By Jeff Lockwood.
I’m driving home after barely hanging on for a pathetic 16th place in a soul-crushing amateur cyclocross race in Rillaar, Belgium when I get an email from a friend in the United States asking me to translate “Handups are not a crime!” into Flemish.
The timing of the email turned my grimace into a smirk.
About two hours earlier, roughly forty local spectators dressed in unremarkable dark clothing that represent a statement of function over fashion, are gathered on either side of a demoralizing off-camber snow- and mud-packed turn that I’ve just cleaned. Instead of cheers or being offered quick sips of beer, I’m met with cold, judging stares and the din of Flemish conversation.
I could have definitely used an audible or alcohol-based moral booster, but offers of heckling, beer, money or other goods to racers during competition, at professional and amateur levels, are foreign concepts in Belgium—where ‘cross is king.
Thus, there’s no literal Flemish translation for “handup.”
This is a far cry from my experience racing ‘cross in the United States where friends and strangers along the course loft screams of support along with creative motivating heckles towards all categories and positions of racers. At one particular race I’m essentially stopped in my tracks and “forced” to drink a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon before I continue on my way.
A racer at a race in Flagstaff, Arizona gains some American-style motivation.
This week, the 2013 UCI Cyclocross World Championships are being held in Louisville, Kentucky—the first time in a land that’s beyond driving distance from Belgium. There is sure to be a large contingent of rabid European cyclocross fans descending upon the Bluegrass Sate. These supporters, along with the racers, are going to encounter a wholly different, yet just as enthusiastic and informed, sea of people lining the course.
Originally from Vermont, Amy Dombroski has spent the last two seasons living and racing at the highest levels in Belgium. From inside the tape, she’s seen crowds on both sides of the Atlantic.
“In America, chances are the spectators will be as fit-looking as the Elite racers. Whereas in Belgium every spectator, aside from the little whipper-snappers ripping about in their Sven replica kits, will have either a beer or a cigarette in close proximity.”
A family of Sven Nys supporters.
While the atmosphere on the spectator side of the course tape in the United States is more interactively celebratory, the scene in the party tents and along the courses in Belgium is most definitely a huge alcohol-fueled boisterous bash, but it’s a hands-off form of appreciation. Mostly. There have been isolated incidents that have led to racer injuries and racers abandoning their bicycles to chase after beer-tossing spectators [video].
While Dombroski recognizes the differences in the culture around the scenes, she’s quick to point out similarities.
“As different as the appearances are, the love is still deep and true in both countries. In America the love is authentic because whether a masters rider or a Category-whatever-number, he or she appreciates what the elite racers have gone through to be where they are, because they’ve experienced some of that "abuse."
A perfect slice of the Belgian cyclocross target demographic.
In Belgium the love is genuine because cycling culture is so deeply rooted. Belgians carry the emotion and ownership of cycling that I could only compare to Americans & American football.”
Ironically the Elite races will be held on Super Bowl Sunday.
After slugging out his professional career in the Belgian cyclocross pressure cooker, Ben Berden is a Belgian native racing in the US for the past two seasons. Competition in the United States is a welcome change for him. He appreciates the warm reception racers receive in the US. “There are 20,000 people at the races in Belgium, and they’re not really necessarily going for the race, but more for the party. Instead of beer handups and stuff like that, everybody goes to the beer tent.”
A scene from inside one of the party tents following the finish of the 2012 Cyclocross World Championships in Koksijde, Belgium.
Jonathan Page, a New Hampshire native, is a four-time US National Cyclocross Champion (most recently claiming the title two weeks ago), and has been living and racing cyclocross in Belgium since 2002. When asked about handups and heckling along courses in the United States, Page adds, “I’m not sure what to say about that. I’ve grabbed a few dollars in Vegas [at CrossVegas], and I’d probably do it again.”
How do I translate “Handups are not a crime!” into Flemish? After getting home and unloading the car, I text a Belgian friend for some translation help. Amused with my explanation of the essence of the statement, he ultimately delivers, “Een renner een pintje aanbieden is niet onwettig!”
When I press Dombroski specifically on her thoughts about the offerings of beer and money and heckling taken to the next level in the United States, she replies, “This is what makes the sport of cyclocross so unique—the varying atmospheres. They’re both different and I hope it stays that way. American ‘cross does not need to become Belgian cyclocross.”