05 November 2009

A day at the races

The original idea was that we'd come to Europe for Karen's job and then spend all autumn and winter racing cyclocross in Belgium, which even if not the birthplace of 'cross (which might have been France), is the sport's current stronghold. The Belgians are nuts for cyclocross.

With my slacker employment status, I figured I'd be training like an animal so that I could receive my racing butt-whipping in Belgium like a man, fighting to the end. However, the only animal I'm training like is a 3-toed sloth, and the further realities of apartment sizes in Paris and a year of recurring injuries mean that racing here won't happen, at least not this year.

But that doesn't mean we can't spectate, even if, since we don't speak Dutch, we can't expectorate on par with the locals. We'd considered driving up to Treviso while we were in Italy in order to watch the World Cup race there, but roughly 8 hours of driving in one day was more than we could stomach, even in the Batmobile.

A couple of Sundays ago, though, we rented a car and drove up to Oudenaarde, Belgium, to watch the Koppenbergcross race, a stop on the GVA Trofee series. There are high-level professional races in Belgium pretty much every weekend, and our decision to go to this one was based more on its location and the fact that it fit our schedules than any specific knowledge of the race. We did figure that the famed cobbled climb of the Tour of Flanders, the Koppenberg, should figure into the course and saw some footage from the slop of last year's race on youtube. Looked like a good show.

Driving up was a bit of an experience. European roads change names and numbers frequently, and keeping up with highway numbers can be tricky your first time in a region. Thankfully, you can usually get by following the signs to given places-- often it's pretty easy to tell whether you want the highway towards Paris or towards Lille, for example. However, when you're in a place a.) where you don't know very precisely the relative positions of the cities on the signs, and b.) that's small enough that even knowing where those cities are doesn't much distinguish between the route you want vs don't want, the missing/changing numbers take on new significance. Add in the fact that as soon as you cross from the French-speaking Walloonian region of Belgium into the Dutch-speaking Flanders region all of the city names change, and it can make for hours of fun. It doesn't take a super-genius to figure out that Bruxelles is Brussel or that Gent is Gand, but that Tournai is Doornik, Grammont is Geraardsbergen, Ronse is Renaix or Lille is Rijsel can take longer than you have to decide whether or not to take the turn. Entertaining, for sure. And some of the four-letter words we made up while taking wrong turns sounded impressively Dutch to my French-attuned ears. But we made it to Oudenaarde and were directly by friendly (whoa-- that was a shock, coming from Paris) volunteers to a parking lot.

In reading up on the course and the race's history, we found some information on Christine Vardaros' website, a pro American cyclist we'd seen at some of the local races in the mid-atlantic region some years ago, now plying her trade in Belgium. She had just written a story for cyclocross magazine on the history and behind-the-scenes work on Koppenbergcross. And sure enough, after parking and taking a shuttle bus to the drop point, we walked right past her on RV Alley as she warmed up on the trainer. We chatted a bit, sharing impressions of life in France (she had raced for a French team, previously), and she offered us her trading cards before we wished her good luck and went to find the course.

One of just 2 Americans racing on the day, Christine Vardaros warms up on her trainer during the U23 race. Husband Jonas tends to her other bike in the background, aside their van.

The line of fancier RVs stretches a long way into town. Prime real estate goes to the big-name racers with team vans and supporters' clubs (in full tail-gate mode) further out.

Pretty typical top-racer RV, this one the Czech national champion and consistent top-5 finisher Zdenek Stybar.

The more subdued RV of Jonathon Page, the only American male cyclocross pro to be based in Europe (the other US pros who race CX in Europe do so after the US season ends in mid-December). The door to the rear of these vans is for bikes and equipment, the door up front for the rider.

The most spectator-crowded RV was that of the reigning dominant cyclocross rider, former world champion and current Belgian champion, Sven Nys, who, as printed on the side of the van, prefers to be called Svenny. Svenny had won the previous 6 editions of Koppenbergcross, but came into this year's race a bit frustrated after a slow (for him) early season.

It was a long way from the parking lot to the race course. But just like the fish market at Tsukiji in Tokyo, all you had to do was follow the boots to the course...

... and since much of the race course is in cow pasture, the boots offer double protection when it's muddy.

Perhaps not Paris fashion, but there's room for personal expression even at a CX race.

CX fan in the making: ladybug mud boots and a big sandwich, which this kid was really going to town on.

CX is a big deal in Belgium. Even the handstamp has a CX scene.

