Crossland Q&A: To Rome, and Nys, Albert and Vervecken address rider security

Katie Compton can clinch the World Cup overall on Sunday, and ’cross titans address beer-throwing fans

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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 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) — On Tuesday, the Belgian Meteorological Institute reported that December here was the rainiest on record and one of the gloomiest: rain fell on Belgium on 28 of the month’s 31 days. To the delight of many racers and fans, the miserable weather yielded spectacular cyclocross, painting all but a single sunny World Cup in Roubaix with a palette of mud. So Sunday’s World Cup, the seventh of the eight-round series, may be a relief for those who have been wishing for fairer skies and faster courses.

A week before national championships weekend, much of the cyclocross world will travel to the outskirts of Rome, Italy, where the weather forecast — with temperatures in the 60s Fahrenheit and sunny skies — is positively spring-like. The course, laid out on and around a horse track just a few blocks from ancient Rome’s most famous road, the Appian Way, figures to be fast, flat, and technical. It, too, will likely offer stark contrast to the muddy tractor pulls of Kerstperiode. Speedsters like Rabobank’s Lars Van Der Haar and Marianne Vos are undoubtedly looking ahead to Sunday’s race with relish.

One important storyline on Sunday will be the World Cup overall. American Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective), who has said that the series title is her primary goal this season, leads Nikki Harris (Telenet-Fidea) by 105 points. Compton plans to skip the final round in Hoogerheide in two weeks to focus on preparation for the world championships, but it shouldn’t matter. Any finish better than 15 place on Sunday will guarantee her the win, regardless of how well Harris rides.

Meanwhile, among the men, Sven Nys (Crelan-Euphony) and Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) are tied with 415 points each, and lead Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Napoleon Games) by just 26 points. Since the next nearest competitor, Pauwels’ teammate Klaas Vantornout, trails Nys and Albert by 114 points, the World Cup winner is almost certain to be one of these three men. A stumble by any of the trio in Rome will bring the World Cup picture into much sharper relief.

Now, let’s turn to a one of your questions.

Nys, Albert, Vervecken address beer-throwing fans

Dear Dan,
Does cyclocross in Europe have a drinking problem? Nys went over the barriers to confront a drunk and unruly fan in Loenhout, and that’s hardly the only example of problems between spectators and racers in Belgian ’cross. Do promoters need to ban beer or do more to protect the racers from the fans?
—Roger in Colorado

That’s a timely question. Indeed, last week Nys — already pretty deep in the field — ditched his bike and hopped over the course tape to reprimand a fan that had been splashing him with beer each time he passed. Nys’ action very much focused attention on the hazards of holding an international bike race within arm’s reach of fans who have access to more or less unlimited alcohol.

I put your question to three people: Sven Nys, Niels Albert and retired racer Erwin Vervecken, who now works for the Belgian sports promotion company Golazo, which organizes a number of prominent ’cross races.

Nys told me that, after a whole race of abuse, he decided that he had no choice but to send a message.

“I just felt that it was wrong what he did the whole race, and I tried to talk with him and say that it’s not right what he was doing,” Nys said. “I stayed calm, and the rest is history. For me it was important that I talk to the guy and show everybody that it’s not necessary to do things like that. It’s not only for me; it’s for the rest of the peloton also. Sometimes you need to do something to create something new, and it was necessary.”

On whether promoters needed to take steps to protect riders, Nys said yes, especially during the holidays when fans are already in a celebratory mood.

“In this part of the season, maybe, yeah,” said Nys. “When there’s a big tent with the beer and everything, maybe there is a possibility to have a little bit more security around it.”

Albert, meanwhile, said he respected Nys’ actions, adding that he might have taken things further.

“I didn’t expect it from Sven, because Sven is always very cool, and he doesn’t usually listen to all the noise from the people,” Albert told VeloNews. “So I was surprised. But I know the feeling and it’s not good. I’m totally not happy with the guys who yell some not nice words, and throwing the beer is not right. There must be a moment when it becomes (too much) and you say, ‘now it’s enough,’ and you go to the person — but I think if I were Sven, there’s going to be a fight.”

As to whether promoters could do more to protect riders, Albert pointed out that the unique appeal of cyclocross is the fact that fans can get so close to the action.

“I think it’s not possible,” he said. “The big success of cyclocross is that the people are very close to the riders. If we were going to race in a stadium like football it wouldn’t be the same.”

Vervecken, meanwhile, said he could relate to the situation, having been harassed and interfered with by fans himself.

“I also have been (accosted) by a drunk guy,” Vervecken said. “He grabbed my arm at the national championships. And I’ve had beer thrown in my face. So I think it was very good that Sven did what he did. He reacted, but not in an aggressive way. He just told the guy, ‘Hey, why did you do that?’ and then the guy was pretty embarrassed, of course.”

Vervecken said that promoters could do a little more to create some space for the riders in areas of courses that are prone to problems with fans.

“What we can do is, for example, on that section there in Loenhout, we’ll do a double barriers so the spectators are 75 centimeters from the course,” he told me. “But we cannot forbid beer, because it’s part of a tradition. But this was just one young guy who was throwing it, and it’s not because of him that we’re going to forbid beer at races. So that’s what we can do, and hope that everything stays safe.”

That message appears to have been taken to heart in Baal, where much of the course was marked off with two sets of barriers: an inner layer of course tape marking the boundary for riders and an outer metal barrier holding back fans. Since that course was likely already being assembled before the incident in Loenhout, it’s likely that was an independent decision. (On a hillside course as muddy as Baal, a fan could easily take out a rider just by slipping in the mud, drunk or not.)

So, for the moment, the discussion continues. It’s clear that in Belgium, at least, beer and other alcoholic beverages are not going anyway, if only for the simple fact that they are a huge moneymaker for race organizations. But it’s also clear that Nys’ actions sparked a serious discussion about how to improve security for the riders that bring out those paying fans in the first place.

As the worlds approaches, I’ll continue to look at this issue as it applies to racing in the United States, so if you’ve got opinions or questions about how best to protect riders from unruly fans, please send them my way.

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