by Christine Vardaros
America’s inaugural World Cyclocross Championships incited a roller coaster of emotions throughout the Belgian (Flemish) community, for both riders and fans alike. The wave of uncertainty was finally put to rest after Belgian Sven Nys crossed the line, hand in the air – but not a moment earlier.
The first question mark attached to Louisville Worlds started months ago, when rumors surfaced that it had lost its funding. Once those rumors were squelched as the organizers assured the world that all was under control, the next wave of uncertainty emerged only six weeks before the big event when this rumor turned out to be true. Thankfully, USA Cycling stepped in to back the event just after the problems were announced. But Belgium took note – both times.
The loudest mouth was broadcasting station VRT’s commentator, Michel Wuyts. According to Sporza, Wuyts stated, “The US is not hot for the World Championships. They’ve put no sponsors together and were there at the last minute appealing to Belgian Company Golazo for support. If you see that the organizer had to throw in the towel a month ago, then you know enough.”
When he was asked if it was really necessary to move the whole cyclocross scene to the United States, he responded that he doesn’t think so. “I think we especially need to ensure that cyclocross remains popular in the regions where it has always been popular: with us, Holland, the Basque Country, a slice of Brittany and Bohemia (Czech Republic). If at the World Cup, 5000 spectators turned up, it will already be a lot. What Americans like to do is be there so they later can tell their grandkids that they saw the World Champion. But whether they have a lot of knowledge about ’cross is another matter. I think it’ll be a one-off event.”
Christophe Vandegoor from Sporza TV gives a philosophical twist on the situation. “We’re traveling all the way to the United States for a 1-hour race. Well, let’s consider it an exotic trip.”
Then the third strike for the Louisville organizers came in the form of a date change which hit the Belgians more personally and across the board. According to Het Nieuwsblad, Niels Albert exclaims, “This can’t happen for a World Championship. Didn’t they know already two years ago that there is a risk of flooding? They could have taken the possibility of the river flooding into account and set up the course on the other side of the street. Then there wasn’t a problem. And if they looked for a Plan B, why not switch courses with the Masters? They were on the other side of the street, away from the river. Then our race could have remained on Sunday. Amateurism through and through. You may not underestimate the impact of this decision. For us and for the public and the supporters.”
“A firm blow for cyclocross,” adds Nys, who had mixed feelings about the event. “We already had to do a lot of effort to come to Louisville for the race. And I’m not talking about press, supporters, entourage, material. Because of the change of date, the national television station has to change their calendar and thousands of people probably won’t get to see the World Championships. You can’t underestimate this decision to move the date. I think the impact in Belgium will be the biggest. In our village, they put up some tents where there was food and at a lot of places they organize things that now have to be scrapped. Luckily, it stays at the same time of day.”
Does the date change come over as amateurish to Nys? His response was diplomatic: “It feels strange that the decision is only made Thursday evening, but this is exceptional circumstances. But of course the race is close to the river. And with the weather from the last days, we were even making jokes about it.”
Just like the rest of the Belgian Elite Men and Women, Nys regrets that he had done a hard training on Thursday. He rode 1 ½ hours behind the scooter, half hour on the rollers, and in the afternoon he trained hard on the course. “In reflection, this is not an ideal preparation for a Saturday race. If this will have an influence on my chances, I will only know that after the race. Usually after a training day like that, two days later you are not as fresh when you’re standing there on the start line. I would have preferred even to race on Friday. You have to keep it in mind but this doesn’t affect my self-confidence. It only matters to change my focus to Saturday as soon as possible. Everything stays the same, there is only one day less of recovery. It’s a pity but I remain the favorite for the title.”
Kevin Pauwels was a bit more easygoing about the whole ordeal, saying, “Then it’s over quicker. One day less to be nervous. On Thursday I rode a lap of the course full out, but that won’t make the difference [in the race].”
