Belgium, January 1, 2009
This is my first time I've traveled to Europe for cyclo-cross. When I arrived in Belgium I knew that it would be one of the most challenging racing experiences ever and it has proven to be true. The racing is so fast, grueling and difficult. It isn't only the racing that makes you completely deteriorate, it is everything combined with the racing. It is the entire emersion into the most hardcore cyclo-cross culture in the world.
It's the same routine day in and day out. The same ham and cheese sandwich for every meal. On top of all that, there are the fans that despise you when you are competing against the Belgian greats.
The Belgian fans are completely different than the fans from the US. At each race this week there has been a minimum of 10,000 spectators and at the World Cup in Zolder there were over 20,000 fans. These fans are crazy for 'cross. Cyclo-cross is the NASCAR of Belgium. The fans wear jackets that have their beloved riders on them. "I am Supporter of Sven Nys" or "I am Supporter of Bart Wellens" is embroidered on the back. I have yet to see a Belgian wearing a jacket that says supporter of Troy Wells or Jeremy Powers.
I have never felt so much pressure to perform even when warming up on the course. You are constantly under the microscope. Today, during my warm up at the Grand Prix of Sven Nys , I kept trying and failing to ride a stair step section. It was very challenging and I practiced a few times. Each time they are watching your every move: how you approach it, what gear you are in and the speeds you take. Each fan is constantly analyzing you to see if you are going to beat their rider. Keep in mind that you are not their favorite rider, so they want you to fail.
The ability to block them out and completely focus is something I have yet to learn. When we are racing it is easy to just race and stay focused. When you are warming up it is different and hard to block out the 50-yard Belgian stare.
Here in the heart of cyclo-cross land, spectators pay between 10 to 20 euro (probably around $30 US) to watch you crash in the barriers. In America they cheer because you are a good sport for picking yourself up and going on. When you crash in Belgium, the fans cheer not because you picked your pile of bones up, but because you are broken and bleeding and they love it. When you are not leading the race, you are getting heckled and yelled at by the drunks.
The beer garden is flowing like the Colorado River at the crack of dawn on the course as the races start early and all of them are watched. The most important is the Elite Men's race, but the U23 is often one of the most exciting races and the fans are on their way to top levels of intoxication. When the Elite race comes around these fans are saturated with more Belgian beers than you will find on tap at any bar in America and screaming for you to suffer like a dog. It's a good thing I can't understand a word that they are saying because surely what is coming out of their mouths, other than the rank of beer and cigarettes, isn't supportive.
There is nothing like being completely gassed on a climb or through a run up and sucking in the cigarette smoke. While we are racing, everyone is drinking and smoking watching you in pain. We are completely flat out, gasping for oxygen, trying to keep the legs turning and we're inhaling some nasty, expired, Belgian cigarette smoke mixed with partially digested beer. You just keep going and after a few minutes of sucking in that stale air you are used to it, with your head up, focused as you plow through the beer cups on your way through the crazy fans.
The Euro camp has been exactly what I have needed to learn about what it really takes to be at the top level of cyclo-cross racing. Racing at this camp has been an eye opener and good preparation in chasing a spot on the US Worlds team. I didn't show that I deserved a spot today, as the mind and body were not on the same page. Tomorrow is the last opportunity for all of us to leave this camp on a high note.
Even if the racing doesn't go well, I know I can speak for everyone in saying that this experience will pay off huge in the years of racing to come. Racing in the states will be that much easier next year. Wish us luck tomorrow and at the World Championships! Again, I have to say thank you to everyone at Jittery Joe's, Contender Bikes in Salt Lake, SRAM, Van Dessel Bikes, Specialized for the saddles, Barbara Dowd, my coaches, the good people of D'Jango, Colorado and family and friends for all of their support. I apologize if I am forgetting anyone. It has been awesome! The journey continues.
Below is a complete roster and racing schedule for this year's camp.
Brian Matter, 30
Matt Shriver, 28
Troy Wells, 24
Will Dugan, 21
Jeremy Ferguson, 18
David Hackworthy, 19
Andrew Llewellyn, 18
Bjorn Selander, 20
Danny Summerhill, 19
Nick Weighall, 21
Cody Cox, 17
Joe Dombrowski, 17
Eric Emsky, 17
Manny Goguen, 17
Cody Kaiser, 16
Gavin Mannion, 17
Zach McDonald, 17
Morgan Ryan, 18
Chris Wallace, 16
December 21: Uitbergen
December 26: Heusden-Zolder World Cup (CDM)
December 28: Superprestige Diegem (C1)
December 30: Azencross / Cross des as, Loenhout / Wuustwezel (C1)
January 1: Grote Prijs Sven Nys, Baal (C1)
January 2: Grote Prijs De Ster, Sint-Niklaas (C1)