike. So in the future… when the bikes are ready and when Shimano and SRAM are ready, I think we’re all going to race with disc brakes.”

Nys, however, though he has adopted Shimano’s electronic shifting, is still running cantilever brakes at the moment. Nys’ bike handling prowess is probably the best in the world, and he may simply prefer a bike that performs the same way as it has for his whole career, but sponsorship obligations may be in play as well. I’ll follow up with him and some of the other top European riders to get you the full story in a future column.

Euro/U.S. divide

How much does ’cross in Europe really differ from in the U.S.? What exactly is the difference?
—Will in Pennsylvania

I put your question to someone who has recent experience racing on both sides of the Atlantic, British champion Helen Wyman. Here’s what she told me:

The first difference is that the races in America are participation-driven, so the people who watch are the people who raced earlier. In Europe, the races are spectator-driven, so the people pay money to see the race.

The second difference is that because the sport is younger in America than in Europe, they started with a different mentality, so there’s a lot more pro-female [sentiment] in America. There’s equal prize money a lot, the races have equal billing, the women race just before the guys. And there’s also open events for women where there are 125 riders, and maybe another 80 still in the elite race. You don’t get that in Europe.

Finally, courses in Europe usually have a feature that is unbelievably epic, like the Koppenberg or the Gavere descent or the Zonhoven sand bunker. They have one epic feature and the entire course is just getting to that feature. In America they have a lot more smaller features, but spread over the whole course. So American courses are still technical and interesting and keep you thinking the whole time, but in Europe you’re always thinking about that one massive thing.

Perhaps it’s worth adding that cyclocross is participatory here in Belgium as well; there are often as many as 10 amateur races in a given weekend. But amateurs and professionals race on different courses in different locations, so the opportunity to race and then stick around to cheer for the pros on the same course is rare.

It’s also worth noting that while Sunday’s race doesn’t offer any of the epic terrain that Wyman mentioned, next Thursday’s Koppenbergcross does. So don’t forget to check back in later in the week for full coverage of cyclocross’ annual visit to one of the most storied locations in cycling.

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