Hooligans And Higher Learning |A Weekend In België

It’s always been a bit of a paradox that the lion’s share of my work in the cycling world is with cyclocross but I’ve never been to Belgium during cyclocross season. I’ve seen Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris Roubaix and ridden the cobbled roads around Oudenaarde.

Ronde van Vlaanderen 2014

I’ve stayed overnight in Brussels several times traveling to and from MTB World Cups, but I have never been on the ground for any cyclocross races.

Evie Richards in Andorra.

With a jam-packed domestic schedule it was never practical to make the journey to België. I’m not sure it makes sense, now either, but here we are, on a two-week trip with the Alpha Bicycle/Groove Subaru CX team and it’s been a pretty spectacular ride so far.

Turner Ramsay, Brannan Fix and an on-the-mend Ross Ellwood.

We arrived Friday morning and drove from Brussels to Izegem in a downpour. Pretty much what you would expect on a January day. Peak Belgium? Time to get the mud gear ready for a quick turnaround and racing at Gullegem on Saturday.

Adam Rachubinski loads up the van for the trip to Gullegem.

And here’s where Belgium has a sense of humor. Although the ground was still a bit muddy at Gullegem (according to the race announcers, Gullegem rhymes with Hooligan, hence the title of this article), the day could not be more beautiful. Sunny skies, no wind, moderate temperatures. It was a near perfect day to get acclimated.

Welkom to Gullegem. Enjoy the blue skies.

And the racing wasn’t too bad either.

Wout and MvdP on the only real technical feature. It was only visible to the VIP tent and rule-ignoring American photographers.

Gullegem was a “B” race a few seasons ago and it has quickly transformed into a top-level “A” race with top-level fields and 8000 spectators jammed into the suburban neighborhood/industrial park venue.

MvdP begrudgingly gets some cheers for being the World Champ, but he is far from loved. At least nobody is throwing beers at him anymore.

The start to Gullegemen is similar to Ardooie, one of my favorite starts in cyclocross. It runs down a residential road, and takes a hard right turn through someone’s driveway and then continues to the field in the backyard where the race proper is located. Shooting that part of the star left you far away from the rest of the action, so I didn’t venture down there. Instead, here’s my take on the 2014 Ardooie start:

The Alpha team is not new to this and has the system dialed (with the exception of figuring out the mystery of trash day and where new garbage bags are sold in Izegem), resulting in great accommodations and no chaos at a surprisingly reasonable rate. Doing your homework helps. The team contracted with Cyclocross Custom to help with logistical support at the race. One of the best perks of hiring them was that they are at the venue early securing parking and saving spots for the team. They drop a pin, we follow the GPS and, boom, straight to the spot. Having use of the Belgian Cycling House sprinter, which comes with the team’s accommodations in Izegem, made it easy to get past the always notorious Belgian race parking lot monitor and into the lot.

Turner Ramsay warms up in the Cyclocross Custom tent with Maria Larkin and Rebecca Gross.

Once at the venue it was time to pick up press credentials and a photo bib. This is far from my first rodeo covering international events, but, man, they did not make it easy at this race—or the next one in Brussels—to find the press room.

Heavy machinery as an archway is truly peak Belgian cyclocross.

At Gullegem, the press room was unmarked and in a nutritional supplement company’s conference room in an unmarked building. I successfully found that but soon realized it wasn’t where the press credentials and photo bibs were being kept, those were on the other side of the venue in a ticket booth. Thankfully, I befriended a Belgian news service video guy who was equally confused. He was able to get us where we needed to go. After a lot of shrugs, a few games of charades and conversations with clueless volunteers and event workers, I had bib in hand and on my way.

Without the DMZ, this would be the view I would have had all race long. Becca Fahringer had a great race fighting for a podium spot the entire time.

Once credentialed and in the venue, it was time to start scouting locations. The nice thing about this track was it was fully lined with tape and then there was a three foot demilitarized zone and then metal barriers. That made it super easy to get around the sand pit and beer tent area without having to fight through the crowds. Photo bibs have their advantages.

Wout van Aert and Corné van Kessel atop the flyover.

As for the track itself, it wasn’t that exciting. A big field without any hills. A few minor off-cambers. A decent sand section, a muddy drag near the pits. A big flyover and two mini-flyovers. Although it may not have been the most exciting track, the people actually racing seemed to dig it, so what do I know. And the racing, at least on the women’s side, was pretty exciting.

Alvarado and Kastelijn at the front. The sand section was long and legit. If you didn’t pick the right line and keep momentum it was a long run to the end. And the crowds, here, were amazing. On the left you can see the DMZ.

On the men’s side, everyone showed up to cheer on Wout. He was on it, early, much to the excitement of the crowd. He took the hole shot and had everyone in a frenzy for the opening laps. Whatever start money he received, he earned every Euro.

