It's a well-known fact that cyclo-cross is popular in the Flemish region of Belgium, and action from the recent Superprestige Zonhoven and GVA Trofee - Koppenbergcross events last weekend demonstrated the vital ingredients that flavour the region's love of all things 'cross.
The resurgence of Landbouwkrediet's local hero Sven Nys after young rival Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) laid down the challenge last season has a lot to do with the spike in spectator numbers seen at last weekend's races.
Add the likes of Belgian stalwart Bart Wellens (Telenet-Fidea), the Vantornouts and Vanthourenhouts, in addition to several foreign riders such as Lars Boom (Rabobank) and Czech sensation Zdenek Stybar (Telenet-Fidea), and there are clearly the makings of a successful formula that will keep the crowds coming back for more.
Both races were live on Flemish TV and broadcasts tend to attract between 600,000 and 900,000 viewers. People who enjoyed a certain race on TV will probably consider going to that race the following season. The Zonhoven event clearly demonstrated that fact, with huge crowds in attendance following solid TV performances in 2009.
On Sunday afternoon, the relatively young event in Zonhoven attracted more than double the number of spectators of the previous year, with 12,400 making their way to the 2010 edition. The spectacular sand pit introduced in 2009 was the place to be; although whether it was the great viewing opportunities or the multiple crashes in that section that attracted people is anyone's guess.
A VIP lounge offered special guests the best view on course, with almost 1,000 people receiving the 'luxury' treatment in Zonhoven. In the Superprestige Series, riders receive start fees to ride all events, with the bonuses for strong overall classification performances encouraging spectacular racing in every round of the series.
A third factor for the huge crowds was the great weather, with forecasts predicting sunny skies and temperatures of up to 16° Celsius - unheard of for November in Belgium! If the local football team hadn't been playing the same evening, the crowds would have been even bigger in Zonhoven (coincidentally, Belgian league leader KRC Genk lost 1-2 to RSC Anderlecht).
A day later Melden, located near Oudenaarde, hosted the second round of the Gazet van Antwerpen Trophy. Founded in 1988, the race up and around the famous Koppenberg climb has become a staple of the cyclo-cross season. The climb is known from the Tour of Flanders, one of road cycling's Monuments, and has always been the centrepiece of the event.
Every year the race attracts more and more spectators, in proportion to the increasing status of cyclo-cross in Flanders. This year about 20,000 spectators witnessed the mudfest won by Belgian champion Nys. The weather was fine, despite occasional rain showers and temperatures around 12° Celsius, and every part of the course in Melden was captivating, which kept interest high.
The GvA Trophy organisers also add incentives to spice up the racing, with bonus points awarded after two laps in addition to money for the fastest lap. The rider who records the fastest lap of the race is rewarded with no less than €1000. Nys took the money home ahead of Albert and Kevin Pauwels (Telenet-Fidea).
While both races last weekend were extremely hard on the riders, the brutal courses are what people expect from cyclo-cross. Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor) wasn't complaining and summarised it well after the race: "The people want to see cyclo-cross and this was it; I ain't complaining. If the others didn't ride in Zonhoven I don't think I would have finished in the top five today."
British rider Ian Field (Hargroves Cycles) rode both races to the limit and after finishing his race on Monday he delivered the quotation of the day. "Who put Zonhoven and Oudenaarde into one weekend? They obviously don't rhyme," he joked, while wiping away the mud from his face and receiving more than one pat on the shoulder from a drunk spectator.