Belgian Slant…

As ‘travelled’ as I am, until this weekend, I’d never, ever, been to Belgium. And the closest I’d got to Holland was a stopover at Schiphol Airport. So I decided to do something about it and get myself over to both countries and see a couple of cyclocross races. I’ve been to a number of UK ‘cross races recently and it would be interesting to see how it’s done in other countries.

Luckily, my pal Stanny is a walking encyclopaedia of cyclocross lore and he picked a weekend in January when we could see a Division Two race in Belgium on the Saturday and the last World Cup round on the Sunday. He even offered to drive. All I needed to do was hook us up with some deluxe accommodation courtesy of my friend Jeff in Antwerp.

Paul Oldham in Hoogerheide

We got the 6am Dover ferry and drove to Zonnebeke in Belgium for the ‘local’ race. Obviously it was far from it, with some of the world’s best racers there. They’ll have doubtless been ‘encouraged’ by the promoter to turn up, but it was a good test of legs and bikes before the big race on the Sunday.

Stanny gazes at 'The Fridge of Wonder'

The juniors and U23 racers went off with some encouragement, though most of the crowd didn’t turn up until the main event at 3pm. I’d hate to be a cyclocross photographer as the big races appear to be held when it’s getting dark, on an already grey afternoon in the winter… The crowd filled out for the big race and Sven Nys pleased all by riding away from the pack and staying there. It was interesting to see the crowd dynamics as, unlike US racing – or unlike the hype – there wasn’t a single cowbell run and most of the race was passed with a passive ‘Impress me…’ silence from the crowd.

Bart Wellens, a crowd favourite.

Sunday’s race gave another good idea of how big the racing scene is in Holland (we were just over the border from Belgium). The top riders arrive in their liveried motorhomes (the best riders in the biggest motorhomes) and the various supporters clubs start filling the bar and, eventually the course. The whole town centre shuts down for the weekend and the course is near enough lined two deep for the whole ten minute lap. Everywhere there are chip and donut stands, as well as beer in large amounts. The beer tent probably held over a thousand people. Once again, a passive silence from the crowd for the most part, apart from when a local rider appeared or the leaders start clashing in the final couple of laps.

Not dissimilar to spending the afternoon watching football.

And then, suddenly, it’s over and people start drifting away. The faithful gather round the motorhomes, watching the mechanics cleaning bikes, packing wheels away in fleece cosies and jetwashing skinsuits, ready for next weekend’s World Championships in the Czech Republic. Talking of which, they’re just announcing that the 2013 Cyclocross Worlds will take place for the first time in the USA… (Kentucky to be precise). Good stuff.

An Antwerp cellar bar, earlier...

Here’s the final lap. Check out the ‘You’re going to let me come second, you’re going to be third’ signal at his teammate at about 6min40…