Sunday, 20 November 2011

Cross-Frits!

Nov 19, the boys and I did the all-important Belgian pilgrimage to watch a real Euro cyclocross race. This was the 25th edition of the GP Hasselt, part of the Gazet van Antwerpen season series (one of three season-long points series of races, along with the Superprestige and the World Cup). And at CX races in Belgium, there's nothing like clogging your arteries with a cone of frits topped off with mayo and ketchup! Bonus that <14 is free entry at the race, and <12 travelled free on the trains on weekends!
Many of you reading this will know that, for the past four years or so, cyclocross has dominated my passion for cycling, so it's hard to describe how much I've been looking forward to watching one live in Belgium. I've whetted my appetite so far by watching live TV coverage every weekend, but CX is a 4-D sensory experience, whatever that means... We spent the early Juniors race checking out different vantage points for watching and photos. The great thing with CX is that you can walk all around and see the race multiple times over 60 minutes from different vantage points. Plus even standing in one spot, you can often see half the course. Not here in Belgium though, as there's too many crowds! Not to worry though, the organizers have several jumbotrons set up too.

A big messy CX flickr album!

And here's the "Roadside Pez" article I wrote for PezCycling News!

25 years of the GP Hasselt, and Sven Nys has won EIGHT of them! Check it out, that's the last seven in a row and 8 out of 9! No wonder his nickname is the Cannibal of Baal. The shot on the right is at the sign-in, where Nys parked his bike right in front of us. That amount of close-up access is definitely one of the special things about cycling. There's no chance you'll get this close to the stars in any other sport!
CX races feature both natural and man-made obstacles, with the purpose to force riders off the bike, jump off the barriers, and remount. One typical obstacle are sets of two barriers, max 40 cm high. Here in Hasselt, they used two massive logs. Being on a wide fast section, many riders chose to bunny-hop them. That was Bart Aernouts's plan too, but he completely biffed it hopping the second log on the 7th lap, right in front of us, and took down Sven Vantournant too.
In the grand cycling universe, cyclocross is a a tier below road racing and the heartland is absolutely in Belgium, and more specifically the Flanders region of Belgium. But being a bit fringe is still huge. Most of the big name riders have their own hard-core fan club that travels to all the races. We even saw young Espoir riders (<23years) with their own fan club! And forget boring hockey jerseys with the player's name on them, or scarves with Manchester United on them. You can get official Telnet-Fidea (a big cyclocross team) scarves with your favourite rider's name!
Another sign you're a big shot is when you have your picture plastered on your own bus and also your own table (never realized chocolate waffles were the breakfast of champions - must try it more!). Stybar, from the Czech Republic, is the two-time reigning World Champ. Even though there are teams in CX, it's very much an individual thing, as each rider has their own camper buses, mechanics, support team, etc. They even warm up by themselves on the trainer beforehand rather than in a group.
The perk of being World Champ is that, with the rainbow jersey, there's no mistaking you for somebody else! You get to wear it for the entire year if you win the Worlds race. Again, cycling gives you such close access you can pretty much get sweat on you watching riders warm up.
Every course in CX is different depending on the location. Some are very hilly, while Hasselt is pretty much dead flat and fast. Of course, the weather plays a huge role too, as the same course can be tremendously different if it's raining or frozen (wait until winter really arrives!). There was a long sand pit here in Hasselt, which is just SOOOO hard to ride through.
So did the Cannibal of Baal pull off an eight-peat? Close but no cigar. New kind-of-the-roost Kevin Pauwels has gone ballistic this season, and won it in a close sprint ahead of World Champ Zdenek Stybar with Nys 1s back in third!