Hi. Bill, here. Checking in from the Autobahn as we make our way to Tabor for this weekend’s third round of the Cyclocross World Cup. It has been a minute since I made this trip in a Trek Factory Racing sprinter van. The last time was probably in 2017 or 2018, and we traveled to Nove Mesto for the MTB World Cup. This time around, we’re carrying cyclocross bikes for the CXHAIRS Devo team, which is a bit surreal for me when thinking back on how the CXHAIRS journey started as a lowly BlogSpot page more than a decade ago. But I heard that blogs are back, so here’s one from the road.
US to Europe
We loaded our gear the morning after the Fayetteville World Cup and headed to the airport. The itinerary included a quick flight to Chicago and then a multi-hour layover before heading to Brussels for two weeks of racing in Belgium and Czechia.
Our small jet out of Fayetteville included a pride of Lions, a variety of Sauces, and several other fast people you may or may not recognize out of lycra. The exit row of the plane consisted of (from left to right) myself, Laurens Sweeck, Eli Iserbyt, and Michael Vanthourenhout. This airplane grid position was about as close as I would ever come to lining up on the front row with the top of the sport.
As we were waiting to take off, an Instagram comment popped up on a photo I had posted of Laurens railing a high-speed turn during the previous day’s world cup race. I showed him the comment that read “Fantastic angle!” and asked if he thought they were talking about his angle or mine. He said, “definitely both.” Satisfied, I got to work on the day’s Wordle, and he played chess on his phone.
One last note about this first flight: As I said, it was a small plane, and it was full of bike racers with final destinations in Europe. I don’t have to tell you that bike racers, especially cyclocross racers, travel with loads of gear and multiple bikes. The cargo space in these small jets is limited. How all that gear was supposed to fit onto the plane was a complex Tetris puzzle to be solved by the fine folks of United Airlines. Here’s a spoiler: they didn’t solve it. Many of the bikes stayed in Fayetteville long after their owners departed.
When we arrived in Brussels, but before we deplaned, the flight crew announced on the loudspeaker that on our flight was Eli Iserbyt, who had won the first two rounds of the cyclocross world cup in Wisconsin and Arkansas. That announcement was followed by a round of applause from the entire flight. Cyclocross really does hit differently in Belgium.
After deplaning, we discovered that not everyone’s bikes and gear made it to Europe. Some bags had air tags, showing that the luggage was still in Fayetteville. Air tags are great for this, and I highly recommend them. I put them in all my bags because I seem to leave things behind, and now my bag will tell me when that happens.
The downside of air tags is that it doesn’t always tell the whole story. For instance, as we were tracking the bike bags and before United could figure out the plan for this cargo, the tags sent out a signal that they were somewhere in Oklahoma. Specifically at a guns, ammo, and pawn shop. That sent out some alarm bells, and calls were made to an unsuspecting pawn shop owner who knew he had done something wrong that day but wasn’t sure if it had anything to do with these bikes and lost bags.
As it turned out, it didn’t. Whatever secrets the pawn shop owner was hiding, they did not involve these particular bikes, which were on their way to Houston to board a flight to Europe that night. Eventually, all the bikes and bags made it to Brussels and are now in the hands of their rightful owners.
Belgium For a Few Days
With travel done and a day of exploring cobbled climbs in Flanders under the riders’ belts, it was time to do some racing. The first race of the block was happening 10k down the road from our apartment in Izegem.
Kermiscross Ardooie is a small affair, as these things go. A C2 race in a park behind Ardooie’s city center. It’s one of those “start down Main Street, turn left at the alley, go through the Berckmans’ backyard and race around the small municipal park, jump onto a cow pasture, turn left, and your back on the start straight” races.
Because Ardooie isn’t a series or world cup event, nobody televised the race, but the crowd was decent-sized and up for a good time. Maybe around 2000 people in total? Everyone seemed local and just out to enjoy the nice day, have some frites, and perhaps a beer or two. Although it rained reasonably hard the night before and, in the morning, when the elite fields hit the dirt, it was sunny, warm, and a tiny bit muddy. If anything, the rain helped tamp down the dust and gave the ground a nice tackiness.
It was good to see the members of the Belgian media pit out there covering the race. There were probably only five photographers on-site, including myself, but everyone was a familiar face.
The track uses a good chunk of the downtown with a main road connecting two grassy areas. The smaller plot was pancake flat but included the planks and the VIP tent. I didn’t spend much time back there because planks are planks, especially on a long flat straight.
