We were (barely) back in Paris from Barcelona for Christmas before heading north again for Belgium. The week between Christmas and New Year's is packed with Belgian cyclocross races, starting with the World Cup in Zolder on the 26th, then races on the 27th, 29th, and 30th of December and the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd of January.
Since we'd already been up to see a GVA Trofee race (Koppenberg) and a Superprestige race (Gavere), Karen was eager to see a World Cup race, but we wanted to watch mid-atlantic super-junior Jeff Bahson-- who is attending the US cyclocross camp in Izegem this year en route to riding the World Championships in Tabor, Czech Republic-- race in the deep fields in Belgium, and the juniors went off earlier than we'd be able to pick up a car and drive there. So instead, we drove up Sunday to watch the Superprestige Diegem, used the no-racing day on Monday to do some site-seeing in Antwerpen, and caught the GVA Trofee Azencross race on Tuesday before driving back to Paris.
Since bike racing and beer are both important, there'll be a separate post on the non-cyclocross portion of the trip.
Like all of our experiences in Europe, the 4 cyclocross races we attended in Belgium this year weren't quite like we had envisioned. Here's a list of things we expected at a Belgian CX race and actually found:
People. Lots of them. In all shapes and sizes, but with a notable enrichment of the portly, smoking variety. And an even greater enrichment of the drunken, portly, smoking variety. Fortuitously, it seems most Belgian cyclocross-loving drunks are happy drunks.
Passionate cheering. The pro men's race is a loud affair. The most passionate cheering is for Sven Nys. Other riders have their supporters and their support clubs, but even they seem to cheer Nys. Current world champion, and Belgian, Niels Albert has a lot of supporters but also a lot of detractors who don't seem to take to his high-strung personality. He created a stir when he complained about being harassed in races by Nys' more numerous fans, and at Azencross he couldn't help complaining that he'd had beer poured on him during the race. He shouldn't have to endure that, admittedly, but with such a large number of drunks at the event, some bad judgment is inevitable. Just ask Bart Wellens, former world champion and former perennial adversary of Sven Nys, who forfeited a win in 2005 after kicking, while riding by at full race speed, a spectator who had been throwing beer at him. Given his excellent form in executing the kick, he should have been awarded bonus points. After Nys, Czech Zdenek Stybar, having a breakthrough season and a non-complainer, seems to get the most enthusiastic support this year.
Beer, which is consumed in very large quantities.
Frites, which are consumed in quantities surpassed only by beer. Or cigarettes. Or schnapps.
Unintelligible race announcing. Many Belgians, and particularly those from the Dutch-speaking Flanders region, speak several languages, including French and English, pretty darned well. Still, the races are being held in Belgium, and the vast majority of announcement is in Dutch (or Flemish, if you prefer). If you speak German and English, you can do a reasonable job of guessing what at least some of the commentary is, because there's some phonetic overlap. But even if you can work some of it out, the pattern and sounds of the Dutch from the excitable announcers often sound a lot like the silly made-up language two of my college roommates used to confuse people. This is good, because the strange-sounding Dutch is way more fun to listen to than the cheesy pop music that plays when the announcers aren't talking.
Cheesy pop music over the loudspeakers, mixed with techno (Belgium is in Europe) and some oompah pop.
This happens to be at Azencross... ummm, actually Diegem... but it could have been pretty much any of the races we've been to this season.
Top quality racing.
And so here's a list of things that were different from what we expected from cyclocross races in Belgium:
People. Hordes of them. I would guess the average crowd size for the races we've attended has been about 12,000. At Koppenberg, the venue easily absorbed the 15,000+ people reported to be in attendance, because the course wound through open fields with plenty of room to stand and wander. In all of the other races, the course has run along other barriers, whether they be property lines/fences/hedges/etc. And several sections of the courses, including the long straight sections connecting the various more technical areas, offer very narrow passage. Getting from place to place through the crowds can be a challenge, and at Gavere, there were sections of the course that were complete impassible by spectators by the pro men's race.
Beer. You think of Belgium and beer, and you think of the amazing variety of high-quality brews. None of these is available at CX races. If interesting beer is your thing, skip the Primus or Jupiler at the race and a.) drink the hot spiced wine or schnapps at the race and/or b.) find a good beer bar afterwards.
Beer tents. We expected to find beer tents, but we didn't expect to find frat parties raging inside of them. Packed wall-to-wall, ear-splitting music raging, there must be thousands of people at these races who never see a single rider pass by. No Dutch is necessary to understand the basic gist of the video here, at the website for the Antwerpen newspaper for which the GVA Trofee series is named.
