We Are Big Fans! – A Trip to Watch Cyclocross in Belgium

0
1937

“Well, I’m Her Mom” 
or 
We’re Already Booked 
for Next Winter’s Kerstperiode

Don Haywood, Kathleen Strong, and Peter Streve on their trip to Belgium to watch cyclocross racing. Wet is best for watching Belgian Cyclocross. Photo courtesy Don Haywood

By Don Haywood — We are on the train and the fellow sitting in front of us is sporting a beanie with the word “Sweek” emblazoned on it. He is also wearing big rubber boots.

It isn’t much of a guess that he’s going to the same race we are.

“Hi! Are you on the way to the cyclocross race?”

He looks up, studies us for a second, smiles and then offers, “Yes. You too? Are you for Pidcock?” The Belgians all seem to think we are British. And that we must be here to cheer for British cyclocross racer and world champion, Thomas Pidcock.

“We like him,” Peter says, “but we’re Americans. My favorite is Michael Vanthourenhout.”

“I like Eli Iserbyt.”, Kathleen says, “He’s shorter like me and a bad-ass.”

I chime in,”Sweek has been my favorite for some time. He’s really doing well this year. I’m Don,”

I nod towards the others,“This is Kathleen and he’s our friend Peter.”

The friendly conversation continues. It turns out the Belgian fellow knows the Sweek family because he used to work in their bike shop. And he has known Laurens Sweek’s wife since she was a child.


For three years, we’ve been trying to get to Belgium for the “kerstperiode” – when there are 10 races in the two weeks surrounding Christmas & New Year’s, almost all on classic courses. All the best racers show up.

COVID killed our chances two years in a row but this time, we’ve made it.

Now, six races in, we are pretty much seasoned spectators. And we’ve learned some tricks to do it right.

We buy all our CX race tickets on-line in advance and store them on our phones. That gets us into the venue fast. They cost around twelve Euros per race.

Our Antwerp AirBnB is only a five minutes’ walk from the Antwerpen-Centraal train station. In Belgium, you would be crazy to rent a car. The trains are cheap, clean and go everywhere. They are also a great place to mingle with the Belgians.

We leave early for the races each day. We buy our train tickets at the kiosk and catch an early train. We may need a transfer, but trains are so numerous and timely that it’s no big deal. We hardly ever wait for more than a few minutes. Our goal is to get there before the Juniors race and before the crowds peak. That way, we can scout out the best place to watch. That’s important because, unlike our US races, it’s impossible to move around the course once the pros start. You move, you lose your spot and then the Jumbotron is the only way to watch the race.

Getting there early also has another huge advantage. One can wander among the team vehicles and meet the racers. Unlike at the 2022 CX World Championships in Arkansas, the team vehicles in Belgium are parked randomly around the neighborhood roads. There are no restricted access areas. For example, behind the massive Ineos van and in front of the Jumbo-Visma van might be a little VW Golf toting a bike on the back and owned by a single, self-supported racer.

You Move – You Lose Your Spot when watching Belgian Cyclocross. Photo courtesy Don Haywood

We didn’t realize it at the time while in Arkansas but we experienced a tiny preview of how fan friendly the top racers are in Belgium. When walking back along the cordoned off team area we spotted Sven Nys. He was just talking to one of the Trek crew members. We stopped and asked for a selfie. He agreed, then walked over to the police tape and posed with us. Peter informed him that his dog is named Sven (we’re big fans). Sven smiled (we are not sure he actually liked the idea). We were elated and felt really lucky. I mean, Sven Nys is a legend we only dreamed of meeting in person! Little did we know that in Belgium, getting a photo and meeting cyclocross legends is easy. You just need to be polite and know when and where to ask.

A ticket to GP Sven Nys. Belgian Cyclocross. Photo courtesy Don Haywood

We experience another glimpse into the friendly Belgian Cyclocross atmosphere at the long stairway obstacle that the Arkansas promoters have included for their World championship race. We are watching the racers warm-up at that big flight of stairs – about halfway up. Eli Iserbyt and his best friend and teammate Michael Vanthourenhoute are running up the stairs with their bikes on their shoulders. As they pass, Kathleen yells, “I love you Eli!” (We’re big fans). Eli and Michael stop, both riders look at each other and then turn around to see who yelled. I mean, Kathleen stopped them both in their tracks! Turns out, that’s not so unusual in Belgium.

Belgian Cyclocross. Photo courtesy Don Haywood

The Belgian train has halted. As the train comes to a halt, we get off and file onto the platform with all the other fans. It’s New Years and the bus schedule is abbreviated. We’ll have a little longer walk to get to the race venue, today.

