Roadside PEZ: Holy Week in Zolder!
The period from just before Christmas to New Year’s is the Holy Week of cyclocross in Belgium, with a flurry of races to whip up a last bit of form before the national champs and tapering for the Worlds. What better way to celebrate the holidays than to take the family to the races?
Since this is a special European year for us this year, I wanted to do something special for the family. Therefore, I planned a surprise and top-secret trip from Christmas Eve through Boxing Day. The big secret was going to Holten War Cemetery in north-east Netherlands, where 1395 Canadian soldiers from WW2, including Albert Joseph Buhlman – my wife’s great-uncle – are buried. Albert was a member of the Governor General’s Foot Guards who fought through Holland and northern Germany, and unfortunately was killed April 28, 1945, in the last 10 days of the war in Europe, at the ridiculous age of 21.
The Dutch love their Canadian liberators, and nowhere is this more evident than at Holten, where there is a huge candle-lighting ceremony at the immaculately maintained cemetery by the town’s schoolchildren. The Canadian ambassador to the Netherlands attended, and organizers were even kind enough to call Debbie and the boys up to light and place the first candle at Albert’s grave. A humbling and magical moment for us.
As luck would work out, after Christmas with our Dutch friends, the way home to Brussels on Boxing Day led us directly through Zolder, so what better excuse to end a fabulous trip than catching some World Cup cyclocross?
Jonathan Page doesn’t get enough props for living and breathing cross as a fulltime Euro every season. After a horrendous early season, he’s slowly making his way back to sniffing distance to the front of the pack.
Just as the pros pre-ride the course, it’s just as important for a fan to recon the course to get an idea of where the best viewing and photo spots might be. The best time for this is shortly after noon, in between the morning (often juniors or U23) and the first afternoon (usually U23 or Womens) race. That’s when the crowds are still sparse and the pros pre-ride multiple laps before a final warmup on the trainer, such as this AA Drinks rider dropping some tire pressure after a tricky hairpin.
Alternately, it’s also a good time to check out the riders’ trailers before the paparazzi descend when they actually start their final warmup. Here, Niels Albert’s mechanic gets very nose-y with the front end of his Stevens.
With Quick-Step swapping from Eddy Merckx to Specialized for 2012, Zdenek Stybar had to be a bit creative with some custom decal work on his frames. Here the Merckx logo is still visible beneath the “S” decal on the head tube. Let’s see, it’s originally a Ridley but painted with Merckx and now decalled up as a Stybar bike – got it?
In the never-ending one-upmanship of who’s got the sweetest camper rig, Steve Chainel of France won hands-down. Forget a little camper van, he managed to sneak the FDJ bus keys from Marc Madiot and had the entire team bus to himself!
At Hasselt and Druivencross, it was a running joke that I could never get a decent picture of Sven Nys. Either he was out of frame or else hopelessy fuzzy with my point and shoot, my cyclocross equivalent of Sasquatch/Bigfoot. But at last I got a reasonable one! I think the secret was that I didn’t get spooked because his white Colnago, which he rode to match his World Cup leaders kit rather than his black ones, fooled me into thinking it was one of his teammates!
Bart Wellens truly is a class act, remembering his visit and chat at the lab I’m visiting in Brussels. He saw me while in the midst of his warmup, and called me to duck under the crowd barriers and chatted with me and the family, telling his entourage, “it’s cool, he’s Canadian.”
My being a good luck charm with Bart obviously spread like wildfire through the peloton, as the pros were tripping over themselves to get onto Pez. Niels Albert even took time out from signing autographs and posing for photos with his numerous housewife fans for a photo with the boys. Hey, and he went on to win two days later at Loenhout!
Tim Johnson put in one last race in Europe prior to returning home for Nationals, and absolutely loves the disc brakes he’s running on his Cannondale. He still remembered running over Jacob and me at the UCI CX in Toronto back in 2008 when he slid through a muddy ditch and flew off course through the tape. Try explaining to your wife why your son has muddy tire tracks on his jacket! I was half-tempted to pose for this pic with the two of us lying underneath his bike for old time’s sakes.
As has been the case with every cross race she’s entered this season, Marianne Vos has been a tornado shattering the women’s field. For once, she faced a bit of a challenge this race from Daphny van den Brand, who hung on for 4 of 5 laps before Vos’s road and track power snapped the elastic on the circuit’s long paved finishing straight. Barring something special from Katie Compton in a month’s time, it’s hard to see past Vos on the top step again at World’s.
It’s pretty astounding how fast the pack gets off the line and already at warp speed right from clipping in at the start. The long, long finishing straight on Zolder’s F1 circuit, made famous in cycling via Cipollini’s 2002 Worlds win, made for some ferocious big-ring action.
Stybar attacking the tough uphill and off-camber switchback. Even if he doesn’t manage to defend his rainbow skinsuit in Koksijde, his aggressive from-the-gun riding style and obvious love for cyclocross is unmistakable in his body language. He’s itching to make the switch to a full-time focus on the road. However, I can’t help thinking that his entertaining style, along with his being non-Belgian, would make a bigger overall impact staying in the cross circuit.
In the end, Zolder showed us that Pauwels can indeed handle the slick stuff and Stybar is back on form after a month of worsening results. Coupled with Nys continued consistency, Albert’s raging form after his comeback, and Wellens re-emerging as a contender, all the signs are there for a crazy month leading up to Koksijde!
Stephen Cheung is a Canada Research Chair at Brock University, and has published over 60 scientific articles and book chapters dealing with the effects of thermal and hypoxic stress on human physiology and performance. Stephen’s currently writing “Cutting Edge Cycling,” a book on the science of cycling due out April 2012, and can be reached for comments at [email protected] .