8 October, 2009 – Ready, Set, Allez! For the first time in cyclocross history, a major event is to be held in Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia. It is the GVA Trofee Series opener and takes place this Saturday in the infamous Citadelle de Namur.
While it may not seem so strange that a top cross event is being held somewhere in Belgium, the homeland of cyclocross, Wallonia has historically never embraced the sport. Evidence of this is found at any top cyclocross race in Europe where the courses are lined with the yellow flags donning the Lion of Flanders, representing only half of Belgium. When was the last time we saw a yellow flag with a red rooster on it?
At a time where the two halves of Belgium are slightly at odds with each other, it is fitting that the first high profile race in Wallonia is located in the Citadelle, a military fortress built in the third and fourth centuries. It can be seen as a symbolic gesture of reunification as war usually brings the people of a country together.
With history being made, you’d think the focus would be on this aspect of the race. But instead the course design is stealing all attention. On a 100 meter-high hill, the fortress is an unlikely location for a cross event. Making full use of its unique layout, five-time World Champion Roland Liboton has created a real hard-man’s course with no time for recovery. Although set in a scenic backdrop, the three-kilometer course is anything but a lazy Sunday stroll through the park.
“This is the heaviest of what Belgium has to offer. This is something for real ‘cross racers. There is a piece of Gavere, Koppenbergcross and Overijse in it. The spectators in Namen will see something they never saw before,” explains former World Champion Paul Herijgers.
Many of the racers also chimed in with the same sentiment. “Heavy as hell but very beautiful”, says Erwin Vervecken. Zdenek Stybar agrees, adding, “I find it very difficult but a beautiful course. Its location makes it even more special.”
Not all racers share the same excitement, namely current World Champion Niels Albert, who just won the World Cup season opener in Treviso, Italy last weekend.
Albert’s main complaint is that the course is for mountain bikers. “The course is selective. Maybe this is even a little bit too heavy. After two laps, everyone will ride alone – it is that spectacular. Is that going to be spectacular? It is half a lap downhill followed by half a lap climbing. You have to admit with what you have here, you can do more. If I have to be honest, it is not attractive,” claims Albert.In response to Albert’s sentiments, Liboton comments, “The organization asked me for a climbing race and I did what they asked of me. We have enough criteriums.” Stybar offered up some consoling words, saying, “It is for guys in great shape so Niels doesn’t have to complain.”
After the race plays itself out, what will remain are the memories and thoughts towards the future. Looking forward, GVA Managing Director Christophe Impens considers, “In this part of the country [Wallonia] there is a need for an event like this. There is not one reason why this beautiful sport wouldn’t succeed here – although it might take some time.” It may indeed take some time to bridge the century of growth that cyclocross has had in Flanders, but this race may just be the instigator in eventually equalizing the sport’s prestige throughout Belgium.