As for the supporters clubs, many were not too pleased. “This joke will cost us 2,500€,” says Niels Albert Supporter Club Chairman Hans Roelandts. “Now we have to rent the Damiaan Hall in Tremelo (Albert’s hometown) not only Sunday – such as we planned many months ago – but Saturday as well, plus a big screen and a DJ for between the races. On Sunday, we will open the hall again because we are hosting an American lunch for 300 people. All that food is ordered.”
According to Het Laatste Nieuws, Albert’s supporters club is not the only one hurt by the date change. In the neighboring town of Baal, Sven Nys’ hometown, there was also a large hall rented for Sunday. “The party scheduled to be held in the hall couldn’t be moved to Saturday because it was not available that day,” said Johnny Nys, Sven’s uncle. “So instead on Sunday we went to a café. Because we had already paid for the food, we couldn’t just forget about the event. So we turned it into a second party! Finally, Sven Nys is our World Champion.”
Gert Wellens, the brother of Bart, was also handed the short stick. Bart Wellens explains, “My brother Geert had put together a whole party to watch Worlds. Five hundred attendees. DJ rented, giant screen, food and drinks. What must he do now? Try and move it all up one day. Problem is that the hall is not available the day before because it’s booked for a soccer game. So he has to find a whole other location, but that is quasi-impossible in 24 hours’ time. It’s clear that the Americans didn’t give the consequences any thought regarding the foreigners.” Geert’s party was eventually saved, a relief for the brothers.
But once Louisville Worlds played itself out, it was clear to most everyone that it was a major success – in spite of the three strikes against it. And while the decision to move the date for the elites from Sunday to Saturday was drastic, it turned out to be the only choice. The 10,000 spectators that turned out for the big day was double that of the Belgian’s expectations for the first World Championships held in the USA, far surpassing their wildest expectations. In addition, the Americans, including the race organizers, overwhelmed the Belgians in the style of which they pulled it off. Again, the Belgians took note.
Those who made the trip over certainly felt the warmth of American ’cross. “It’s fantastic. The spectators were very relaxed. It was really fun to be here to go to the ’cross than in Belgium. Everyone stays in their place, no pushing or pulling, just very friendly. In short, this is how a cyclocross race should always be in my opinion. Even those waiting in line for food and drink remained calm and composed. They had fantastic discipline,” said Cindy Nagels, a diehard Kevin Pauwels supporter.
Mario Yskout, supporter of Sanne Cant and Marco Fontana, adds, “It was nice to have experienced that live. The negative comments coming from the Flemish press before the event were not for nothing. The one major mistake about race was to hold it in a flood zone. We talked to locals and they told us that they found it strange that the UCI and the organization would choose such a location for Worlds as it regularly floods, and not just in April like the UCI stated. Also, for the spectators there was little time between the races to socialize with the riders. But the American public was superb and unlike here there was no ‘negative’ badgering of the riders. They all gave both the first through the last riders the attention and support they deserve.”
Those who remained in the motherland of ’cross were equally impressed with the final turn of events based on the sampling that Cyclocross Magazine collected.
“Despite much bullshit about the course before the race, what I saw on TV was a challenging course where only a complete ’cross racer could win. And it seemed to me the atmosphere along the course was also perfectly fine from what I could tell,” explained Kurt van Hout.
Rita Thienpondt added, “The race was certainly a success. All the top favorites won such as Mathieu van der Poel and Marianne Vos. Wietse Bosmans’ second place was also normal although he was disappointed, and Nys was also top favorite going into the event.”
“I loved this Worlds – big crowds, great atmosphere, and ambiance,” said Bart Raeymaekers. “You could tell the riders were enjoying themselves there in Louisville. As for the course, it looked great. There were stairs, climbs, fast bits. It had it all. Also, I loved that all the races were on one day. That was fantastic fun!”
Eugene Skil, an honorary lowlander from Ireland, said, “As a livestream spectator I thought the whole soap opera was brilliant! All the commotion about moving the material, Albert going over to the US ahead of the others to get an advantage, the cultural exchange between Belgium and USA, and the races on the same day. The crowd really looked excited.”