After walking a bit, we decide it would be nice to find a coffee bar. It’s early and no one has had their coffee. Kathleen checks Google and discovers there is one just up the road.

We get to where the place is indicated on the Google map, but don’t see anything that looks remotely like a coffee shop – just a big building. Well, maybe it’s around the back?

Nope.

After some more exploring, we find a door that’s unlocked and walk into a big, narrow hall. At the other end is a glass door and we can see people. Maybe, that’s it?

We walk in to see a modest bar, a few simply decorated tables and a small group of patrons. All eyes are on us and we sheepishly say hello and ask, “Coffee, please?” There’s a small, white screen to one side, a little digital projector and a glass enclosed area full of all kinds of electronic gear.

The fellow behind the bar comes over and serves us our coffee. We thank him and explain that we are on our way to the cyclocross race. He responds with interest and asks, “Are you for Pidcock?” You must like Pidcock?”

I hear the word “Sweek” from the table across from us and I say, “Yes, he’s my favorite!”

Several people nod their heads in agreement.

It turns out those Belgians at the table are going to watch the race inside because, “…why should we stand out in the cold?” Kind of hard to deny that reasoning. But, that’s why we are there. It’s the only time we’ve hoped for bad weather during a vacation because this usually makes for the most exciting cyclocross racing.

We’re big fans.

On the hill – Look at the Crowd! Watching Belgian Cyclocross. Photo courtesy Don Haywood

One other thing – about that glass enclosed room. It’s the studio for one of the most popular Belgium Internet stations – Radio Utopia. I look it up later and it turns out the fellow who served us is one of the DJs.

We get to the venue. Perfect! We are nice and early. The juniors are racing shortly and that means the course is closed for warm-up. All the pros are returning to their vans. The elite women will soon be warming up on their stationary trainers or rollers. It’s the perfect time to meet them. It’s also a good time to find the elite men, too.

The team vans are all parked on the neighborhood roads, in parking lots – all over the place. There is no police tape designed to keep people away. There are some lightly taped areas in front of the vans but not many. The crowd is not too bad, yet, and it’s easy to explore.

The first van we notice is Anna Marie Wurst’s. It’s obvious because her photo is plastered all over the van’s side panels. That’s normal. Any racer who is anyone has their own van with their photo and name on it. Her bikes are just sitting out, so I take a photo of her top-tube with her name on it. I think, “It looks my size.”

Belgian Cyclocross. Photo courtesy Don Haywood

Anna Marie comes out and jumps on her trainer and begins pedaling. I motion to her and point to the phone and she nods “OK.” I take the video and then say, “Good Luck, Anna Marie!” She looks up and flashes a million dollar (er- Euro) smile.

Nice!

The next van in line is her teammate’s – Inge Van Der Heijden. She’s now on her trainer, too. I’m a little braver and ask if she would say “Hello!” for the video. She agrees, smiles and says, Hello!” Her mechanic comes over and we have a little conversation. He’s very interested to know if Americans are fans. I point out that we are big fans and there are many of us in Northern Colorado. I also tell him that if he can get the 777 team to come over for our big race – Cross of the North – I promise to provide all the power bars they can eat. He actually laughed.

Inge Van Der Heijden. Belgian Cyclocross. Photo courtesy Don Haywood

We do more wandering. Unexpectedly, we see Michael Vanthourenhoute pedaling his bike through the team van parking area. We follow and he stops at Eli Iserbyt’s van and goes inside. A few seconds later, they both exit. Naturally, we ask for a selfie.

“Sure.”

The photo is taken, and they pedal off.

Selfie with Eli Iserbyt and Michael Vanthourenhout. Belgian Cyclocross. Photo courtesy Don Haywood

We’re pretty amazed.

We are big fans.

But then, it gets better.

We find Sanne Cant’s van. She’s Peter’s favorite female pro so we decide to hang out for a while and see if she’s around. Her van, besides having her photo on it, also has a long list of the many championships she has won in her career. It’s impressive. Her mechanic is going through all the pre-race things a mechanic does. There must be five bikes. And they all look like they would fit me.

A selfie with Sanne Cant. Belgian Cyclocross. Photo courtesy Don Haywood

After about 15 minutes we decide that we should move on. We don’t want to be seen as stalkers.

