Editor’s Note: Dan Seaton has been literally crawling through the Belgian mud covering European cyclocross since 2008. Each week this season he’ll look ahead to the weekend’s races and answer your questions about ’cross on the other side of the Atlantic. Got a question for your favorite Euro star? Want to know the inside story about the legendary Flemish fields? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This weekend will be a study in contrast for European cyclocrossers, with two races that could hardly be more different. On Saturday, they’ll head to Hasselt, a medium-sized city in far eastern Flanders well known for two major ’cross races in Saturday’s third round of the bpost Bank Trofee and the season-ending indoor spectacle in February. The Hasselt track is fast, flat and not extremely selective, and has been the site of close contests in recent years. The sharp final turn, not much more than 100 meters out on the road, could play a decisive role in determining the winner in a close race.
However, with the series decided on time this year, a rider that can get a gap will go all out to boost his overall time. While Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) leads the series, 54 seconds ahead of Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet-Euphony), and 2:17 ahead of Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor), this is a course that suits Pauwels perfectly, as he showed in a narrow win over then-world champion Zdenek Stybar last year. With the disappointment of a poor showing at Sunweb’s own race in Hamme-Zogge last weekend still lingering, watch for Pauwels to try and light up the track.
On Sunday, the sport crosses most of Belgium and heads to Gavere for the fourth round of the Hansgrohe Superprestige series and a race that, thanks to it 30-year history and dramatic, wooded, hillside course, has become a monument of cyclocross. Early position is incredibly important on the difficult course, especially because the race plunges down a steep and often very muddy descent just moments after the gun goes off. Though Pauwels won last year, the race belongs to Nys, who has seven victories on the course and will undoubtedly be looking to extend his unbeaten streak in Superprestige races this year. But he’ll have to watch out, especially for the tenacious Albert, who has also excelled on some of the season’s most demanding courses and who trails Nys by only three points in the series standings.
Both races might provide us with more insight into the real answer to our first question this week.
Sven versus Niels
What’s the dynamic between Sven Nys and Niels Albert? I saw some elbows and pushing in recent races. Are these guys friendly or are they enemies?
— David in Quebec
Though the two have had their ups and downs — especially during Albert’s first turn as world champion in 2009 — the dynamic is definitely one of respect. Albert admitted after winning his second world title in Koksijde in January that he may have once poured fuel on the fire of rivalry, but added, “In the last years I’ve gotten a little bit older, a little more relaxed, my mouth has been a little smaller. I have respect for every rider.” That includes Nys.
Belgium’s two best riders, in fact, are also nearly neighbors. Albert lives in Tremelo, a little northeast of Brussels, and barely a kilometer from Nys in Baal. Proximity, time, and a lot of racing have helped them find common ground, and though they still race furiously — as in the combative duel in Zonhoven a couple of weekends ago — in my experience they are friendly off the bike.
Best mud rubber
What’s the best non-Dugast mud tubular? Fango? Limus? Clement PDX? I don’t want to deal with sealing casing.
— Simon (via Twitter)
This isn’t an easy question to answer, especially since sponsorship obligations make it difficult to get a completely honest answer out of the people who know tires the best: the racers. It is certainly true, however, that Dugast remains king in Europe. Even riders who are officially supported by a competitor often appear riding on rebadged Dugasts.
That said, you might just be in luck. As VeloNews contributor Michael Robson wrote just a few days ago, Dugast is releasing some great new products and, even better, has been factory sealing their casings on new tires. I saw what appeared to be the very tire that Michael wrote about on Niels Albert’s bike post-race in Hamme-Zogge.
But behind Dugast come legions of worthy competitors. I’ve had great success with Challenge’s Limus tires in my own — decidedly amateur — efforts in some of Belgium’s sloppiest mud this season. Technical editor Caley Fretz wrote about his good experience with both the Limus and the Specialized Terra last year. And I’ve even seen the PDX on a couple of European pro bikes this season.
So while I can’t really recommend a specific tire for you, I can say that the options appear to be as good and as broad as ever. There are so many great products out there now, it would be hard to go wrong.
British World Cup
What do you think it would take to bring a World Cup race or alike to the U.K.?
— Paul in London
Since its inception, the World Cup has really only been contested in a handful of countries and cities — with Belgium hosting the vast majority — so I think it would be great to see some new locales and venues. And, indeed, in hosting some fantastic Olympic bike races this summer and, more recently, the European Cyclocross Championships, the U.K. has certainly shown that it has what it takes technically.
But having the organization is only a small part of winning a major event like the World Cup. So I put your question to Joan Hanscom, who pulled off perhaps the biggest coup in the history of cyclocross by helping to bring the world championships to the U.S. this winter. Here’s what she had to say:
The most simple answer is funding. The World Cup is an incredibly expensive proposition and without guaranteed participation is reasonably high risk. Obviously you’d have to have a proven track (record) as well and a venue that can handle the size and scope of the event to UCI World Cup standards. But if you have proper funding everything gets a lot more manageable. There is a whole bidding process that a promoter would have to go through as well.
And it’s impossible to understate the importance of funding. Kalmthout, which for many years was a mainstay of the World Cup circuit was done in by back-to-back race day snowstorms — an incredible rarity in Belgium — in 2009 and 2010 that depressed attendance and, as a result, pretty well bankrupted the race. After two years of trying to operate independently at the beginning of the season without turning big profits, it seems the race very well may be finished for the foreseeable future.
That said, if a promoter in the U.K. put together a serious bid, I have no doubt that the local fans — who pour across the Channel in droves for Belgian races, especially near the coast — would be ecstatic. And, if reports from the European championships in Ipswich are any indication, the U.K. would put on a fine show.