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.
BRUSSELS, Belgium (VN) — With cold temperatures and precipitation in the forecast for much of Belgium, the weekend of cyclocross racing ahead could be especially interesting. If the cold is deep enough, we could see the first snowy races of the season.
Saturday’s race, one of the unofficial series of Soudal Classics, is Scheldecross, on a course that incorporates grassy parkland and a sandy beach, just across the Schelde River from the northern city of Antwerp. The relatively sandy soil means that even in bad weather the race is unlikely to be especially muddy, but at the same time, the sand is not nearly as difficult as the dunes in Koksijde, so the advantage of a good sand rider like Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) is somewhat diminished. Nonetheless, Scheldecross may offer the best opportunity in the next few weeks for Albert — or anyone else — to break Sven Nys’ (Landbouwkrediet-Euphony) six-week streak of near-total domination. But Nys is no slouch in the sand, and, on a fast and probably frozen course, a number of other riders may sense an opportunity as well. If Albert wants to claim his first win in nearly a month, he’ll have to fight off stiff competition from Kevin Pauwels and Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor), Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea), and plenty of others.
Sunday’s race in Overijse, a small town just south of the Belgian capital of Brussels, is the polar opposite of the flat, fast race in Antwerp. While Scheldecross has a relatively short history, the race in Overijse goes back more than 50 years to its first edition in 1960. More importantly, the race features several difficult climbs and more than one dangerous, high-speed descent. In wet conditions mud abounds, but if it snows, the race may turn out to be one of the most exciting of this season.
The course, both physically demanding and technical, surely favors Nys again, but Albert, Pauwels, Vantornout, and Bart Wellens (Telenet) have each won in Overijse as well, and with Nys more or less wearing a target on his back, this weekend might just turn out to be a turning point in the season.
Both Saturday and Sunday’s races also feature opportunities for women as well. American champion Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective), who will base herself in Europe for most of the next month, is the clear favorite as long as Marianne Vos (Rabobank) is still training in South Africa. But Compton will face challengers including British standouts Helen Wyman (Kona) and Nikki Harris (Telenet). But Belgian Sanne Cant continues to recover from her serious fall in Roubaix and Dutchwoman Sophie De Boer is taking time off to recover from respiratory problems, so this weekend may also present an opportunity for an up-and-coming rider to step into a power vacuum at the top of the sport, so watch out for riders like Gabby Day (Rapha-Focus), Pavla Havlikova and Amy Dombroski (Telenet), each of whom would love to score a big result while there’s an opening.
Now let’s take a look at one of your questions.
Inside the camper vans
Two words: camper vans. Tell us about the rigs of the Euro pros.
—Jon in Colorado
One of the questions that has come up in nearly every post-race press conference since the season started is how the Europeans are going to handle being without their huge support networks when they travel to the United States for worlds. It’s not just camper vans; Sven Nys travels with a fleet of vehicles: the huge, well-appointed mobile home where he prepares for races, a Landbouwkrediet team truck with mechanical supplies, a truck selling his Nys-branded clothing, and vehicles and tents for VIPs invited by the team to the race. Most teams travel with a similar support entourage.
Among the top racers in Europe, almost everyone has an RV. Sven Nys and Niels Albert both travel with bus-sized, ultra-luxury mobile homes, well appointed with dramatic lighting, flat panel TVs, and comfortable living spaces. Jonathan Page comes to races with a more modest rig, more like a family camper than a home away from home. But it gives him a warm place to get changed, a private space to shower after the race, and a place for his family — who often accompany him to races — to hang out when the weather is miserable.
The big advantage of the camper van is how much it helps simplify the process of getting ready for a race. For example, Albert, like a lot of European racers, likes to eat a big plate of pasta a couple of hours before a race. In his mobile home, which has a full stovetop and a comfortable dining area, that’s no problem.
Amy Dombroski, whose move to Telenet this season earned her access to the mobile home shared by the four women on the team told me that it’s not necessarily the big things that translate to success during a race.
“We have the shower, we have a toilet. So you don’t have to get on your bike and ride a few hundred meters to find a toilet when you need it,” she said in an interview earlier this month. “All of those little details make a huge difference. Getting changed in a proper space, a place to get warm before the race, are so important. You can’t really get in your car and stay warm. I remember so many times I’d be cranking the heat and just be shivering in the front seat. It definitely makes a difference.”
But here’s the thing. Nys can afford more or less whatever he thinks will make him faster, and he has backed up the investments he and his team have made with real results. Jonathan Page’s camper van allows him to race and still, as much as it’s possible for a professional cyclist, be a dad to his three kids, something that he values at least as much as — if not more than — success on the bike. But there’s something to be said for the self reliance gained from working on your own bikes, and the dogged determination that takes hold when you have to get ready for a race in the back of your car when it’s 35 degrees outside and raining sideways.
Just as technology trickles down from the pros to the amateurs, the mobile home phenomenon seems to be trickling down in the same way. More and more I see young racers, 12 years old, maybe younger, showing up for local events in big mobile homes with their names plastered all over them. And, even though most of those campers double as the family vacation vehicle, it’s hard to look at them and not wonder if, in treating their kids like professional bike racers, the parents who make this possible haven’t cut their kids off from a different, and much more important, kind of growth and development.
Then again, I’m getting ready for the masters race in the back of a Volkswagen Polo in the pouring rain. maybe I’m just a little jealous.