If I could describe racing at night in one word, it would be WOOO-HOOO! OK, well maybe that is technically two words but it just can’t be summed up in one. I suppose unreal or surreal can cover it too.
According to the TomTom GPS, which almost every single Belgian uses to navigate through the small roads in Europe, Nacht van Woerden (Night of Woerden – which is a little town in Holland) was two hours away. But to get there, we had to cross the Antwerpen ring. The traffic is so bad there that they are proposing to build a bridge or tunnel through the whole city to alleviate delays of up to two hours during rush hour. With that said, we left at 2:30pm for a race that starts way past dinner time at 8:45pm. The men raced at 9:45 which is bedtime for most of these athletes. We arrived at almost 5pm, jumped immediately onto the course and did a few rounds before the start of the first race – amateurs and masters at 6:20pm.
While pre-riding, I worked on memorizing every bump, root, the best lines for the off-camber sections – basically anything that can slow me down or possibly knock me off my bike. But once the lights go out, I quickly found that all those memorized little things no longer mattered. Your only focus is to stay between the course linings. I bet if this race were run in the daytime the speeds would be lower. The most dangerous part of the whole event was actually riding to the course and back, weaving through invisible cyclists and spectators. I think I had about four near misses. Jonas walked around with a mini handlebar blinker attached to the zipper of his jacket. Smart guy! Maybe that’s why I married him.
As for the gist of the course, it was a twisty, turny maze. Every few seconds you were slowing down for a tight u-turn in dusty corners and powering out of them. It reminded me a lot of San Francisco Bay Area courses. I had so much fun riding it that I had a tough time wiping the stupid grin off my face. I managed a few times to mask my excitement as I passed the swarms of camera flashes. You can always figure out the location of other riders based on the bursts of light along the course.
This was World Champion Marianne Vos’ first cross race of the season and she rocked it! The only two riders who could stay anywhere in her vicinity were Holland’s Sanne Van Paassen and England’s Helen Wyman who races for Kona. They finished respectively twelve and thirty seconds behind the young sweetheart of cross!
Another amazing performance was put on by Holland’s Reza Hormes-Ravenstijn who, in her first race back after two broken ribs, placed seventh – just ahead of Belgian Champion Joyce Vanderbeken. My result well into the teens was not satisfactory but I felt better than I did even a week ago which gives me a positive feeling. On the upside, I did win 6€ which felt like a lot after Helen told me she won a whopping 25€ for third place. Maybe we both should have gone to Ohio’s UCI3 Festival?
After the race, Helen’s third backup bike was left at our van for safekeeping so naturally I lifted it. What a light bike, especially considering its’ size since Helen is one of the few women who are taller than I. Once she picked up her bike, Jonas and I headed out to watch the men. When we arrived, unsurprisingly we saw Sven Nys in the lead. But what did shock us a little was to see Gerben de Knegt on his wheel. They had a nice gap over a group of six chasers including Holland’s Thijs Al – winner of ’08 Zolder World Cup, Holland’s up-and-comer Eddy Van Ijzendoorn, Poland’s Mariusz Gil, Jonathan Page, Erwin Vervecken, and Belgian National Champion (elite w/o contract) Ben Berden. Crossing the line, Sven came first with five seconds over de Knegt. He dropped him through a technical section on the last lap. In post-race interviews, Nys said that he immediately realized he was the strongest on the day but kept de Knegt with him because it wasn’t a good idea to ride alone on a course like that. Thirty seconds later came the chase group, finishing in a sprint in the order above. (Full report here.)
The next race on my schedule is the infamous Koppenbergcross, held in Oudenaarde where, as of this year, the women get to ride the legendary cobbles of the Koppenberg. For those of you who have never set tire on this climb, it is a bitch to ascend. Even when dry, which almost never happens for race day. But the crowds are not hanging around the cobbles. Instead they are lining the treacherous descent which turns into a greasy slip-and-slide when wet. Last year, I think almost every male fell somewhere in the race. The most famous of the crashes happened on the last lap (video here) where Nys was being tailed by Boom. Both fell but neither one was privy to the other guy’s misfortune since there was a bend in the trail separating the two. They only found out after the race while watching the TV in the podium changing room. See last year’s report and video.
Keep tuned to Cyclocross Magazine’s website over the next days. I am about to submit an in-depth behind-the-scenes story on the Koppenbergcross race. What a story it is!
As always, thanks for reading!