Dispatch from Belgium: The Cyclocross Motherland
Mud. Frites. Beer. Thousands of screaming fans. It’s not a bad time to be a bike racer – or, in my case, a racer-turned-team-manager getting the chance to soak it all in.
If you’re not familiar with the sport of cyclocross, imagine steeplechase for bikes: It’s a 7-minute course packed with obstacles for the knobby-tired road bikes to contend with: hills too steep to ride, man-made wooden barriers that need to be run, and puddles of mud so deep that your front wheel disappears, sinking below the murky surface. It’s fast, it’s frantic, and it’s tons of fun. And here in Belgium, it’s their national sport, and the fans act accordingly.
The Namur World Cup, which takes place in the largely French-speaking region of Belgium, kicked off the week before Christmas. Small towns all across the country have erected Christmas markets and skating rinks in town squares that look entirely too idyllic to be real. And the cyclocross fans came in droves, brandishing signs and sporting jackets declaring their loyalties as they spread out over the course.
The course itself was a masterpiece. Seton and around the Citadel of Namur, it’s not something you’d see stateside, where our historic landmarks are roped off and public entrance is banned. Here, riders pedaled through old underground tunnels to reach the starting grid, and spectators clamored up stairs to get a better view of the racing action, frites and beers in hand.
Behind the scenes, riders huddled in their vans or (for the lucky ones) their trailers that essentially serve as small houses from weekend to weekend and race to race. For the Americans, a fleet of Sprinters and a box truck sprawl across a swath of land that the head mechanic staked out well before sunrise, forming a compound where English is everyone’s first language and fumbled attempts at French are more common than smooth parlez-vous-ing with fans.
The excitement is palpable; the silences hold more drama than the moments filled with the raucous voices of racers and mechanics shouting about warm-up times and tire pressures. The silence means the racers are focused, and for the staff, the worry is always what the rider is focusing on: are they worried about the course, the bike, their legs, their brain? Most of the time, it’s impossible to tell and asking might materialize real fear so no one does.
And the race hasn’t even started yet. As the start closes in, riders casually scan other competitors to see how many layers each is wearing – the damp 35-degree weather could mean a baselayer, or it could mean a short-sleeve jersey. It depends. Team manager, mechanics, and soigneurs elbow their way to the starting grid, collecting coats, and providing last sips of water.
Finally, the light turns green and the race starts. In some ways, it’s the easiest part of the day because all the work has been set into motion and just has to play out on the course. But for anyone who’s raced we know it’s the hardest easy minutes of each racer’s life.
Blood, sweat, tears—all mixed with mud. In the women’s race, Czech rider Katarina Nash conducts a clinic on badassery at the front of the race, absolutely annihilating the competition. It’s a clinic in pain, but she looks composed from start to finish. Her support crew is more excited than she is by the time she crosses the finish; a middle-aged man can’t stop jumping up and down and pumping his fists.
One race down, one left for today. The season is starting to wind down, and it shows on the rider’s exhausted faces. Next week will be another round.