One of the beer tents at Diegem, complete with a live band. To paraphrase a friend of my dad's who once commented about some late-night celebratory singing, its badness was only surpassed by its volume.
Planks or barriers. Of the 4 races we've seen, only one (Diegem) has used them.
Cowbells. Although ubiquitously associated with CX spectating in the US, I've not seen or heard even 1 in the races we attended in Belgium. Shouting (and, apparently, throwing beer) are the preferred methods of showing support, or lack thereof.
Waffles. In contrast to the Christmas markets all over northern Europe, you can't get a waffle at a Belgian CX race. In fact, I haven't seen any sweets at all. Given the focus on fried foods at these events-- in addition to frites, only deep-fried hot dogs, deep-fried sausages, deep-fried hamburgers, and deep-fried mystery meat kabobs are available in most venues -- you'd think that deep-fried dough, whether doughnuts or funnel cakes, would find an audience.
Azencross is the first race we've been to where there was a non-deep-fried food option: 3 roast pigs. It would seem they were popular.
Top-quality racing. It's there, but in the pro men's races, you're often hard-pressed to see it (see "People", aka hordes, above). During the early races, you can move around the course easily and see the action pretty much wherever you want, spending quality time in the technical sections to see how people a lot more talented at 16 than you are at 45 ride the tricky stuff. But if you want to see the same up-close technical action in the pro-men's race, you'd better have found your spot a couple of hours before the start, especially if you're not tall enough to see over the 5-or-more deep crowds. And if you were in the beer tents, instead, you can maybe see the tops of the riders' helmets skimming along over the crowd in those sections or get a better view of a section with no technical interest. Like many sporting events, the best view of the race is really on television, and there are several jumbotrons at these big races where you can watch it in the rain with a few thousand of your friends. Which beats watching at home, because chances are you don't have a deep fryer big enough to cook mystery meat kabobs.
Sven Nys' name. I've heard and used lots of variations in the US, but the announcer at Diagem pronounced his name as a single word with the same rhythm as the word "finesse." Not everybody says it that way, but however they say it, "Sven Nys" must be among the 100 most common words in Flanders. I believe it's actually the greeting they use on meeting each other, like bonjour or hola.
Finally, here's the low-down from this week's races.
Race #1: Superprestige Diegem. At first glance, the Diegem course looked more like an asphalt crit than the a cross race. It's run downtown in Diegem, with the men's race running at night, and there's plenty of pavement in the course. But the unpaved sections hidden in parks below and above town, both sloppy and muddy after several days of rain and more during the races, provided plenty of slow grinding and technical challenge, no doubt made more difficult by the dark. The pro race came down to a duel between Belgian Niels Albert and Czech Zdenek Stybar, who finished in that order, with Sven Nys in 3rd until the penultimate lap, when, right in front of where we were spectating, he broke his derailleur hanger and gave up. He should have been watching the earlier junior race, when young Mr Bahnson broke his derailleur hanger somewhere in the same off-pavement section of the course on the opening prologue but had the presence of mind to skateboard his broken bike down the sloped pavement toward the pit, where he changed bikes and despite spotting the rest of the field several minutes, rode a good ways back through it for an impressive finish.
Mr Bahnson working his way back through the field at Diegem.
Sven Nys just before his derailleur hanger snapped on remount.
Race #2: Azencross, a GVA Trofee series race, just shy of the Dutch border. This is flat, flat land, and it was completely saturated by the recent (and continuing) rains. Though the area offered little in features for an interesting course, the race organizers built all kinds of crazy features to mix in with the slow grassy farmland slog: several flyovers, a set of stairs in a mud mound, a pair of mud hills, and most notably, a 9-roller pump track. Young Mr Bahnson looked strong riding to a 20th position finish in a huge and fast field, and after riding together for much of the race, Sven Nys bested Niels Albert and Zdenek Stybar in the last lap to win. It was cold, it was wet, and it was a mess. Ie, it was fun.
Juniors in the mud hills where Niels Albert dabbed in the last lap of the pro race, losing contact with Sven Nys.
Juniors on the pump track
The pros on the pump track from our hard-earned vantage point.
Maybe the most fun thing about it was that we met up with mid-atlantic cross racers extraordinaires Mike and Erica Yozell, with young Isaac in tow. Between watching Jeff Bahnson rip it on the course and talking/spectating with the Yozells, it was as close as we got this year to our usual 'cross experience at home.