Too cold? Too sloppy? Please. That didn’t stop more than 30,000 people from descending upon the quaint town of Hoogerheide in The Netherlands this weekend for the 2009 UCI Cyclocross World Championships. Just a few miles across the border from Belgium (the Cyclocross capital of the world), Hoogerheide drew rabid fans not only from Belgium and The Netherlands, but also from all over the world. However, the rabid national pride for both of those countries easily drowned out the hooligan-hollering and flag-draping from anywhere else. You think NASCAR fans are dedicated? Let’s see some of those Budweiser-grasping beer bellies stand outside in the cold, rain and mud. People in this region of the world are fans of their ‘cross racers like people in the US are fans of WWF wrestlers or NASCAR drivers. The sweet ladies at the ticket window at the train station were both fans of Sven, while our taxi driver definitely preferred Thijs Al.
My day started with a taxi ride from our temporary apartment to the Crowne Plaza Hotel on the outskirts of Antwerp, where I planned to catch a 35-Euro shuttle to the race venue about thirty minutes away. However, as most of my move abroad has gone so far, nothing went anywhere close to originally planned.
After about an hour of watching several tour busses pull away with drunken Belgian bicycle race fans, I realized the only three people left standing…waiting without a ride…were the only people who spoke English. Also relatively new to Antwerp, William is originally from New Zealand and was excited to watch his first Cyclocross race. Then we have Everett who’s knowledge of, and passion for, ‘cross racing beats just about anyone I know in the bicycle industry. And he’s from Salt Lake City. He got off the airplane from Chicago, came right to the hotel to catch the shuttle and is staying in town for two more ‘cross races next weekend.
We made a decision that if we had any chance of getting to Hoogerheide, we best take a train. That meant walking two miles back into town to Central Station. Which, by the way, is PAST my apartment from where I started my day. Right about this time, I was cursing our moving company for not delivering all of our earthly belongings on Friday as originally planned. That shipment has all my proper winter clothing.
William has lived and worked in Amsterdam for a few years, and is more than conversational in Dutch. Thus, he also has a firm grasp on how to get from place to place in this region. Without him, Everett and I might have never made it to Hoogerheide. After a series of trains, walking and taxis, we finally made it to the venue.
My wife had texted me on the train, asking where we were standing so she and my daughters could try to see me on television. Yes…it was on live TV here. Unfortunately we weren’t there yet, and she broke the news to me that the women’s race was over, and Katie Compton finished third.
I had arranged for media credentials for myself, and I was really looking forward to the look-how-cool-I-am badge, the free food and booze and…most of all…the warmth of the media room between events. But we barely arrived about 45 minutes before the men’s race. With thirty-thousand maniacs trying to get a good vantage point, I immediately decided that I would never be able to get anywhere near anything for the race if I burned valuable time getting a stupid media badge. Plus I was pissed I already missed the women’s race and being able to scream for Compton. So William, Everett and I high-tailed it to the ticket booth, paid our 25 Euros and ran for the course.
The course weaved through the center of this beautiful town, and just about every inch was lined with people, two to ten deep. The yellow Flanders flag flew everywhere you looked, and Belgian pride ran deep with painted faces, banners and lots and lots of hollering, singing and chanting. The orange of Holland also had a strong showing. Fans sang for Boom and Sven before the race even started.
We walked down past the starting line, around an open field where at least ten thousand fans gathered in front of a jumbo television screen to watch the race. The mass of people was flanked with beer tents, food vendors, VIP pavilions and people peeing in the woods without shame. This whole scene coalesced into a vibrant, swarming and cheering sea of bicycle fandom.
After a failed attempt to seek out a good sight spot near the hillside, we returned to the starting line where we were able to elbow-up to the cattle fence. The course went up a moderate incline for about a quarter mile from the start line. When the green light ignited, the herd of riders hammered up that hill like bats out of hell. The speed with which they hit that road truly stunned me.
The blue-clad Belgians grabbed the front of the pack early, and Niels Albert opened a gap, which he held to victory. Sven Nys launched a noble attack late in the race, but he had to settle for third while Zdenek Stybar from the Czech Republic finished second.
Of course I was rooting for US National Cyclocross Champion Ryan Trebon and the other Americans, but they were already at a disadvantage with their assigned starting positions. Trebon started at the middle of the pack and had a good start, but he looked slow when he passed us on his first and second laps thanks to a hard crash on the first lap. The public address announced he dropped out after his second lap. Jeremey Powers was the highest-placing American finishing 35th, while Matt Shriver finished 44th, Brian Matter 49th and Jonathan Page 52nd.
With my first exciting taste of a UCI championship event behind me, and with more than thirty-thousand fans also clamoring to get home also behind me, the three of us decided to get out of dodge to beat the crowd to the taxis and trains.
We made it back to the trains and tried to find any warmth we could at the train stations. Within a couple hours and a couple train rides…and some more walking, I was back at our apartment and in the shower trying to thaw my frozen-to-the-bone body. I shoveled in some food and settled in to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers complete the six-pack.