After returning from Tabor, it was nice to spend a few days in Izegem catching up on work. With no race until the next weekend, the CXHAIRS Devo squad took advantage of the opportunity to combine training and bike tourism by riding the legendary cobbled climbs of the Flanders Classics. Although the riders couldn’t steal any KOMs on the Koppenberg or Paterberg, they did get to ride the roads of the biggest monuments, and the weather remained an un-Belgian-like warm and sunny.
On Wednesday, we made the trip to Floreal Kempen, a campground in Lichtaart, a small town in the Antwerp region. Along with being a campground, Floreal Kempen is also the home to a phenomenal wooded dog park. But you may have heard of it as the mythical cyclocross training ground for Belgian’s finest. It is that too, but really, the dog park is so good.
The first notable part of the Lichtaart track is that cyclocross training is an official activity for the park. It’s not a secret training ground where a grounds crew member or park employee will run you off the property for riding on the grass. From September 1 until March 1, if you are hiking or partaking in any other activity, you are on notice that a speeding bike may come around a blind corner at any moment. There are many other hiking trails for people to enjoy and, did I mention the dog park? It’s big and wooded and well used. I wish I had taken some photos in there. But the bottom line is that it is unlikely you will have an altercations with your local dog walker or any other park users, for that matter, when training on your cx bike.
Regarding the training, the Lions’ practice looked like any other team sport. After a few warm-up laps, everyone gathers together for words from the coach. The practice schedule is laid out, and off they go. Different drills are performed on marked parts of the course. Tight turns with tricky climbs, dismounts, carries, and sand riding: all of the fundamentals are covered. And after 90 minutes or so, it’s done.
There is no magic here. It’s just running a cycling team the way you run any other type of sports team. The training ground and practice sessions may be located in Belgium but it could be anywhere.
Speaking of things that could be anywhere, Saturday marked the first race of the Superprestige series, which took place at Ruddervoorde. The venue is about a 25-minute drive from Izegem. With the Maasmechelen world cup a two-hour drive away, the CXHAIRS Devo team decided not to race Ruddervoorde but to go to the world cup venue on Saturday, get some practice laps in and prepare for Sunday.
Lucky for me, Ethan (@thepenultimatestage) and Geoffrey (@Yefrifotos) traveled from Paris to Belgium to work Ruddervoorde, Maasmechelen and Koppenberg Cross. This meant I had a ride and more good company to and from these events.
A constant mantra you hear about cyclocross in North America is that the topography doesn’t suit itself to Belgian-style courses. It’s a bewildering argument considering (a) North America has among the most diverse topographical features as any land mass in the world, and (b) many of the features that make up a typical Belgian cyclocross track are made to order.
In my limited tours of Belgian cyclocross, most venues I’ve visited included features purpose-built for cyclocross. Gullegem, Herentals, Otegem, and Ardooie have earthworks explicitly created for the race.
The “uncarved block” in Taoism symbolizes full potential. If something is in its native form, it hasn’t been changed or modified; it has its full potential remaining. Most of these smaller racers start as flat fields.Belgian fields are cyclocross’ uncarved block.
Never has there been a better example of the cyclocross uncarved block than Ruddervoorde. What started as a flat field in a typical Belgian agrarian neighborhood is now a cyclocross playground with dirt whoops, berms, run-ups, a staircase, and a sandpit unrivaled outside Koksijde.
Some of the features are home runs at Ruddervoorde, including the stairs and run up section and the sand pit, which I will talk about next. But some are not what I expected. The whoops look amazing on the broadcast. But in person, they are a bit underwhelming. Camera compression with long lenses is something familiar to all of us. When we see riders on a long stretch it can look like a chase group is just about to catch a leader because the camera makes a five second gap look like a one second gap by compressing the background. This same phenomenon is in play with the Ruddervoorde whoops. On the broadcast, they look like they come one after the other. But in reality they are pretty far apart. I don’t think this has anything to do with performance or their usefulness, just that it was eye-opening to see the gaps between the mounds.
I should also add that, like everything else in bike racing, the racers make the race. So what may have been an underwhelming feature this year is a pretty exciting feature when Mathieu van der Poel or Zdenek Stybar pull off some sick tail whips from the whoops. This year, the VIP section lining the back of the feature, didn’t get the wow factor it had in the past.
Enough with the underwhelming, let’s talk overwhelming. The Ruddervoorde sand pit is a monster. It’s long, and deep and ends at the top of a hill. It’s like a mini Zonhoven in reverse. The advantage of staying on the bike on this feature is enormous as Laurens Sweeck proved by riding it clean and creating a gap.
When I look at the Ruddervoorde track it reminds me of the Fayetteville World Cup/World Championship venue that underwent the same transformation, proving that the uncarved block concept is possible in North America. However, the difference is that Fayetteville built similar features on top of a flat field—stairs and a drop, tabletops and whoops—but they super-sized them. What makes Ruddervoorde different is that the entire cyclocross playground takes place on property a fraction of the size of Fayetteville’s Centennial Park.
This is not a ding on Fayetteville. Their ambitions were the world stage; for that, you need enough real estate to hold World Championship-level crowds. But for a Superprestige race, this venue is a blueprint for what is possible anywhere.
It starts as a dream and becomes a reality. The owner of the Ruddervoorde property is a cyclocross fan who wanted a cyclocross track and race in his yard. If this were a cornfield in Iowa, we may have been going to a baseball game in Ruddervoorde. But it’s Belgium so he built a cyclocross venue. No ghosts of cyclocross stars of the past came out of the cabbage fields, but the concept is pretty much the same. If you have the resources and the land, you can build this. A cyclocross field of dreams. It’s not cheap, but it’s not something that can only happen in Belgium. There’s nothing different about the land or dirt in Ruddervoorde that makes this type of race venue only possible in Flanders. The run-ups, off-cambers and drops are made out of the same dirt we have at home.
And that is not to say that doing this in the U.S. would be easy, just that it’s possible. I’ve had my fair share of cyclocross run-ins with city councils; local, state, and national park services; and the rest of the monetary and bureaucratic landmines that stand in the way of cycling events. I just wanted to show that what has been done here is not exclusive to being here.