The course itself surprised me. We've raced 'cross for 7 years, on courses ranging from tape strung up in bumpy cow pastures to pretty elegant courses fine-tuned over several years. From the videos and pictures I'd seen of courses in Belgium, I was expecting something really technical and diabolically tricked out. Half the course, maybe more, was in cow field, rather like a grass-roots US course. If this course were part of the regional series we race at home, where “flow” of a course is highly valued and climbing tends to be of the short-and-punchy variety, I suspect the racers and other promoters alike would howl at its shortcomings: no barriers or forced dismounts at all, and an almost entirely vertical location. Koppenbergcross starts at the base of a hill, rolls around on some pavement in town (almost never a feature in US courses-- closing town roads for a CX race just isn't done), a little flat grass leading into the famed cobbled Koppenberg climb. But only the lower section, because even the steep cobbles above aren't awful enough to warrant inclusion. The course turns off of the climb and winds down some not-terribly-technical grass before climbing up, and up, and up, seemingly forever to the top of the hill, where it basically turns into a luge run back down to the bottom. Up, down, up, down. But the day we were there, Europe's best riders were beating the snot out of each other on that course, and some 15,000 people were there urging them on. And it was hard not to decide that the idea that any one group holds the Truth about what cyclocross is or isn't, or should or shouldn't be, is pretty ludicrous.

Looking up at the downhill section of the course. Just a ski run taped out in a cow pasture. This was during the U23 race; by the time the pro men started, the crowds had about tripled.

There are supporters' clubs for the various racers, and club members gather at specific points on the course (often marked by a supporters' club flag with the rider's name on it) and have an excuse to wear matchy clothes. One of the most striking differences between spectators there and in the States is the range of body shapes. In the US, most spectators at races are other racers or relations and so tend to be pretty lean. In Belgium, the spectators reflect the general population and so tend to be more, errr..., hearty. Lots of smoking in the crowds. And drinking.

And drinking means peeing. I'm pretty sure this guy thought I was some kind of pervert, but I really just wanted a picture of the porta-urinals. These brilliant contraptions should be required at every bike race in the US. 80% of the racers at a typical US race are men, and probably 60% of the portajohn use is for urination. These 4-person urinals allow for reasonably discrete bladder emptying (admittedly, the Europeans are less prudish than Americans about these things) without tying up the more precious full-service portajohns. Everybody wins.

Aside from CX, Belgium for us is synonymous with good beer. And frites. We're lucky in Philadelphia to have one of the best beer bars in the country, and likely the best Belgian beer bar, Monk's Cafe. Through his relationships with the brewers in Belgium, the owner brings in all kinds of wonderful oddities for sampling, often the only keg or 3 shipped out of Belgium. The beer on tap at Koppenbergcross was Primus, which while better than the beer in France, was not nearly as interesting as we get at home. The frites were similarly utilitarian-- twice-fried as they should be, but made from frozen potatoes. Admittedly, the set-up on the side of a steep cow pasture presents some logistical challenges for fresh food. But even that doesn't explain the meat thing that we ate. There were some corndog-like sausages being fried at the frites stand, and some giant liverwurst-like sausages being sold whole, still wrapped in plastic, both of which were more sausage than we felt up for. So when we spied what looked to be kabobs on the counter, we pounced. The kabobs, stick and all, got dumped into the fryer for a long while and then into a paper boat, which at least slowed by a few seconds the travel of hot grease to our hands. The meat was shriveled past recognition (I'm pretty sure we saw its second frying), which by all accounts was probably a good thing, but the 3 tiny slices of onion were tasty. We later found a stand with bratwurst, which was markedly better. We'll have to go back to Belgium for food and drink beyond CX race vending some other time.

The first uphill on the course, the famed cobbles of the Koppenberg. Though not the steepest section of the cobbled climb, it was still no picnic.

The long off-road slog up the side of the Koppenberg, during the women's race. The pro women really had to grind up this long slope, an accurate indication of its difficulty. The ferocity of the attacking on this climb in the pro men's race was frightening-- it's hard to believe anybody's that strong.

Somebody likes cyclocross. A lot. Even after fried mystery-meat-on-a-stick.

The view down the luge run during the pro men's race. The crowd was 5 deep or more over most of the course.

This corner was particularly tricky during the U23 race, when it was still muddy and greasy. The pros who were warming up afterwards all locked up the rear wheel to slide through it, but by the pro race, it had dried out enough that they were rolling through it. We still saw a number of tangles in it. #9 here is former world champion Erwin Vervecken-- note the rainbow stripes on his sleeve. He finished 1 spot lower than his number this day.

Bart Aernouts (Belgium) and Enrico Franzoi (Italy) fly down the chute...

... but on the last lap, when it counted most, it was Sven "Svenny" Nys who put in a vicious attack on the endless climb and hit speeds on the downhill that warped the time-space continuum. He held his 4-second gap over fellow Belgian and reigning world champ Neils Albert to the finish, his 7th in a row at Koppenberg.

We were treated to a pretty good race, fast and tactical. Though the course had been wet and muddy early in the day, it had tacked up considerably by the time the men took the start. It poured rain for a few minutes just as they were about to head off, which added a little unpredictability to the start. The speed of the world's best both up the long hill and then down the chute was astonishing. A good day out, for sure.

Next up for us is the CX race in Gavere.

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