The other grassy area had three small hills. More precisely, they looked like large mounds or giant kidney beans glued to a paper plate for a primary school project. Two of the hills had two-way traffic with some U-turns at the bottom. One was a long half-moon curve. I suspect they were purpose-built for this race
To get in and out of this area, the race went through a grassy bog that housed a long boardwalk that spectators used to view the race. It was a cool feature for viewing, but it meant that you had to plan your exit accordingly if you wanted to make the finish in time because the pedestrian traffic was heavy, with people stopping to watch the race and leaving no room to pass.
The final stretch of the track ran through a long muddy pasture. Like every US race having a set of steps it calls Belgian Stairs, actual Belgian races must have at least one section where livestock grazed before being evicted for the race. This particular cattle run consisted of rutted ground starting to dry under the sun. It meant you had to find your rut and stay there, commit to it if you will, or get thrown off your bike and forced to run.
Once back on the pavement, it was a left turn for home and a long finishing straight that ended at the Montana Restaurant.
The Montana also housed the press room. When I first arrived, I went to pick up my credential and photo vest from Nico Dick, formerly of Wielerflits, who is the event’s media officer. The one question I asked Nico was how to pronounce Ardooie. He told me and asked me to repeat it. I, of course, butchered it on the first try, and he explained that it is a long “o,” which was helpful. Instead of Americanizing it “Arr-do-ee,” it’s correctly pronounced “Arr-doh-eh-yuh” or thereabouts. I’m sure I’ll be corrected, but it’s closer than my original attempt. I thanked Nico, half-joked about American’s shit pronunciation, and went off to explore the venue.
After dropping off my photo bib following the race, I was working through the bar crowd, and a group of gents stopped me and demanded I take their photo. I’m not sure where they thought it would go or how they would see it, but they were insistent, so I obliged. When I told them I only spoke English, they said, “that is good, we will be in Playboy!” A logical jump I don’t think I could make on twice as many beers as these fellas had consumed. Regardless, if you’re reading Playboy editorial staff, here are my new friends. If you want to follow up, you can find them in a West Flanders pub.
Enough blogging; here’s a race report of sorts.
Notable for Ardooie, this was the season’s first race for Blanka Vos, Zoe Backstedt, Shirin van Anrooij, Zdenek Stybar, Felipe Orts, and Quinten Hermans. Some of these riders came into the race flying. Others look like they may need a few races to get their cross legs under them, which makes this type of event perfect for a season debut.
With many top riders from the first two world cups not making the start, performances can’t be gauged against the greater field. But there were enough performance benchmarks to see how things were going. For instance, Laurens Sweeck was there, and according to most of the Belgian press, this would be his first win of the season. But past that, no toppers were in the field.
Mees Hendrikx and Emiel Verstrynge did their best for Crelan Fristads team leader Sweeck to control the race from the front, but it was Felipe Orts who was the most aggressive after a few laps.
With only Sweeck and Hermans able to equal the pace, the men’s race soon became a three-man battle. Sweeck was dispatched a few laps later, and Orts and Hermans battled at the front for a while before Hermans was able to create and maintain a gap, eventually stretching it into a 44-second winning margin.
Hermans last raced at Worlds, ending up seventh. His previous win before Ardooie was almost a year ago when he won the first-ever Fayetteville World Cup.
Orts has been racing in Spain for the past month, racking up a few wins and consistent podiums. Ardooie was his first real test against top riders (other than Ryan Kamp a few weeks back), and he looked impressive. It will be fun to see how Orts performs in the world cups.
On the women’s side, it was a similar story. The top Dutch women (or top women, if you will) stayed at home as this was predominantly a Belgian affair. Alicia Franck’s return was the headline, but an eighth-place finish behind Sanne Cant may not have been the result she expected.
All eyes were also on Zoe Backstedt, who is coming off her year-long quest to win every rainbow jersey in every discipline. With four to her name, she put a pretty good dent in that endeavor. But a long road season and not that much time on the cross bike seemed to take its toll as Backsedt ended the day in fifth place, 2:37 down on the winner. Marion Riberolle was the top Belgian in fourth place, 2:28 down. Aniek van Alphen landed on the podium at 2:11 down.
In reality, this was a race between two women: Shirin van Anrooij and Blanka Vas. Vas pushed the pace from the start and quickly broke up the field. Only van Anrooij could keep close, and even she couldn’t match the pace in the final laps. Vas took the win by close to a half minute.
As in many smaller events, local dignitaries and celebrities are recognized on stage as part of the podium festivities. Kermiscross was no different as they took time out of the celebration to honor the new local hero (he’s from Roeselare, around 6km down the road) and world champion Gianni Vermeersch. The spirit of gravel is alive and well in West Flanders.
We still have five more hours to go before we get to Tabor, but I think that’s all I have to report for now. I’ll try and check in after that race with another update. Or I may go the way of most blogs and stop after one entry.
A few more images from the day: