Feeling at home away from home

Elle Anderson gets used to life and racing in Belgium

It's after dinner at Euro 'Cross Camp HQ and we have today's racing in our legs. Arriving at the house in Vorselaar already has that cozy feeling of coming home. It's 4:00 pm and dusk is falling. Shoes and muddy clothes get sprayed down outside, we make a run to the laundry down the street, get a massage, and take down a heaping plate of dinner. Although it's only my first trip to race in Europe, I could get used to this! The routine is already comforting in that way that I know will make excellent memories of this time at camp.

Racing in Belgium is a little like visiting the grandparents of cyclo-cross for the holidays, and is a symbolic homecoming in another sense. Compared to the US cross scene, in Belgium I am aware of being at the sport's roots, of discovering a more ancestral form of cyclo-cross, and of learning the subtleties of European cyclo-cross. As difficult as it is to be away from family over the holidays, I'm getting settled into my new Belgian cyclo-cross family quickly.

I feel that if I were ever to call Belgium my home, life would be peaceful and I would learn to be more observant. At least that is the sense I get through racing and on my training rides through the countryside. Towns and farm fields are sleepy and calm and the low brick buildings appear comfortable but solemn. Hedges are square, streets are narrow and cobbled, and I see more bikes than cars traveling the well-marked bike paths that are ubiquitous. At first I tried to give a friendly nod or wave to the cyclists I passed on the road, but since I rarely got any signal in return I stopped. I realized it wasn't rudeness, but simply that they acknowledged quietly with their eyes, observing me as we passed.

At the races, I notice something similar. Spectators wander through the athlete parking in small groups, staring unabashedly at riders and equipment, sometimes pointing and having quiet discussions with each other. It makes me feel like a display in a museum, but it also makes me happy.

Here in Belgium I am surrounded by a different kind of cyclo-cross fan, not fellow participants and their families, but crowds that are so passionate that they undoubtedly know as much or more about the sport than I do. Where the US fans yell encouragement and cheer for their fellow racers, the Europeans quietly regard the racing with a respectful intensity. I thought it might be eerie racing through the quiet crowds I had been told about. Then I feel their curious eyes watching me and instead of feeling ignored I feel appreciated.

Earlier today after previewing the course, the same curious eyes kept finding my bike, in particular my tires. I had this strange feeling that the fans that were discretely pointing or gesturing towards my wheels were trying to say something. Around this time, I was lucky to run into a Belgian friend who informed me that the attention directed at my equipment was due to my tire tread choice. I was running Dugast Rhinos - the only tread I had brought with me to Europe - which is better suited to muddy conditions and not as appropriate for the packed dirt and sand sections of the course. Again, my first reaction might have been to be offended, but really my new Belgian family was just trying to help!

Contributing to my new feeling of home are the endearing requests for our rider cards, also called "photo cards". Delighting in the excuse to approach any racer, these fans collect our postcard-sized rider cards as if they were vintage comic books or action figures. Their expression of excitement and satisfaction in receiving said cards is priceless. I've even seen a few crafty folders to help organize the plethora of cards for the most passionate of fans. At first overwhelming when a whole group gathers with requests for cards, on second thought it's kind of fun and a bit entertaining.

The passion and excitement around cyclo-cross is contagious here and I already hunger for more Belgian racing. I have a new perspective and appreciation for the US offspring of this sport - but have fallen in love again with this sport hosted in this new environment.

Editorial note: Elle Anderson is from San Francisco, California and races for the Cal Giant Berry p/b Specialized team.

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