Belgian Life in the Pits

In addition to drinking Belgian beer and trying to understand what my Belgian soccer teammates are yelling at me on the pitch, I’ve been taking in as much cyclocross racing as possible over here. I recently had the opportunity to get really close to the action by providing technical support for a young American racing here. The following narrative is a web-only supplement to my article in the most recent issue of Bicycle Times, and it summarizes the rest of my ‘cross adventures in and around Belgium.

GVA GP Sven Nys
Baal, Belgium
01.01.2010

My GPS got us most of the way there. I knew the race was in Baal, but didn’t know where in Baal it was. Thankfully around twenty thousand other people were headed to the race. So we followed some of them, and kept an eye out for signs just in case the blind happened to be leading the blind.

But how could that happen, really? After all, not only does this race take place in the hometown of Belgian cyclocross icon Sven Nys…it also bears his name. Nys is arguably the most popular ‘cross personality in Belgium, so people flock to this race like Jupiler-clutching pilgrims ready for the onslaught of mud.

Mike, Erica and their 15-month old son Isaac were visiting us for a couple weeks. I’ve known Mike since his days racing for the Trek VW mountain bike team. He’s always been a huge ‘cross fan, and both he and Erica have raced for the VisitPA team back in the US for the last few years. Needless to say, they were excited to see as much Belgian-blooded cyclocross racing as possible.

Sven kills it in Baal. Photo by Jeff Lockwood

I hadn’t heard back from Brandon as to whether or not he needed my support for this race. As such, my plan was to prepare to work, but to also attend the race as a camera-wielding American fan.

As we walked down the street, which was lined with all the vans, campers and trucks of the athletes, I immediately noticed Gregg Germer‘s van and Brandon’s Specialized bikes leaning against it. Gregg was warming himself up in the driver’s seat. We talked a little bit, and he told me that he was able to cover Brandon for the race.

Jeffrey Bahnson takes the hand off. Photo by Jeff Lockwood

Jeff Bahnson a junior from Delaware, and pride of the Philadelphia area, was racing today atop his Van Dessel. Mike and I parked ourselves where he’d be forced to see us. His grin as he passed told us that he saw…and heard…us shouting encouragement. Jeffrey finished 10th on the day, while two other Americans finished in the top ten: Yannick Eckmann (2nd); Skyler Trujillo 7th. That’s some awesome results for Americans racing in Belgium!

Time for the U23 race. I got a call from Gregg asking me if I could grab him something to eat since he failed to eat enough breakfast, still needed to collect Brandon’s warm-up clothes and make it to the pits with everything. I got him a hot dog, and made my way to the pits. Interesting that nobody bothered to check my lack of credentials as I strolled into the pits.

Brandon’s bike and gear sat there, but Gregg was missing. The race had already begun so I sat the hot dog on top of my camera bag, grabbed Brandon’s bike and took position with it in case he came in for a switch. Fortunately, Gregg showed up after the first lap. I told him to eat and I’d take care of the job until he finished.

The course in Baal was an extremely muddy affair. Mike and I surmised that a lot of the course must be a motocross track at other times during the year. The greasy mud made the course insanely slippery. So slippery that Brandon lost control of his bike on the third lap and careened into the fence, breaking his carbon bars. His day was over.

Mike, Erica, Isaac and I sloshed through the mud as we walked all over the course, stopping at several amazing spots to watch the action of the men’s elite race. The course had some hairy sections, the most exciting of which was a long descent ending in a slight chicane of sorts through the trees. Watched a couple people lose control in the mud at the bottom of that one.

Niels Albert wasn’t much of a threat in this race, but there was some good racing between Nys and Stybar. Ultimately, Sven pulled out the win on his home turf in front of his home crowd in a race named after him.

Fidea Cyclocross
Tervuren, Belgium
01.03.2010

We skipped the race in St. Niklaas yesterday to warm up and wash off from the race in Baal. My trusty GPS got us down to Tervuren, a town just outside of Brussels for the Fidea race. This was to be my last day working the pits for Brandon. There were fewer spectators at today’s event, and a lot less mud, than in Baal. But a few inches of fresh snow and ice made reaching the race a bit of an adventure.

I wasn’t able to get access inside to find Brandon to get my credentials, but no big deal. I paid and we made our way towards the starting line to watch the women start. Once they took off, I headed down to the team trucks and vans to find Brandon.

Jonas and Christine photo by Marc Van Est

Jonas Bruffaerts and Christine Vardaros. Photo by Marc Van Est.

I found him as he was riding to the van of Christine Vardaros to unload all his gear. Christine, an American who now lives in Belgium, was out on the course racing the women’s elite race at the time, but she and her husband Jonas were going to provide pit help for Brandon in the men’s elite had I not shown up.

Brandon had some last minute running around and warming up to do before his race, so I hung back at the van. While I was waiting for him, I met up with Kevin Bookman…an American, and avid cyclist, living just south of Brussels. I had introduced myself to Kevin about a year and a half ago when I first learned I would be moving to Belgium. Kevin had gotten a tattoo of the comic book-like character from the cover of Dirt Rag #137. He sent an email to the office, and mentioned that he was an American living in Belgium. I made immediate contact, and over the course of the next few months Kevin proceeded to provide me with invaluable insight and information about living over here.

