Freewheeling: Racing Amateur Cyclocross in Belgium

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The Flemish word for cyclocross is “veldrijden,” which when broken into its parts — “veld” and “rijden” — means “field ride.” This race certainly lived up to that billing.

Editor’s Note: Freewheeling is the ongoing column of features editor Jason Sumner. From time to time, he uses this space to prattle on about all things cycling, be them interesting, innovative, inane, or in this case, humbling. If you have a comment or question, or just want to sound off, drop a note in the comments section below.

It’s a cold Saturday morning in mid January. My friend Anthony and I are lost somewhere in the endless rural flatness that is West Flanders — Belgium’s equivalent of Midwest farm country.

A steady drizzle is causing the car windows to fog up. We can barely see the road in front of us. Then it appears, a small sign planted low on the right side of the road. Its one-word message plus an indicator arrow provide relief. Finally, we’re getting close. After prepping for months, flying across the Atlantic Ocean, and then stumbling around this sparsely-populated land that smells distinctly of manure, we’ve found what we came for: Cyclocross.

And no, not cyclocross like the kind where rabid Belgian fans show up to drink beer, eat frites, and yell, while men like Sven Nys and Niels Albert defy the laws of physics, traveling through mud faster than most of us pedal on pavement. Our destination is a small amateur cyclocross race where we’ll be the ones traveling through mud — at a much slower rate.

Like a pair of amateur hoops aficionados visiting New York City’s Rucker Park, or a wannabe ski racer staring down Kitzbuhel’s Hahnenkamm, we’ve made a pilgrimage to the motherland: Belgium, where cyclocross is king.

Indeed, 12 of the last 16 elite men’s world champions hail from this tiny country that’s population is slightly less than Ohio, and land mass is just a shade bigger than Massachusetts. Yet somehow, the Lion of Flanders continues to roar when summer turns to fall, and the roads of France give way to the bogs of Benelux.

Left: Destination found. Right: No unpaid registration table volunteers here. These guys meant business.

Our goal is to see, taste, feel and smell cyclocross at the source, here in Belgium, where the country’s best athletes don’t pick up basketballs or baseball bats in their youth. They ride bikes. In the rain. In the wind. In the mud. On days like today. Shitty, cold, wet days. Days perfect for cyclocross.

The frustration of being lost quickly fades, replaced by the jitters of pre-race nervousness. I think back to an email forwarded from a friend during the lead-up to our trip. He’d made a similar journey the year before. “Be aware,” he advised. “The categories don’t really match up well with what we are used to in the U.S. A, B, and C have nothing to do with speed or skill. All the races are fast. Even in the master’s categories.”

This wasn’t exactly good news. I’d started the season as a cat. 4, and only recently upgraded to a 3. And that was more than a month ago. I tried to train through the void between then and now. But that’s tough when holidays and snow and ski season get in the way.

The author’s three-race slate in Belgium included the Master’s world championships in Mol where the course was punctuated by several long sand sections.

Ten minutes after spotting the “cyclocross-this-way” sign, we were inside the community hall in the small town of Langemark. If I had to guess the population, I’d say 2,000. If I had to guess the primary industry, I’d say farming. At least that’s what the smell indicated.

In the farthest back room of what amounted to a VFW was race registration. Several older men in collared shirts and ties sat in front of laptops, ready to collect 10 euros and pass out a reusable number. No pinning on paper here. Instead race numbers are printed on reusable plastic that’s emblazoned with “Het Laatste Nieuws” Belgium’s version of USA Today. It means, “The Latest News.” That’s about all the Flemish I know. Bring your number back after the race and you get half your entry fee back.

Race categories are based on age, not skill. Anthony’s race is later in the day against a group of fellow 30-35-year-olds. I’m up first in the 40-45’s. “You can change in the building next to the frites,” advised one of the blue-shirted men, pointing. “Over there, across the street.”

This building, I soon discovered, was not so much a building as a primitive stone shed. There was no door, just a thick brown plastic curtain, which did a poor job of stopping the wind and cold from slipping inside. I imagined its normal residents are farm tools, but on that day this dirt-floored enclosure doubled as a locker room, its occupants about a half dozen male ‘cross racers in various states of undress.

Some had just finished competing and were wiping mud off tired legs. Others prepared for the elements, lathering up with pungent embrocation cream. There were no sinks or showers. Instead an old oil drum filled with water and placed over a heating flame served as the sink. Some racers dipped towels into the warm water. Others had brought plastic dish washing tubs that they filled up, carrying it back to their folding chair where they could sit and clean up. I didn’t have a towel, a tub or a chair, and instead wobbled around in a corner, trying to pull on my knee warmers over my shoes without falling over.

About the author: Jason Sumner

An avid cyclist, Jason Sumner has been writing about two-wheeled pursuits of all kinds since 1999. He’s covered the Tour de France, the Olympic Games, and dozens of other international cycling events. He also likes to throw himself into the fray, penning first-person accounts of cycling adventures all over the globe. Sumner, who joined the / staff in 2013, has also done extensive gear testing and is the author of the cycling guide book "75 Classic Rides: Colorado." When not writing or riding, the native Coloradoan can be found enjoying time with his wife Lisa and daughter Cora.

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  • Ron says:

    Nice writing about an interesting adventure. I grew up playing lacrosse and ice hockey in upstate NY. The soul of cross being in Belgium reminds me a lot of lacrosse; the sport is now growing all over the U.S., but there is just something inherent in the culture of certain spots where it has been played for years that makes it more serious, more a part of life, and generally, the players a higher caliber. If you scan the rosters at the NCAA Final Four it’s always NY, then MD, then maybe some NJ, MA, PA, and CT. Now a sprinkling of CA, OR, NC, TX, etc.

    When you start playing any sport as soon as you can walk, and then play daily with older brothers, that training just can’t be made up. This story makes me think of that, especially the fact you mention about the elite champions being almost exclusively Belgian.

    I picked up road cycling after a college lacrosse career, as a way to stay active and burn energy. Picked up cross just two years ago. I enjoy the fun of actually training in technical skills (remounts, barriers, etc.) instead of just the grind of road riding (fitness test!) but I know I’ll never, ever really be any good at cross. Thus, I do it for fun.

    Nice writing!

  • Jason Sumner says:

    Thanks, Ron. Hope your cross season is going well.

  • Bram says:

    As a belgian, it’s fun to see an impression of an outsider to this phenomnon. It’s a good thing this sport is getting international attention so it can evolve to a more attractive international spectacle, instead of a bunch of muddy belgians riding around on a field.

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