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. Emails to this address were being bounced earlier this fall, so if you tried to email and didn’t hear back, please do try again.
BRUSSELS (VN) — The moment ‘cross fans have been waiting for has finally arrived: Kerstperiode is here.
The holiday season, which offers no less than eight races over the next two weeks in Belgium alone, kicked off Wednesday with the GP De Ster in Sint-Niklaas, not far from Antwerp in northern Belgium. Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet-Euphony) — whose dominance in 2012 has become so predictable it hardly warrants a shrug of the shoulders — took the win, two seconds ahead of Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus), but the race was more notable for the return of former world champion Lars Boom (Rabobank). Boom finished 13th, but will contend two more races, in Surhuisterveen, in the Netherlands, at the end of the Kerstperiode, and the Dutch national championships, and is surely among the favorites in both.
Boom’s return to cyclocross is the first of several. On Saturday, two-time world champ Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) makes his first appearance in a real race this season at the bpost Bank Trofee race in Essen. He will skip Sunday’s Namur World Cup, but will race every remaining opportunity the following week, starting with the Zolder World Cup on Wednesday. Stybar told the press that he has not trained at all for cyclocross this season, so exactly what form he has remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the return of world champion Marianne Vos (Rabobank) will shake up women’s racing. Vos is on the startlist for Sunday’s World Cup in Namur and will race the remainder of the season in earnest. Vos is likely the biggest threat to the dominance of American Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective), who will remain based in Europe, focused on winning the World Cup overall, which she leads, for the next few weeks. Women’s ‘cross — already in the midst of the most dynamic season in years — is about to get even more exciting.
American fans in particular have much to look forward to, with a large number of riders making the trip to Europe this winter. The list is simply too long to print in its entirety, but Belgium-based Jonathan Page, Amy Dombroski (Telenet-Fidea) and Christine Vardaros (Baboco) will welcome Jeremy Powers and Zach McDonald (Rapha-Focus), Tim Johnson and Kaitlin Antonneau (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com), Meredith Miller (Cal Giant-Specialized), Maureen Bruno Roy (Bob’s Red Mill-Seven), Nicole Duke (Alchemy), Crystal Anthony (Cyclocrossworld.com), Logan Owen (Redline), the participants of the EuroCrossCamp, and many others.
There is plenty of action headed your way, so stay tuned! Now, before we get to your questions, I want to briefly follow up on last week’s column, which triggered a big response from readers.
More on masters, amateur racing in Belgium
Several people asked for more information on how they too might try out a Belgian race, so I wanted to share two useful websites. First, if you’re trying to track down a race to do, the website belgiancyclingselection.be keeps a calendar of both road and cyclocross races for masters and amateur riders. (Be aware, however, that the masters category is more strictly regulated here in Belgium; if your racing license says “Elite,” you will probably not be allowed to participate in masters races.) Once you find your race, thechainstay.com’s Belgium Racing Guide provides a compendium of useful information on how to have a successful trip.
Now, how about a reader question?
The bucket list
I’ve never been to Belgium, or Europe for that matter, but attending a quintessential Belgian CX race is on my bucket list. I’d like the full experience, including rabid fans, frites, beer gardens, a cool small village, etc. If you could attend only one big race, which one would you suggest, and why?
—Rob in North Carolina
This is one of the more difficult questions I’ve answered this year, if only because the options are both so diverse and so plentiful. But I thought about it myself — and took a small, informal poll of some local ’cross fans — and the consensus view was that if you can only go to one race, it should be the Koppenbergcross.
Why? First, it’s a cyclocross race on one of the most legendary climbs in Belgium! Second, the hillside course is visually stunning, but also open enough that you can, in places, see more than just what’s right in front of you. Third, the combination of enormous crowds, a demanding course, and a good dose of mud translate to some very exciting racing. Additionally, Oudenaarde, just down the road from the finish line, is a nice little town and, notably, home to the Ronde van Vlaanderen Museum the starting points for several well-marked cycling routes that take you over some of the most storied terrain in cycling history.
Now, if you can stay long enough to make it to more than one race, I’d recommend coming during Kerstperiode, which, as I noted above, features races in plentiful variety. Careful planning could net you six or seven races in less than 10 days, including — at least this year — a massively demanding World Cup round in Namur, the classic World Cup on the Circuit Zolder Formula One track, an urban night race in Diegem, on the outskirts of Brussels, and Sven Nys’ home race in Baal, which is always a spectacularly muddy affair no matter what the weather. And that’s barely half of the races on offer.
But the Koppenberg and Kerstperiode are both obvious answers, so here’s one you probably haven’t thought of, just in case you should find yourself in Belgium towards the end of February. The final bpost Bank Trofee race, in Oostmalle, is a hidden gem. The semi-wooded course is interesting and many locations offer multiple views of the racers within a single lap. And, as the last real race the season, there is a party atmosphere among fans and racers alike. (Last year most of the women’s field honored retiring racer Daphny Van Den Brand by starting the race in her trademark braids.) Spring is often in the air after the long, dark and grey Belgian winter, and if the sun breaks through the clouds, you can almost feel everybody breathe a collective sigh of relief at its return to the sky. The end of February isn’t a time most of us are accustomed to thinking about cyclocross, but it’s a great time for a race and, if the opportunity arises, I highly recommend taking advantage.