Cyclocross in Belgium, a fan’s perspective
Saturday december 20th, a date that had been in my calendar for a while: the cyclocross in Essen, Belgium. Of all the Belgian crosses this one is the one that’s geographically closest to me (I’m Dutch) so it’s always high on my list. Also, the immediate area is a hotbed of cyclocross activity, with the 2014 World Championships in Hoogerheide and the upcoming 2015 Euro Championships in Huijbergen just a few miles away.
Unfortunately I can’t make it for the entire day, which is a shame because in the earlier races there’s some people that I know from being the official photographer at a local amateur cyclocross league. So when I pull up to the specator parking it’s about noon and the men’s U23 race is just about to start. Parking in Essen is on-street, so no muddy field to extract my car from later on. I walk over to the entrance to the course, pay my entry fee and have a look around. There’s been some minor changes to the course compared to last year, most importantly the direction: they’re going the other way. As the U23 men are riding their race I look for a good spot and I find one at a 90 degree corner on a muddy section. It has been raining quite a lot during the 3 days leading up to the race and the low parts of the course are quite wet and swampy (so are the spectator areas by the way, good thing I’ve brought my boots). Because I’m here primarily to take photos and the light is good in this spot I decide to camp out here for the rest of the race and figure out my camera settings during the U23 race.
When they’re finished there’s about an hour to go before the women’s race, I had hoped they’d do some warm-up laps in that period so I could have a chat (one of the girls from the amateur league is racing today as well, so I’d be cheering for her), only the Elite Men are using this time for their recon. I see Sven Nys trudge through the mud and Lars van der Haar taking a shortcut. One of the guys (German, or Swiss, I think) is discussing the best way to tackle the mud with his trainer, when somebody else boldly rides his bike through – “That’s the way to do it”, says the trainer. Little do they know that in the U23 race hardly anybody rode their bike on that section and it doesn’t look like that’ll be any different for the other races. I chat a bit with other fans around me. As this is Belgium a lot of people are enjoying a beer, and another one, and another one. Soon plastic cups litter the course in a few spots. I meet Maarten, who has raced the U17 category, and his father, they confirm the course is swampy and the mud is thick and heavy.
I’m standing with my back towards the start/finish section (the only paved part of the entire course) and about 10 minutes before the start I see the women going through their final warm-up routines. The names are being called by the speaker and then they enter the final, tense, minute before the start. When the light turns green I can see them rushing off and after a little while they turn into the muddy section, into my view. As I expected everybody gets off their bike when they hit the mud, although Helen Wyman tries to keep going. Since this is the first lap the peloton is still bunched together and it’s hard to track (or photograph) individual riders. As they come by on the second lap it’s clear there’s 2 favourites: Sophie de Boer and Sanne Cant hve gotten a bit of a lead on the Telenet Fidea riders (Nikki Harris, Ellen van Loy and Pavla Havlikova) and Helen Wyman.
During the 2nd lap the announcer calls out the number of remaining laps, only 3, that’s a sign of how tough this course is. As the race progresses the bunch gets strung out more and more and it’s obvious that the tough going takes its toll on everybody. Surprised to see Lucinda Brand (primarily a road racer, former Dutch road race champion) taking part and pleased to see Margriet Kloppenburg back in a race again, after she’s been dealing with an illness for the first half of the season (later on it’s announced she’s had to abandon the race). Chantal Verstraten, the only rider I know personally in this field, has had a bit of a bad start, but every lap I see her gain more distance on the girls behind her so that’s good to see. Later on I learn she had chain problems during the first lap, causing her to lose places.
Almost everybody walks the muddy section, although Helen Wyman tries to ride it most laps and often succeeds, although it makes very little difference for her speed. The situation at the front seems to be pretty much fixed after the first lap: Sophie de Boer and Sanne Cant are close to each other, then a gap and then the Telenet Fidea gang (van Loy, Harris and Havlikova) with Wyman trailing behind. As every lap goes by the gaps get larger. In the last lap de Boer drops Cant and wins the race, I catch a fleeting glimpse of her crossing the finish line, arms outstretched, when I look behind me.
Another short break and then it’s the Elite Men. The crowd was decent for the women’s race (at least at the spot where I was standing, a faster grass section before the mud section where I was remained almost completely free of spectators all day) and it quickly grows for the last race of the day. I’m joined in my spot by a Belgian family who are there to support Kevin Pauwels. A bit further along the track there’s supporters of Tom Meeusen (the local hero), judging by their flags and beside them there’s a Dutch group who are there to cheer for Lars van der Haar.
The men’s race pretty much follows the events of the women’s race. Wout van Aert leads from lap one and behind him the field gets stretched out. Much to the delight of my neighbors Kevin Pauwels is riding a good race, and also Tom Meeusen is doing well. It’s amazing to see that some of the guys way back in the race have achieved some sort of cult status, they get cheered on even more than the ones at the head of the race (a lot of cyclocross fans support one particular rider, so they’ll cheer for him, but everybody cheers for the people in the back). During the last lap I walk to the area immediately behind the finish and manage to get some good photos of the riders as they come to a stop there (sometimes almost collapsing on the railings and needing minutes to get themselves back together again).
On my way home it starts to rain, and I’m glad it didn’t rain during the race itself. It would have made things a lot more uncomfortable for both riders and spectators. All in all a very nice day and I’ve seen two exciting races, now on to the next one!