KOKSIJDE, Belgium (VN) — Anyone who has paid attention to European cyclocross this season could not have missed him, with his long, dark curls and unmistakable mustache, looking more street-corner busker than Superprestige contender.
Indeed, Alexander Revell may be the most recognized ’crosser in Belgium outside of the handful of locals who scoop up every podium place on offer.
At Saturday’s race in Koksijde, the 27-year-old New Zealander had his first chance to show off what two months of racing among the best in the world have taught him as he made his first appearance on the World Cup stage, riding to a respectable 47th place —ahead of countryman Angus Edmond — on one of the most demanding circuits in the sport.
Revell is not the first outsider to find himself deep inside Belgian cyclocross. In 2004, as part of the Flemish reality show “Allez Allez Zimbabwe,” former cyclocross world champion Roger De Vlaeminck helped bring a group of young Zimbabweans to Belgium to race cyclocross. And in 2009 a team of Mongolians raced a complete season in Belgium.
But Revell is unique in the enthusiastic following that he and his mustache have earned. The cheering that follows him around the course every weekend is deafening, overshadowing all but the tidal wave of sound that follows the hugely popular Belgian champion Sven Nys.
“I don’t think it would be possible to have anticipated the reception I’ve gotten,” says Revell, whose warm and engaging personality off the bike has not hurt his standing among the fans who flock to chat with him and buy the merchandise he and his team hope will help pay for a trip to Louisville and ’cross worlds this winter.
“It’s so surreal. Everywhere now, just practicing on the course it’s as loud as during the race. During the races it’s just incredible, I could never have predicted it. And it’s also been so helpful. The cheering and that is great during the race, but people have offered so much support. I’ve got a team, people helping out as mechanics, and all that basically because I have a mustache that people like.”
Revell found his way into competitive cycling just four years ago, after twice being hit by cars while working as a cycle courier in Wellington. After rehabbing his injuries, he started helping out in a bike shop, fell in love with mountain biking, and then rode a wave of rising popularity for cyclocross in New Zealand to a second place in this year’s national championship race.
Buoyed by that success, he packed his bags for Belgium.
“I came over here without very much because I was working as much as I could, trying to train, trying to save for the airfare, and hoping to have enough a bit of a buffer for living here, so I couldn’t spend anything else on equipment,” he says. “I didn’t get any sponsorship offers in New Zealand, despite trying quite hard. So coming over here I just had an optimistic mindset, kind of hoping for the best, and it’s just worked out.”
Indeed, Revell did his first major race at the Superprestige kickoff in Ruddervoorde in early October with almost no real support, after which his popularity exploded. He has been visited by Belgian TV and media crews, and has more and better equipment.
And, most important, he has been earning start money for his race appearances, reducing the financial burdens of living abroad. The experience, he says, has far exceeded what he imagined.
“It’s been a huge learning curve,” Revell says, referring as much to the demands of training, recovery, organization, and race preparation as the races themselves.
“Everything is so much more aggressive, so much faster. The courses are more difficult and so it’s just that much harder to do everything. Everything is just so much more magnified when you’re here, the noise of the fans and the whole culture around cyclocross is such a big part of their life. It’s such a big sport and gets so much attention, so all that is just so new to me, that I can’t help just being amazed when I come out to these races.”
Boosted by his improving skills and form, Revell will race all but one of the remaining rounds of the World Cup. And he hopes to represent New Zealand in Louisville in February.
“My main goal was just to finish one of these races, which I kind of didn’t expect to be able to do before I came,” he says, smiling genuinely as he adds: “I finished on the lead lap in Dottignies, and that was great. So I’ve had to reassess a bit.
“I’m really, really excited about the World Cups and I’m going to the world champs too. I just need to sort out the minor details of paying for it.”
Editor’s note: Revell’s fans can follow his Belgian exploits in detail on his blog, Zander’s Flanders.