A brush with greatness

Joe Dombrowski experiences Belgian 'cross culture

It’s interesting the Belgian racing scene. Interesting how we can participate in the same sport just across the ocean and things are so different. Yes, we still ride the same bikes, chasing each other around in circles for an hour plus a lap. But, things are really pretty different over here.

Today most of the U-23’s and Elites did a combined race in Middlekerke. It was actually a pretty mundane loop with just a few sharp ups and downs thrown in for good measure. Now the Belgians love their cyclo-cross; they come out in droves to watch their heroes battle it out, and they show great reverence in their presence.

There were two instances today that, to me, that really illustrated how cyclo-cross is such an integral part of their culture.

During my pre-ride, there was a particular portion of the course that I wanted to inspect a bit further. It consisted of a nearly vertical four-foot wall of mud, followed by a short flat spot, followed by another nearly vertical six-foot section. After riding into this monstrosity a couple of times, I deemed only the first section to be ridable. After further consideration, I decided that it would probably be fastest for me to just go ahead and run the whole thing.

As I was standing on the platform section during practice, looking at the wall in front of me, these old Belgian men were yelling at me. I don’t speak a word of Flemish and didn’t have any idea what they were trying to get me to do. I turned around, and here comes Sven Nys barreling past the pits towards the run-up.

Not wanting to be that guy who gets in the way of the most prolific cyclo-cross racer in the world, I stepped to the side. I figured Nys would probably slow down a bit and check out this tricky section of course. Nope, with a quick bunny hop over the first wall, two pedals strokes, and a lunge over the second wall, the man totally cleared the run-up. Impressive.

As I glanced upwards, I caught the eyes of those Belgians who were yelling at me. The look said it all "That’s why you don’t get in Nys’ way kid."

After spinning on the trainer, I rode up and down the start straight to keep the legs loose while conversing with fellow Americans. One of the times on the way back, I once again found myself riding next to Sven Nys. A large crowd of Belgians formed around the start area, all eagerly looking for a glimpse of their better-known compatriots. As Nys rolled by, old men were pointing between puffs on their cigars, and women were standing on tiptoes looking over shoulders to see the champion ride by.

It’s amazing how an individual can draw such national attention. Amazing how such a fringe sport in the U.S. can captivate so many elsewhere. In the U.S. the ‘cross community is a very small and closely-knit group. Here, cyclo-cross is what dominates sports headlines, and TV news clips.

The rest of the camp, I look forward to participating in some of the biggest ‘cross races in the world; but, also to be a part of what is an integral part of a Belgian culture.

-Joe

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