This was the first time I met him in person, and as soon as we finished shaking hands, he reached into his bag and produced a Dogfish Head 90-minute IPA all the way from Delaware, and a German heffe weizen. I had work to do, otherwise I would have cracked that Dogfish Head and had myself a little taste of home right on the spot!

As Kevin and I talked, Christine rolled up after the women’s race, and she was obviously in pain. Turns out she had cracked a rib in a race a few days before, but still went out and threw down today. I don’t know how she pushed through that pain, but she did. After a bit of talking with her and Jonas, I made my way down to the pits with Brandon’s bike and wheels.

Thankfully, Jonas and Christine came down to the pits to lend a hand if needed. Because, as has been my modus operandi as I passed myself off as a cyclocross mechanic the past few weeks, I had a technical issue with one of Brandon’s bikes that was a bit beyond my skill level. Thankfully, Jonas saw me bumbling a bit and came to my rescue. It still took him, Christine and myself about a lap and a half to get the bike to shift correctly so we could successfully hand it back to Brandon for his last lap.

We got back to the van of Christine and Jonas, and I threw back that 90-minute IPA like it was water. Man, that was a treat. We hung out for a bit and chatted while watching the last few laps of the Men’s Elite race. I said goodbye to Brandon, as this was his last race in Belgium. Mike, Erica, Isaac and I headed for home.

Lockwood makes the hand off to Brandon Mart while Christine Vardaros catches the discarded bike. Photo by Kevin Bookman.

Unfortunately, as soon as we came upon my car parked in the snowy, icy parking lot I noticed the driver’s side door was much more damaged than it had been before we went into the race. In fact, the door had not been damaged at all before the race. I guess snow, ice and drunk-driving cyclocross fans don’t mix well. Someone slid into the car quite nicely, moving it about six inches upon impact. They weren’t even nice enough to leave their contact info before leaving. Luckily the door opened and closed without problems.

Belgisch Kampioenschap Cyclocross 2010
Oostmalle, Belgium
01.10.2010

This is it, kids. The big one.

Many people…especially Belgians…consider the Belgian National Cyclocross Championships to be more important, more fun and bigger than the World Championships. In a country where cyclocross is nearly important as religion, those people might be right.

Oostmalle is only about 14 miles from our house here in the center of Antwerp. It was another cold and snowy day, so Mike, Erica, my wife Stacy and I put on a few extra layers and headed out. It didn’t take us too long to get there, despite one missed turn.

This weekend’s races were held, from what I could tell, at an old Belgian military base. Judging by the runway where everyone parked, I’m going to guess it was an air force base. Regardless…we got to the event sort of late, and we were forced to park at the business end of a one mile-long (at least) parking lot…the old runway. The temporary lot was filled with thousands of nicely-parked cars, despite the snow and ice making walking an absolute treacherous adventure.

It took us nearly 30 minutes to walk to the entrance of the race. Once we got there, I was stunned at how many spectators filled the woods, crowded the infield and lined the course. It was immediately obvious to me that there were more people here than I saw at the 2009 Cyclocross World Championships in The Netherlands less than a year ago. I’m guessing we were looking at 60,000 people.

This is some serious business.

I decided to leave the camera at home because I just wanted to go watch the racing and not worry about lugging camera gear all over. It was a wise choice that allowed me to run between several viewing spots throughout the race (we only made it in time for the showcase men’s elite race) and just enjoy the day. We perched ourselves at several prime watching spots in the woods, allowing us to get insanely close to the racers.

In fact, everyone was so close…and so drunk…that one of Niels Albert’s own supporters leaned a bit too far into the course and knocked him off the bike as he came past…crushing his chances for a Belgian championship, and cracking a rib in the process.

Aside from that, the racing today was absolutely fantastic. We were lucky to see some serious skill, determination and strategy. After falling…and dropping a few spots…Sven came back to throw down the hammer and earn the crown of Belgian Champion yet again.

After the slippery and cold trek back to the car, we made the executive decision to stop for dinner at Café Trappisten, which is essentially the café across the street from the Westmalle monastery and brewery. Aside from serving the freshest pours of my favorite beer in the world, they also cook up one of my favorite versions of macaroni and cheese…complete with Trappist cheese. Their rabbit stew is also out of this world.

UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup #9
Hoogerheide, The Netherlands
01.24.2010

None other than Chipps Chippendale and his buddy Stan from England drove down to Antwerp to stay with us for the weekend. Aside from sampling the beer and stoofvlees, Chipps and Stan got to take in a couple of ‘cross races. I joined them for the race on Sunday: the final UCI cyclocross race of the season, which was held in Hoogerheide, Holland…about 20 miles from my house.

We met up with James and Gareth, two buddies of mine from BigM…the English-speaking mountain bike club out of Brussels, of which I’m a member. My friend William also came down from Amsterdam to join in the festivities. We all had a few pintjes of beer, a couple gluhweins and enjoyed the racing.

That’s a cloud of fried food exhaust those people are riding through. Mmmmm…best in the world. Photo by Jeff Lockwood.

While the crowd at this event was the smallest out of any I’ve attended, it was still a party atmosphere and competitive as hell. One of the highlights for me (aside from the frites trailer blowing large clouds of fresh fried exhaust right onto the course) was the insanely steep and muddy run-up, down which a UCI-sanctioned photographer took a looong and animated tumble between races, much to the crowd’s audible delight.

Aside from that, Chipps did a nice little write-up of the weekend, and I’ll just link to his post right…about…here.

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