Wout looked strong much to the joy of his supporters.
Wout was off the front early. Looking back on this, I wish I had seen the second floor of that building earlier. Next year.

But in the end, everyone begrudgingly accepted that this was going to be another van der Poel show. He’s racing with the group longer than years past, but when he goes, he goes, And that’s that.

Mathieu hunts down Wout, and it’s on.
All he does is win bike races.

On the women’s side, an exciting race between Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado and Yara Kastelijn kept the crowds energized.

Long fast start into a quick bottleneck on the road before a sharp right turn through a nicely maintained hedgerow.

This one came down to a last lap battle and was setting up for a sprint to the finish. Alvarado was stronger in the finale.

The Dutch duo battled to the finish. Even the Belgian fans conceded this was an exciting finish and cheered them on.

And the Dutch confetti cannon operator nailed the finish on this occasion.

Alvarado is on fire.

After the race, the crowds didn’t leave but instead headed for the beer tent and the after party that lasted well into the night. Four DJs and two bands kept the good times rolling.

These guys played throughout the day. Warming up the crowd for the after-party.

We all packed up and headed back to the apartment. A fifteen minute drive. Talk about a stellar local racing scene.

If the guy dressed as the La Chouffe mascot (or a smurf … both?) had been riding a unicycle I would’ve chased him down for a better shot.

The next day would be a little different story with a 90 minute drive to Brussels. Thankfully, it was Sunday so the Brussels traffic was not its normal awful self.

The Brussels University beer tent had its own mascot.

Cyclocross Custom was on it once again, reserving spots on the campus street that abutted the venue. The guys who run the business like clients to bring flags from home.

Matis Boyer flew the Patriote flag at the Cyclocross Custom tent.
Downhill humps were one of the crazier looking features at Brussels but turned out to be one of the tamer sectors on the track.

Tracking down press credentials for the Brussels DVV race was another adventure. Thankfully I ran into Thomas Sneyers from Alpecin Fenix (and Charm City Cyclocross fame) and he was able to help me get into the venue. I needed Balint Hamvas’ help to actually find the press room, which once again was hidden and virtually unmarked. Thank goodness that the camaraderie of the cyclocross media pit extends beyond the U.S. borders.

The start/finish stretch snaked down the roads behind the university campus. Everything at this venue was just a little off. From the comical chaos of the pits to the dirt to asphalt transitions, curbs a plenty and many roots and ruts.

The Brussels venue is pretty great. It’s a chaotic mess that isn’t the easiest to get around, but it’s got some great features that put a premium on bike-handling and the ability to let go and send it.

Andrew Strohmeyer drops in on his way to fourth in the UCI Junior Men’s race.
Synchronized ‘crossing from the Pauwels-Sauzen squad on the technical off-camber. Having appropriate tires and dialed-in air pressure were key, here. So many riders sliding to the bottom.

The crowds at Brussels were sizable, but smaller than we expected, especially compared to the non-series Gullegem race. But it was a good vibe and fun race to shoot, albeit so so dark compared to the day before. Belgium winter was showing its true colors on this day.

Annemarie Worst and Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado battling at the front.
Early race scrum.

Alvarado showed again she is the strongest rider in the world, right now. Although the crowd was enthralled to see Sanne Cant on the start line and she received the biggest cheers by far, much like van Aert the day before, Cant was unable to give the Belgian faithful a victory, acknowledging that Alvarado is just too fast to compete with at this point.

Sanne still looking for that top form.
She may not be Belgian, but don’t tell the fans that. Katie Compton has a posse in Europe. fEven more so after a good showing at Brussels DVV.

It’s now Monday and the day was spent on recovery rides, exploring the neighborhood and catching up with work.

Another day of Belgian sunshine and easy rides.

We have some fun trips planned for the week and a trip to Antwerp for Belgian Nationals next weekend. Then it’s back to racing on Monday at Otegem and heading home to the states on Tuesday.

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3 thoughts on “Hooligans And Higher Learning |A Weekend In België

  1. Nice feature and photos Bill. Hope you enjoy your first Euro CX season in person. That Alpha team must be well funded to be renting the Sprinter….much nicer then most of the other U. S. Racers who are shlepping around in cars like us Amateurs. Very nice looking kit too.

  2. Hi Bill,

    I came across by scrolling the twitter timeline of @CXGullegem.
    I’m one of the organizers of CX Gullegem.
    I have to say that I’ve enjoyed watching and reading your essay of your experiences on our race.
    I can already tell you we’ve learned some good lessons for the races next year.
    We will communicate with the press in Dutch and English, not only in Dutch.
    This is the reason you didn’t know where you could find the wooden chalet to get your press card.
    And we will mark the press room with a big poster on the door. 😉

    Hope to see you again on the 2nd of January 2021 in Hooligan

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