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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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Emails to this address were being bounced earlier this fall, so if you tried to email and didn’t hear back, please do try again.
BRUSSELS (VN) — The last weekend before the start of the busy Kerstperiode, which offers up eight races in two weeks, is an entr’acte for the cyclocross season. With only a single, second category race on Sunday, the weekend offers a rare opportunity for a little extra recovery after three hard months of racing. The weekend also serves as a sort of dividing point in the season. The races up to now have established the plot — the primary protagonists and storylines for the season — and what comes next will be a steady build-up to the climactic world championship race in Louisville, Kentucky, at the beginning of February. After that, the remaining races, those that close out the major European series, are all epilogue; there’s money on the line still, but the big battles are already won.
But here, at the midpoint of the season, it’s still not too late for a twist or two. And with three world champions — Marianne Vos (Rabobank), Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), and Lars Boom (Rabobank) — all scheduled to race in the coming week, twists are likely. Vos returns from a training stint in South Africa at next weekend’s World Cup in Namur, Stybar should be at the start in Essen (though the Belgian press reported this week he may skip the race following a dispute over start money), and Boom is on the startlist for the GP De Ster in Sint-Niklaas on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, this weekend’s race, in Leuven, home of one of Belgium’s best-known — if not exactly best — beers, Stella Artois, is very much up for grabs. With few UCI points and no series points on the line, and many riders training hard ahead of Kerstperiode, Sunday’s race is wide open. Among the men, Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet-Euphony) is a clear favorite, but Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus), Klaas Vantornout and Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor) are among the many who would like to steal a win from the Belgian champion. Meanwhile, with Vos and American Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective) both training in warmer climates this weekend, among the women, the race looks likely to be a three way battle between Brits Helen Wyman (Kona) and Nikki Harris (Telenet-Fidea) and Belgian Sanne Cant (BKCP).
American fans will also want to watch Jonathan Page, who appears to be rebounding after a nasty respiratory infection. In the women’s race, Belgium-based Christine Vardaros (Baboco) and Amy Dombroski (Telenet) will be joined by Maureen Bruno Roy (Bob’s Red Mill-Seven), who arrives in Belgium later this week ahead of a campaign to earn a World Cup top 10 and secure a spot on the U.S. worlds team.
Now to a couple of questions.
Muddy ’cross courses in summer
What do the muddy Belgian courses (like Overijse) look like in the summer? Do they recover from the racing impact?
—Peter in Colorado
Anybody who watched last Sunday’s race in Overijse will not be the least bit surprised by your question. Melting snow in the days before the race — and more rain on the day of the race — turned the hillside venue just south of Brussels into a sloppy, rutted mess. It’s easy to imagine that the course will never recover.
Overijse is frequently muddy and the race frequently makes a mess of the fields and woods in which it takes place. Overijse, as it happens, is not far from my house in Brussels and is a lovely place to ride a bike, so I pass by the race venue pretty regularly, and have seen firsthand the ground recover and grass return. As is the case for a lot of races, much of the course uses farmland and pasture. The grasses that grow in the pastures have deep roots and quickly regenerate. The farm fields get plowed and replanted, so racing hardly makes a dent at all.
A Google Street View image of the course in Overijse taken in the summer shows that, except from the entrance to the field, which is probably worn as much by tractor tires as Dugast Rhinos, the grass has fully returned. You can see the same thing in this aerial view of the race venue in Ruddervoorde, where you’d never guess a race had touched down only months before. (Also note the random block of cobblestones, used specifically for the race, planted randomly in the middle of an otherwise ordinary pasture.) The same is true for the fields used for races in Hamme-Zogge and the Koppenberg.
So, yes, the fields recover and, if you pass by and see the cows grazing lazily in the summer sunshine, chances are you’d never even imagine the crazy spectacle that played out in the same place just a few months ago.
Be proud of American racing
I’ve heard you’re often the only American at the local races in Belgium. What’s it like at a local race? Do people ride in costumes and hand up dollars/bacon/beer?
—Chris in the Netherlands
It’s true. In five years of masters races in Belgium, I’ve only rarely had American company at the races. (I hear there are talented American regulars at some of the Dutch races just across the border.)
The amateur racing scene in Belgium, just like the American scene, is highly varied. Since there might be eight or 10 race options for amateurs every weekend in a country just a little bigger than Maryland, fields in masters races tend not to be as big as at many of the New England races I did before coming over here. The so-called “B races,” open to elite but non-professional riders, tend to be a little bigger, but the 100-person fields common in American racing are pretty much unheard of in Belgium.
Organization at local races varies too. Some offer showers, big pits with bike wash stations, vendors selling beer and food, and indoor spaces from which to watch the race if the weather is bad. Others run with little more organization than a guy with a clipboard and a few boxes of cookies for prizes. Most races sit somewhere in between the two extremes.
Courses are generally more rugged than many American courses and often have features that seem more than a little dangerous — although, since pro and amateur races only very rarely run at the same venues, amateurs rarely see truly extreme features like the massive sand-pit descent in Zonhoven.
Local races are also heavily skewed towards rider development, with many more nieuwelingen (or newcomers, very young racers), juniors, and U23 racers than masters. No doubt the emphasis on young riders has paid off for the Belgians; that’s a big part of the reason Belgium has become such a dominant force in cyclocross. While American kids go to little league and Pop Warner games, their Belgian counterparts are racing cyclocross.
Belgium takes ’cross racing seriously at all levels, so the crazy costumes are largely the domain of fans at pro races. Beer hand-ups are unheard of and, with worlds on their way to Louisville, the American phenomenon that the Belgian press calls “Dollar Grabbing” has been discussed endlessly on the sports pages here. Being part of the Belgian ’cross scene is great, but I really do miss the irreverent, grassroots culture of ’cross in America. I often think that Americans who wave the Flemish flag at their own races, trying to imbue their races with the flavor of “authentic” cyclocross, ought to be waving the Stars and Stripes instead. American cyclocross has its own roots and its own culture, which from 3,500 miles away seems pretty special to me. Having seen a lot of races on both sides of the Atlantic, I think I can say with at least a little authority that Americans have much to be proud of.