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 (VN) — The world championships may be over, but cyclocross isn’t. With two major series — the bpost Bank Trofee and the Hansgrohe Superprestige — still to be decided, hardcore ’cross fans don’t have to say goodbye to the mud just yet. When we last visited these two Belgian series, 2012 world champion Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) was pulling away from the rest of the field in the Trofee series with good rides in Loenhout and Baal and climbing to within striking distance of Sven Nys (Crelan-Euphony) in the Superprestige series with a win under the lights in Diegem.
This weekend we revisit both, with the penultimate round of each series. On Saturday the Trofee series returns with a sandy, lakeside race in Lille, in northeast Belgium. On Sunday it’s the Superprestige, in Hoogstraten, on the Dutch border, just a few kilometers due north of Lille.
At this time of the season, especially just days after a tough transfer back from North America, the races are especially hard to predict. Obviously Nys, the new world champion, will be motivated to deliver a good ride for the home fans, especially on Sunday where he can extend his five-point lead with a win. However, Albert could at least partially redeem his disappointing eighth-place ride at the worlds with a good finish, particularly if he can pull it off in Hoogstraten, where there is a chance to pull back a few of the points on Nys. (Albert’s nearly four-minute lead in the Trofee series, which is decided on cumulative time, is, barring a complete disaster, more or less insurmountable.)
Lille, on the other hand, is just down the street from Vorselaar, the home of Bart Wellens (Telenet-Fidea), who was fourth at worlds and already won a minor race in Maldegem on Wednesday. If Wellens’ form remains good and the near-home race provides inspiration, he could earn his first major series win since 2011 this weekend. Indeed, the final weeks of the season have provided fertile ground for good results by underdogs. Nonetheless, Nys said immediately after winning his world championship in Louisville that he was already thinking of the final races of the season. And I’d be very surprised if we don’t see him fighting for the win both on Saturday and Sunday.
Now, let’s turn to one of your questions.
On Saturday we saw two good races undone by mechanical problems, one for Jonathan Page and one for Kevin Pauwels, which got me thinking about the role of the mechanics in cyclocross. What can you tell us about who they are and what they do?
—Will in Pennsylvania
That’s not a simple question to answer, because different riders have very different relationships with their support teams. Some mechanics do everything, building and maintaining bikes throughout the season, while others are just race day support. Some of the best wrenches can act as coaches, managers, and support crew all at once, reading a rider’s race and making adjustments on the fly if they sense something is off in his or her performance. But, whatever the relationship, there’s no doubt it is a very important one, and we’ve seen how much it can hurt a rider when something goes wrong mechanically or logistically.
Remember, for example, Sven Nys’ 2010 season, where everything that could go wrong, mechanically and logistically, did? Just three examples: Nys nearly lost a race in Niel because his pit crew was not ready with a clean bike, had a pedal snap off during the sprint in Gieten, and crashed in the pits in Loenhout because his mechanic grabbed the bike a fraction of a second too early.
Despite those hiccups, Nys has stuck with his mechanic, a 70-year-old volunteer named Fons Wouters, for nearly two decades. Mistakes, he told the press, are inevitable during a career that has netted some 300 wins, but a trustworthy mechanic, one who understands your needs and can make quick, mid-race adjustments to a bike, is not so easy to find.
Jonathan Page has a similar relationship with his mechanic and friend, Franky Van Haesebroucke. Page says he does almost all his own wrenching outside of race day, maintaining bikes and gluing tires himself, with only occasional help from Van Haesebroucke, who also serves as European sport director for the Pro Continental Champion System team, when things get too busy for one person. The two have worked together nearly for Page’s entire professional career, and can communicate well enough for Van Haesebroucke to know when to make a mid-race tire pressure change or pull a bike that isn’t performing properly, even if there’s no time to actually talk about the problem. More than once a quick adjustment like that has helped boost Page to a top result.
This kind of relationship is pretty typical in pro cyclocross, where, just as in the amateur ranks, mechanics are often family members or close friends, are invariably volunteers, and are usually one of the racer’s most ardent supporters. More than once, for example, I’ve seen Marianne Vos’ father working the pits for her at a major race.
All this is to say that it’s difficult to point a finger at anybody for the mechanical troubles that derailed Page and Pauwels last weekend. Van Haesebroucke told me he had not built up Page’s brand new Fuji Altamira CX 1.0, but nonetheless felt personally responsible when things went wrong. Pauwels’ case is a little less clear, since it was the second time in as many races that a problem with a jammed chain ended his bid for a big race win. Was it a misadjustment by a mechanic who should have been aware of the potential for trouble after the first jam in the World Cup finale in Hoogerheide, Netherlands? Incidentally, a Shimano representative told VeloNews on Saturday that Pauwels was the only Di2 rider near the front of the race using a non-Shimano chain.
Regardless of what happened and why, you can bet that the person who took it hardest was probably Pauwels’ number one fan and supporter, his mechanic.