Vervecken has hung up the bike for the final time. © Jonas Bruffaerts

Vervecken has hung up the bike for the final time. © Jonas Bruffaerts

Erwin Finally Hangs the Bike up for Good in his Hometown of Herentals

by Christine Vardaros

It was the third but last time this week that three-time world champion Erwin Vervecken hung up his bike for good. But first he went for a “Sunday stroll” around the park with 750 of his friends.

The start was a bit chaotic. For the staging, they had the pros and Vervecken’s top sponsors in the front, then the rest were separated into boxes. The color of armband given to the riders at registration determined their staging box.  Jonas and I started in the front with Vervecken and the other gals, such as Daphny Van den Brand, Nikki Harris, Joyce Vanderbeken and Nicole De Bie-Leyton, who showed up for the ride in support of Vervecken’s career. Sanne Cant was also there but couldn’t participate due to a fall in the sand during last Wednesday’s race in Hasselt. At the start line, Vanderbeken was the only one of us gals who was committed to racing the thing. She sported a skinsuit at the start while the rest of us had full legs and arms and even wind vests to keep the mud off our jerseys.

A minute before the start, they removed the ribbons separating the boxes and within a nano-second, our cross bikes were intertwined with mountain bikes, complete with bar ends to make the mass start more interesting. When the gun sounded, the ten or so pros such as Sven Nys, Niels Albert, and Zdenek Stybar took off like a bolt of lightning. I’ve seen these guys from the sidelines at the races so many times but until you are elbow-to-elbow with them at a race start, it is hard to imagine just how fast they really are.  All the girls took off rather fast too, especially considering they weren’t planning to race it.  But maybe it’s an automatic reaction to the sound of a gun. Even if i willed my body to race it, my legs wouldn,t have played along, as they were still painful to the touch after my acrobatic act in Hasselt. Instead I played around at a cyclotourist pace.

The course was mainly flat on wide roads but super muddy. There were also a few whoop-de-doos, singletrack and even a sandbox that was part of a children’s playground. A couple of times I rode through it I had a cheering section consisting of very familiar voices. It was Jonathan and Cori Page, along with their kids Milo and Emma. Usually I am cheering for Jonathan so it was a little strange to hear his voice on the sidelines. I chatted with them for a few seconds before getting back on the job. It was like that for most of my ride. I think I talked with about fifty people in total. I also took some time out to help out some of the riders, such as a ten year old kid who was stuck part way up a steep bump.  After I assisted him in pushing his heavy mountain bike to the top, I cheered while he cautiously got back on and slowly made his way down.

My last lap was probably the fastest thanks to a few newfound playmates. Just before heading into the last lap I turned around to see a gaggle of skinsuitted guys chatting about. It was none other than the front of the peloton, probably figuring out how the end of the race was going to play out. (Vervecken won ahead of Albert and Nys). Naturally I bolted out of there so as not to get lapped. Good thing they spent a while talking so I avoided being passed by them. They apparently had lots of time to spare considering the first non-pro was many minutes behind – some were guessing the gap was close to fifteen minutes.

Wellens and Vervecken after he was presented with his new townie bike. © Jonas Bruffaerts

Wellens and Vervecken after he was presented with his new townie bike. © Jonas Bruffaerts

To keep my motivation going in the last lap, I bridged to a few guys who were determined not to let me go by. They’d pass me, I’d pass them until they dropped me for a few minutes while I patiently waited behind a string of lapped riders so as not to get my beautifully white Zannata bike more muddy. As I passed them again, I gave them the “thumb-to-the-nose-neener-neener” gesture which got the mini-competition going again. A minute later they flew by me, and again I flew by them but this time I kept the pressure on for a few minutes until I was sure they’d never come back again.  Well, I woke up to find that they were almost back on me, so I pressed on a bit again.  Just as I was nearing the finish line for the fourth and last time, I came upon one of the riders who was duking it out with me earlier on. I slowly passed him, to give him a chance to speed up. When he saw me, he laughed so hard and tried to match my speed but fell immediately back on his saddle while doing the throat-slit gesture.

Oddly enough, after all my playing around I ended up third woman on the day – Van den Brand was first, Vanderbeken second while Harris and De Bie-Leyton didnt officially finish their fourth lap.  Instead they sat around and waited for Vanderbeken to pass so they could slyly jump on her wheel and play with her head. When Vanderbeken saw the gals behind, she freaked out and tried to drop them in an attempt to hold onto her second place. Of course as part of the game, the gals “fought” her for the spot. At one point, De Bie-Leyton and Vanderbeken almost crashed into the barriers as Vanderbeken valiantly tried to hold them off. They both beat her in the sprint only for Vanderbeken to find out after she crossed the finish line that it was all a joke.

After getting cleaned up, Jonas and I headed over to the party tent. When we arrived, Vervecken was onstage in front of a large video screen replaying all his most memorable victories – including the World Championships where he won in front of Jonathan Page. Many of the people in Vervecken’s life rotated through the stage, giving thanks to him for his contribution to the sport and to their personal lives. Among his visitors were many fellow racers like Sven Nys, Niels Albert, Tom Meeusen, Kevin Pauwels, Zdenek Stybar, Bart Wellens, best friend Sven Vanthourenhout, Dieter Vanthourenhout, Klaas Vantornout, and teammates Pawel Szczepaniak and Mariusz Gil.

After the racers left the stage, Wellens and Stybar came back onstage to present Vervecken with a special parting gift – a town bike, complete with fenders and a chain guard which got some laughs from Vervecken. Next Vervecken’s mechanics came onstage so he could present them with gifts of gratitude for their hard work in helping him to achieve all his successes over the years. Lastly, Vervecken’s new Golazo Sports boss Christophe Impens came up, followed by Vervecken’s  parents, wife and kids, and some of his fan club members. When the head of his fan club was asked to which rider they will now switch their support, his response summed up the whole day.  He said, ” There is only one Vervecken and there will never be another.”

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