Two vans down from Cant’s van is Puck Pieterse. We’re pretty sure she is inside her team van because we’ve watched a young lady ask the mechanic if he’d be kind enough to ask Puck to sign a photo. He disappears inside the van and a few minutes later returns and hands the signed picture back to the girl. She smiles widely and walks off.

Sure enough, the van door opens and it’s Puck. Kathleen asks politely for a selfie. Puck enthusiastically runs over and puts herself in the middle of us, wraps her arms around everyone and smiles honestly. I start to take a video of the affair. Kathleen begins to take the selfie and then decides the left side isn’t quite right. So, she asks, “Can we move over there where I can take it from the other side?”

Puck nods yes, ducks under some tape, and follows Kathleen to a better area. The selfie is snapped. Meanwhile, I’m still videoing the whole thing and, after the selfie shoot, I ask Puck if she might wave to the camera while saying “Hello, Colorado!”

Puck Pieterse. Belgian Cyclocross. Photo courtesy Don Haywood

Now, this is kind of a running joke between us. Every time we see Puck on EuroSports/GCN, when they are showing the frontline CX racers, Puck will always, always, wave to the camera. So, getting her to do the same for our video would be really fun.

Puck listens to my question, flashes a big smile and then waves and says the line. She is SO personable.

We then notice some activity over by Sanne Cant’s van. We walk over and there she is. And there, also, is her kid. She’s holding an infant and talking to some people. Sanne Cant has a kid??? Yes, indeed. Who knew?

Sanne Cant and Her Infant. Belgian Cyclocross. Photo courtesy Don Haywood

Just as patient and polite as the others, it’s no surprise that Sanne also grants us a selfie. She has been Peter’s favorite for years and I have never seen him smile quite so broadly. So, no surprise, we get a selfie with her. She’s seems really nice, too.


We decide it’s time to stake our place at the race. The Juniors are nearly finished and it’ll be time for the women to begin racing soon.

While walking to the entrance, we pass the Jumbo-Visma van of Wout van Aert. It’s mobbed with fans standing around trying to get a photo or, really, anything. The Jumbo-Visma staff are passing out Wout’s autographed photos. We decide it isn’t worth the effort (we’re spoiled by now) and continue to the entrance. On the way, though, we notice a lone cyclist picking his way through the ever-growing crowd. It’s Mathieu Van der Poel. We’re not sure where he is going but he rides slowly past us, carefully avoiding the mob of pedestrians who are also working their way towards the entrance. No one else seems to even be aware of him. Or, maybe it’s because he’s Dutch and not a Belgian favorite and they are ignoring him. Or maybe the fans are used to this casual intermingling with the athletes.

By now, we are, too. We’re big fans.

Then, another cyclist happens by. This time, it’s a crowd favorite – the Costa Rican champion, Felipe Nystrom. He finishes in the rear of the pack and often gets pulled before the last lap but he makes up for it with his golden personality and positive attitude. He’s better than 95% of everyone who does CX worldwide, though. We identify a lot with him because his goal is not to get lapped – just like us.

Felipe Nystrom. Belgian Cyclocross. Photo courtesy Don Haywood

We first saw and met Felipe while at the World’s in Arkansas. Since we have been in Belgium, we’ve already had a few encounters with him as he attends almost all of the races. At the last race, he was one of the few pros who could actually make it up the wicked steep, long hill without dismounting. The whole crowd were encouraging him each lap. Everyone chanted his name as he struggled up the incline. Each time he reached the top, a hearty cheer always erupted. On his third lap, though, he rolled a tire in the corner below the hill, ending his race.

 “Felipe!”

He sees us and pedals over. “What happened last race? You were doing so well?” I ask.

He furrows his brow and goes on to explain how he rolled a tire and, since he’s self supporting, he didn’t have a spare wheel and no one would loan him one. And, he explains, he may need to leave early because he’s working remotely and his work may require him to be home. We express our heartfelt remorse over his situation, talk for a little while longer and then part.

On the way to the entrance we discuss his situation – how he’s such a great guy, how any wheel manufacturer would kill to get the coverage he gets – since he is often featured on Eurosport and GCN as the Costa Rican Champion. We decide that, maybe, we might be able to help out.

After all, we’re big fans.


We arrive at the entrance, scan in our phone tickets and walk through.

First things first, now. We need to buy our food and beverage debit cards. At most races, you can’t buy anything without the vendor’s debit card. We usually load ours with about fifty Euros. That’s enough for a few beers and at least one load of Frites covered in the ubiquitous Pauwels sauce for each of us. Yummm!

