Have you heard about the European tourist planning a weeklong driving tour of the United States that includes New York, Miami, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles? I think we all have, or at least some variation. However, the reality is that many Europeans don’t grasp just how massive the US is until they drive through the Plains states for hours on end, staring at another crop field, questioning life and existence itself.
Conversely, what most Europeans consider a long drive is maybe six to eight hours. Live in Brussels and want to go to Paris? Four-hour drive. Zurich or Berlin? About an eight-hour drive. Everything is pretty reasonable compared to North America. There are no 40-hour drives within the same country, like going from Miami to Las Vegas.
All this is to say that the drive from Izegim, Belgium, to Tabor, Czechia, is an American-sized drive. It can easily take 14 hours with traffic and fuel stops. So if you decided that you didn’t want to race the Tabor World Cup because the travel was too much, I would not fault that decision. It’s almost more of a time commitment than flying to the US for a race.
Travel issues aside, I’m glad we made the trip.
We left Izegim in two vehicles at around 7 am. The riders hit the highway straightaway while I went with Litu, a Trek Factory Racing MTB mechanic helping us for this trip, to the TFR service course in Deinze. A quick resupply of necessary items for the race and a few hits of espresso later, we were on the road.
Izegem is a centrally located town for a good portion of the Flanders cyclocross calendar. Ardooie was 10 minutes up the road, and Ruddervoorde was 15. But for anything farther east, you must deal with getting through Brussels. And Brussels is always a mess. Friday morning was no exception. But once we were east of the capital city, it was smooth sailing through Germany and on to Czechia.
The last time I crossed the border in a van was in 2018, and at that time, the Czech government had just passed a law banning billboards within 250 meters of the roadway. To protest that law, the company that owned most of the existing billboards removed its advertising and replaced every billboard with a Czech flag. It gave the drive a strange nationalistic vibe when entering the country. Learning that it was a protest, not a pro-government rally, made it a beautiful mess.
I was looking forward to seeing the billboards on this drive, and it took a few kilometers to realize that the flag displays were no longer there, and neither were the billboards. With the law fully implemented, the government removed the offending signage.
We arrived in Tabor after dark and weren’t sure what was in store when we rolled up to our accommodations. Down a narrow road on the side of a small cliff, we finally came to a medieval-looking inn with imposing courtyard doors and a host of gargoyles protecting the property.
Housův Mlýn is an inn built on the grounds of a 13th-century mill located just below the city walls of Tabor. The property owner is a fencing choreographer and professor who also makes armor and weapons for the Czech movie industry. The property is a renaissance fair and movie set rolled into one and housed an armory of swords and weapons used in many of the movies filmed in Tabor.
Ethan Glading was in town to photograph the world cup, and we stayed in the “steampunk room” with a few plague masks, welder goggles and top hats inside, and a trebuchet just outside if things got dicey late at night.
We had some time on Saturday to explore the town and were given some unsolicited advice from a house painter on some of the best shots. He didn’t let us down.
Fun note about Tabor: residents in the 15th century began connecting their cellars, creating a labyrinth under the city called the Tabor Catacombs. According to legend, the Hussite Ark is hidden in the middle of the tunnel complex. The Hussites believed the ark carried an energy that made them invincible in battle. The Bohemian League, who defeated the Hussites in the Battle of Lipany in 1434, has strong evidence the legend of the ark is just that. A legend.
Hockey Night in Tabor
When touring with The Replacements, Paul Westerberg had a rule that they were on the road to play shows, and that was it. “We’re on tour, not tourists” was the ‘mats mantra throughout their career. In the past, I’ve fallen into this same trap of going to incredible places around North America and the world only to see the hotel and race venue. During my last year on the World Cup MTB circuit, we went to South Africa, and I made a point of seeing penguins even though it was a long drive and a huge hassle.
Since then, I’ve done better at seeing local sights, but it’s still a struggle. Ethan was in the same mindset of wanting to break out of the hotel/race venue/home trap. After he mentioned that HC Tabor, the city’s third-division hockey team, had a home game on Saturday night, we were determined to see the game.
The moving goalposts of the media credential pickup almost thwarted our efforts. It went from 2p to 4p to 6p to 6:15p. Thankfully, it was a quick drive from the inn to the media room to grab our photo vests and then to the hockey arena. Once there, we were turned down at the box office because this was a cash-only affair, and we had no Czech koruna. I tried to get the security guys to exchange 20 euros at a favorable rate, but they wanted no part of me. We then ran into a young kid who was explaining ticket pricing to us and said with the exchange, it would be about four euros. He then started unzipping his fanny pack, and Ethan and I thought we had run across an enterprising young scalper. Unfortunately, he didn’t produce any tickets, and we were off to find an ATM.
