The international cyclo-cross scene is about to have a part of its heart ripped out when three-time world champion Erwin Vervecken (Baboco-Revor) hangs up the bike at the end of this season. As he has been - and still is - one of the key antagonists in the cyclo-cross scene for over 15 years, not only will the face of the sport change but Vervecken's personal journey and that of his family, friends and fans will undergo a major adjustment.
For a guy who is still at the top of his career, placing fourth and sixth in the last two World Cups, ranked top 10 in UCI, GVA Trofee, Superprestige and World Cup overall, and again qualifying for the world championships, it seems strange he would want to call it quits. But for him, the decision has nothing to do with his current results.
"After Hoogerheide [World Cup last weekend where he placed sixth], I was thinking I am still good enough to go for another year," Vervecken told Cyclingnews. "But I think it is better to stop at a good moment instead of when you're really into 15th or 20th position in the races.
"And in Belgium it's very hard to make the selection for World Cups and for the world championships. Next year there will be Tom Meeusen [upgrading from U-23]. And if [Czech champion Zdenek] Stybar becomes world champion we can only have eight riders [one less than usual] so it's going to be more and more difficult. If you don't make the selection for World Cups then it's a free fall as a rider so you better stop.
"Also, if I continue another year I will be 39 when I stop. I don't want to be the grandfather of cyclo-cross."
His family is a determining factor as well. "I have twins of three and a half years old and a boy of one and a half years old. I really look forward to having a family life in summer, and free weekends in the winter."
Transition from cyclist to "working man"
Even though he is stepping off the bike, he will remain in the 'cross scene as an event organizer for Golazo Sports which handles the GVA Trofee and other major races like Tervuren and Niel. "As a former accountant and pro bike racer, it's really a big challenge for me," said Vervecken. But after a bit of thought, he confessed that being on location may prove to be the toughest part of his job. "I like to ride my bike but I am addicted to competing. That is what I am going to miss most. Especially when you have really muddy races with lots of running, I'll think - hey, if I were good I could still finish top five or at least top 10."
As for his future relationship with the bike, Vervecken said, "I don't think I'm going to be on it for the first month. But in the summer when the weather is okay, maybe I will go for some short rides with my friends. When I hear from other riders who have retired, they say that in the beginning you'll feel like you've had enough of the bike and just want to do other things like stay up late and drink some alcohol. Then after a half a year - a year, you get bigger and then you think - it's also wonderful to be a cyclist and to focus on your body and your condition. So you start training a little bit again. I also have a treadmill at home so next winter I think I will be running two times a week or so - If I am motivated for that...but I think I will."
While Vervecken makes the life-altering transition from bike racer to "working man", he admits that his wife Liesbeth actually gives it more thought than he does. At the moment, he is home more than the average dad. Once he starts his new job all that will change, rattling their home life considerably. He acknowledges it will also be a big adjustment for his parents and mechanics who have been there for him for over 20 years.
Significantly affected as well are Vervecken's numerous fans, many of whom are presently engaged in discussions on how to move forward. "Some of them will stop going to the races," Vervecken said. "Others are looking for another guy to support. I hear some will be a fan of Niels Albert, others are going with Kevin Pauwels."
Filled with gratitude, Vervecken said, "I've had really consistent fans who always stayed with me even in years that didn't go so well. I am very happy to have had them. They also became friends - one big group of friends."
Erwin Vervecken wins his third cyclo-cross world championship at Hooglede-Gits, Belgium in 2007
Looking back at his career, Vervecken reflects on his most memorable accomplishments. On the top of his list are his world championship performances. He has been selected every year to participate in this race since 1989. Since turning pro in 1995, he has earned three world titles (2001 in Tabor, Czech Republic; 2006 in Zeddam, Netherlands; 2007 in Hooglede-Gits, Belgium) and landed on the podium an additional five times. The rest of his results at this event were mainly top six.
Second on his list is his overall consistency at a high level. "A lot of riders had a period of a maximum three or four years at the top, but for 16 years I have been in the top 10 of UCI classification. And I have never been out of it. The only other rider so far to accomplish this feat is Sven Nys."
Heading into his last season of racing, Vervecken set a few goals for himself. One was to be ranked in the top 10 classification in the UCI, World Cup, GVA Trofee and Superprestige. Another was to make the selection for all World Cups and the world championships. And his last was to be on the podium in one major race.
The only one he's not accomplished is the last, but Vervecken optimistically reminded Cyclingnews, "The season is not over yet."
Regarding his last world championship this weekend in Tabor, Vervecken holds the same positive stance, "It is not so important as five years ago when I was a favorite, but I still want to have a good result. The last two weeks were very good so I hope to be somewhere top five. If I could make it fourth and sixth in the last two World Cups, then why not."
The final race of his career will not be a high caliber event typical for famous retiring cyclists but rather a grassroots race he organized himself - with help from Golazo. It is called "Erwin Bolt Uit" to be held on February 27 in his hometown of Herentals. There will be a kids' tour, as well as a 20km and 40km race.
What makes this event unique is that it's an all-inclusive event with a mass start. "I got the idea from a beach race I did a while back. Everyone is together with me at the start line from 12 to 80 years old, license, no license, women, men, mountain bike, 'cross bike, or even road bike. I expect 90 percent will ride it for fun, and for maybe 10 percent it will be a race."
Adding to the competition are Sven Nys, Niels Albert, Bart Wellens, and Zdenek Stybar who will join Vervecken for the full 40km length (two laps of 20km). A few amateur level racers have already told Vervecken they hope to give him a run for his money, if but only for the first few kilometres. In response to these challenges, Vervecken said, "Yeah, they can try. It's a big difference but they can always try."
After the race, there will be a bike-hanging ceremony like no other. "It is an official moment with interviews, videos, images from my world titles. Then afterwards there is a big party. That is why it's on Saturday. Otherwise people all go home at 8 o'clock because they have to go to work on Monday," said Vervecken.
When asked if the partygoers can expect tears to be shed from the big guy, Vervecken said, "I have never been emotional about a race - good or bad. I'm really not such a sensitive guy that way. But maybe during the ceremony...maybe, I don't know."
For more information on his last race, visit www.erwinboltuit.be