Kathleen, Don, and Peter enjoying Pauwels Sauce and Frites. Belgian Cyclocross. Photo courtesy Don Haywood

By now the party tent is already going full blast, pumping out techno beats and plastic cups full of Jupiler beer. It’s a full-sized event tent with a wooden dance floor and a DJ “spinning” everything from the latest dance music to traditional Belgian sing alongs. Beer is everywhere (this IS Belgium). The party goes until at least 9pm – long after the actual racing is finished.

Inside the party tent watching Belgian Cyclocross. Photo courtesy Don Haywood

We check the course map and explore the venue, finally deciding to plant ourselves on the big hill, next to the giant, yellow, inflatable duck. We pick that spot because it’s on the toughest hill and also right near one of the TV cameras. We have learned that to get on the TV, so our friends can see us, we need to be directly in the line of sight of the cameras. Better, we should pick a spot next to a big sponsor’s ad. Even better, stand next to some cute kids. Cameras love cute kids.

Kathleen and the Big Duck! Belgian Cyclocross. Photo courtesy Don Haywood

About the race course(s). I will never, ever knock one of our local CX venues again. I have been known to accuse the organizers of creating a course better suited for mountain bikes than CX bikes.

But, the truth is, those courses – compared to the ones in Belgium – are wimpy. The Belgian courses are a million times harder. It’s impossible to see that truth on TV. The 2D camera image flattens the terrain and conceals how steep and technical these courses really are. The hills are wicked, the off cambers are impossible and everything else, even the “easy” places, are ALL harder than anything we race on.

Even steeper hills! Belgian Cyclocross. Photo courtesy Don Haywood

There’s some time between the end of the last race and the beginning of the next and the elite racers are taking a few final warm-up laps.

We watch Pidcock try to dial in one section over and over and fail. We see Wout fall down the off camber and then sit back to watch how the other riders deal with it. And there is Ceylin del Carmen Alverado standing at a tricky corner checking out the best line. She’s carrying on a conversation with the crowd and, it turns out, with my wife who is asking for a selfie. Alverado explains she’s warming up but if we come by later, she’ll pose for us. She gladly does so later.

We’re big fans.

Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado. Belgian Cyclocross. Photo courtesy Don Haywood

Of course, the racing is spectacular. The beer is great and the frits are yummy. We get on TV. We know that because our friends text us so. Also, in our apartment back in Antwerp, we cast Eurosport and watch the race again. That way, we can watch the race from start to finish and see what happened on the other parts of the course not visible from our viewing location. We are also checking if our giant foam finger waving and duck hats are caught by the TV cameras so we can spy ourselves in the crowd.


What a great time! It’s hard to imagine it getting any better.

We are walking back after the race, cutting across the course, making a bee-line for the exit through an open field with hardly anyone else around. Kathleen is about five meters ahead of Peter and me. She wants to be sure that we get on the earlier train. Peter is just behind me. I lift the course tape up for him, he passes under it, turns around, grabs the tape and lifts it up for the next person.

“Here you go, Fem,” he offers reflexively.

“Thanks” and Fem van Empel pushes her bike under the tape and walks past him and me.

(Peter later explained that when he saw Fem the words just came out automatically – much to his own surprise).

She’s covered head to toe in all black, warm stuff with just a small Jumbo-Visma logo on it. Her bike is a snazzy one, though. I do not realize it is her until Peter taps me on the shoulder and tells me.

“That’s Fem!”

A selfie with Fem van Empel. Belgian Cyclocross. Photo courtesy Don Haywood

She walking with another lady and carrying on a conversation.

My wife, Kathleen, is a little impatient and looks back to see what’s taking us so long.

We don’t want to attract the attention of other people and, besides, it would be pretty rude to shout out, “Look! It’s Fem.”

So, we start gesturing hard and mouthing “Fem.”

Kathleen, at first, has a very quizzical look on her face. Suddenly, though, she recognizes Fem and waits for her. Naturally, she asks her for a selfie. Naturally, Fem agrees.

We all line up and the selfie is taken. Fem hops onto her bike and pedals off.

We walk back towards the exit. Kathleen is talking to the lady who was with Fem.

At some point Kathleen asks, “So – what’s your association with Fem?”

The lady pauses for a second and then explains, “Well, I’m her mom.”

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

We’ve already booked to Belgium for next winter’s kerstperiode.

We’re big fans.

Kathleen Strong, Don Haywood, and Peter Streve enjoying some Belgian Beer. Belgian Cyclocross. Photo courtesy Don Haywood

 

(Visited 332 times, 1 visits today)