Back at the arena with money in hand, we entered a scene straight out of Letterkenny. We climbed the stairs and entered the hall just as a full-on donnybrook took place on the ice. The small but energetic home crowd was cheering on their guy while he danced a few rounds with his opposing number.
Once play restarted, I learned a universal truth: No matter where you are in the world, minor league hockey is the same. There were a lot of penalties, and even more that the refs let go. I saw two legit boarding calls that got shrugs from the refs as the medical team carted the victims off the ice.
We left with about five minutes left in the game and the home team suffering a nil to four drubbing. The security force at the front gate was gone, and the exit of the arena was now secured by a thick cloud of cigarette smoke that remained from the arena-wide smoke break taken between periods by everyone in the place but us.
The Tabor World Cup is a race that, on a screen, looks underwhelming. From afar, it seems like long stretches of field riding broken up by some stairs, a little off-camber, and a set of planks. In person, it’s a near-perfect venue for cyclocross with technical challenges, speed sectors, and the opportunity to showcase various skills and strengths. The elevation is the element that surprised me the most. Far from flat, everything east of the finishing straight is on a hillside.
Planks, barriers, or hurdles: by whatever name, they are the distinguishing feature in cyclocross. However, the efficacy of planks in a cyclocross race has diminished over the years. It used to be an absolute forced dismount for most of the field and a skill you trained extensively because the time penalty of getting it wrong lap after lap could be significant.
In today’s game, planks can be an afterthought. In ideal conditions, most of the men’s field and a growing number of riders in the women’s field no longer dismount for the feature. In many venues, the planks are shorter and set up as a special feature to plop down in front of the VIP tent. For these races, they are more a crowd draw than a tactical part of a course. That’s not the case for Tabor, where the planks mean everything. Throughout the day, the feature played a crucial role in the outcome of races.
At Tabor, the long flat drag created by pit one at the bottom of the hill precedes the planks. At the end of pit row, you take a hard left and ride a short uphill off-camber before turning right and riding a steep kicker. At the top of this kicker are the planks. And not your standard 40 cm or shorter planks but big beefy 40cm high and 25cm wide planks that house an LED light display that shows ads throughout the race. Quick aside: the Czech LED game is on point. Along with the message board planks, the venue also features this exquisite LED starting truss that adds a nice wrinkle to the call-up pageantry of the top eight.
But back to those planks. After you get over the second one, you’re back on the gas and pedaling up a significant climb before turning right and descending to whence you came. To nail this feature, you need to have enough speed coming out of the off-camber to ride the barriers successfully. You’re going to yardsale on the second plank if you get it wrong. But, on the other hand, if you do it right, you will have a huge advantage over anyone who dismounted in that you’re already accelerating up the hill while they are getting back on their bikes.
Interestingly, when I watched the race last year, I thought the swell with the light post was a significant part of the race. With the drier conditions this year, it was a bit of a non-factor, and I almost forgot it existed because of its location. It’s tucked in behind left field where no spectators venture. I took a few shots just to remind myself it was there.
Speaking of spectators, Tabor is a good exercise in perspective. If you asked me how the crowds were at this race, I’d say “spectacular.” But if I showed you images of the track’s first half around the ball field, you’d ask me why nobody was there. That half of the venue was accessible but not inviting. There was no food or beer or jumbo screen to watch. The organization basically said, please don’t go here. Go to the planks. That’s where the action is. And most everyone obliged.
Going from the start to the stairs and then the planks was also possible in the same lap, so the big crowd you saw on the broadcast did a nice job of shifting to the action. As someone who is there to shoot photos, having crowds and finding angles that make them look massive is a big part of the gig. The fans at Tabor make it easy.
I don’t think I need to provide a race recap. You probably already watched the races and can do a better job than I could have after watching most of the action in bits and pieces around the venue.
One note about the racing worth mentioning is that I’m glad I was able to be in person for Zdenek Stybar’s return to racing cyclocross at Tabor. Stybar brings electricity to a crowd I have only witnessed a few times. Nino winning in Lenzerheide may have come close. Wout’s return to cross was up there. But I don’t think those times matched the excitement this crowd shared for Styby. He is beyond adored, and his graciousness at the end of the race, allowing the public to cheer him through the finish, was a nice final touch to the weekend.
After the race, we hit the road for the long drive back to Belgium. We made it to Nuremberg before stopping for the night. The only photo I have from Germany is of this vending machine for meat.
Oh, also, Playboy still exists in Czechia. So my friends in my last entry from Belgium still have a shot.
See you next time. Cyclocross friends. Part 1 is here if you missed it.