Triple Cyclo-cross world champion Erwin Vervecken recently announced his retirement from a sport that gave him nearly a lifetime of achievements and the famed Belgian waved goodbye to his American fans at the Planet Bike Cup held in Madison, Wisconsin on Sunday - his final race on American soil before starting the next chapter in his life.
"I'm 37 at this moment and it's my last season," said Vervecken, who donned his rainbow skinsuit in the USA for the first time in 2001. "Three or four years ago I was able to be aggressive in the last lap, especially if I was together with others and then I was always the first of a group.
"I'm fast in the sprint and I can try to do a really fast last lap but those are things I am losing now; I'm getting slower."
A battle to the end
Vervecken grew up in Lille, Belgium, although it's a little-known fact that he began his cycling career in Holland. Back in the 1980s aspiring young cyclists were not able to begin racing until the age of 15 in Belgium. Thus, Vervecken kickstarted his career early - at the age of eight - over the border.
Once old enough to compete in his own country, Vervecken achieved numerous national titles as a junior and under 23 rider. He went on to join the professional ranks in 1995 with Espace Card-Record Bank and has since competed for Spaarselect and Fidea Cycling Team before moving to his most recent contract with Revor-Baboco for his last hurrah.
Vervecken's palmares includes nearly 45 victories at UCI-ranked events. His most prized are the three 'Cross world titles in 2001, 2006 and 2007, the two World Cup overall podium places and three wins on the Super Prestige circuit.
When asked if he was satisfied with his career he simply said, "You never know if there could have been something more. But I think with three world titles, I've certainly had a nice career and I'm very happy with it."
Previous to winning his first world title, Vervecken was runner up at the World Championships in 1998 and 1999, then again in 2005. "There could have been more," he continued. "I was second in 1999 after leading for the whole race and then losing in the final hundred metres. I had a mechanical problem in 2002 where I think I could have won also. So you never know."
After a 30-year immersion in cyclo-cross, Vervecken has decided to hang up his wheels and take a job with Golazo, a sport, media and entertainment company based in Belgium.
"I will miss the kick of winning and the kick of being really good," he explained. "But the last three summers it was really hard to stay in focus and that is what I'm going to miss. But, Golazo does cycling and athletic events. I will be a part of the cycling section, organising cycling races and series events."
Until then, he hopes to end his cyclo-cross career on the podium - his fans expect nothing less. "It always take me a lot of weeks before I'm in good condition," said Vervecken after his first win of the season at the Planet Bike Cup.
"In Belgium it's hard for me to be in the top 10 in September and October. But last year I won two World Cups later on. I hope to win one this year again, that would be great.
"It doesn't matter to me whether it's a World Cup, a Super Prestige or a GvA. If it's live on television then my sponsor is very happy and that's my goal."
Bringing Belgian 'cross to America
Vervecken landed on the American cyclo-cross scene for the first time in 2001. It was a big to-do to have a world champion and a real Belgian in the flesh competing Stateside. He has since spent four of the eight previous years in September in the US, improving his pre-European season fitness and collecting valuable UCI points ahead of the other European greats.
"In the beginning of the season it's always fun to be able to ride here," he said. "The rest of the season, it would be too much because there are World Cups in Belgium and big races over there. But in the beginning of the season, I like it."
Since Vervecken's first appearance in the US, American 'cross has increased in popularity and attracted several European-based 'cross riders, including retired Italian Daniele Pontoni, Christian Heule, Joachim Parbo and Tim van Nuffel, among others.
When asked what his impression was of cyclo-cross racing in the USA now compared to eight years ago, Vervecken replied, "The level has grown in the last 10 years. I like the atmosphere and to see that it grows every year. I hope some day in the future it will be as big as in Belgium.
"The crowds are ok; they may not be as big as in Belgium but they make as much noise."
In keeping with the increasing trend of Europeans beginning their pre-season in the US, Vervecken returned this autumn for the last time as a professional cyclist. He began his final campaign at the season openers Star Crossed and Rad Racing held in Seattle a week ago and then headed to Cross Vegas.
None bore the fruit of victory; although just when he thought he would might be departing the US without a win, it happened - a victory at the Planet Bike Cup, round two of the US Grand Prix of Cyclo-cross, and a fond farewell to America.