Erik Myngheer comments, “If you ask me, it should be over there again next year. Very nice course, nice wide start without tight corners, all the trimmings, bits of running but not for long. Every day it was another course, everything is unpredictable and the strongest come out on top. Very successful.”
“It was a really beautiful and hard course, but only a pity for danger of flooding,” said Lydia van de Meersche.
“But I was missing the cheerleaders as every sport in America seems to have cheerleaders, “ quipped Robin Stevens.
According to Tom Prenen there could be a slight improvement on the television coverage. “From the camera work, I was honestly a little disappointed. Only the first rider came into view, little attention to what was happening behind, some blind spots, and so on.” He was not certainly alone in this sentiment. Many were disappointed not to have been able to see the battle between Katerina Nash and Lucie Chainel-Lefèvre for the Women’s Elite bronze medal. Prenen adds, “But I was pleasantly surprised by the public and their numbers. If you have such a crowd to show up, then it was right to hold Worlds in America.”
Of course there will always be those who see things their own way. Joining Wuyts on the naysayer side is Peter Loef, Assistant Vision Training and Physical Coach with Cercle-Brugge, one of Belgium’s biggest soccer teams. “It was exciting but Worlds should certainly be held in Europe for all the cyclocross fans. The Americans should stick to their own sports culture and not with cyclocross.” It should be noted, he was unable to watch the event live as his team was scheduled for a soccer game Saturday.
Ernst van Looveren is yet another in that camp. “Now they all can watch the Super Bowl instead of the cyclocross. That’s what I thought directly this morning and let us keep cyclocross in Europe please.”
As for the official opinion of the UCI, which happens to come from a Belgian in the form of UCI Coordinator Peter van den Abeele, “The 10,000 made more noise than the 60,000 last year in Koksijde. The atmosphere was absolutely stunning. ’Cross lives here, that’s clear. Sport-wise this is definitely worth repeating, but whether or not the budget is feasible for the organizers is another question. The UCI’s financial support to Louisville was considerable. If you want to help develop the sport, that is a necessity. An American World Cup race should now be the next target. Therefore, I see only one race as eligible. CrossVegas. The ideal ‘partner in crime’. But do they want the race there and can they swing it?”
Brook Watts, organizer of CrossVegas, had this to say. “I’ve always been interested in seeing a World Cup calendar that kicks off in the USA, that’s a logical calendar flow in my mind, and I think CrossVegas has the elements to make it a success. Elements like the biggest crowds in American ’cross, the natural excitement of Las Vegas and the unique nighttime setting of CrossVegas.”
He continued, “Peter [van den Abeele] and I have had this World Cup discussion since his first visit to CrossVegas in 2008. I’ve always insisted it has to make sense economically; you cannot get swept up in enthusiasm and commit to something without having a solid business plan in place. But I am truly honored that CrossVegas is the natural consideration as a partner in the US.”
“There are considerable obstacles to consider,” he continued. “None of them are deal breakers but they must be considered very carefully. For starters, the challenge of a West Coast US event on European TV – will a live broadcast succeed or is a tape-delay required to hit European viewers during the day? This question has never been encountered by a World Cup ’cross event. Changing the race to a daytime event would be like holding Diegem during the day … it would take the inherent charm of the event away. We’ll see, I’m a born optimist so I’ll continue to conduct my due diligence and hope we can bring another big show to the USA … this time in the warmth of Las Vegas.”
When America does get to hold a World Championships again, Albert has a bit of advice based on his experiences this time around. “I think that there was little forethought [going into the event]. They could have solved a bulk of their problems, for instance the ones that occurred in the first weeks before the event, by first holding a couple of World Cups in the USA. Or if we had a few races we could do in America after the World Championships that serve as season-ending events. Then it would be worth the effort to make such an expensive trip. But instead we go all the way to America for one race.” It cost him 12,000€, paid out of his own pocket, to get his soigneur, two mechanics and girlfriend, overseas. Based on Albert’s gripes, he may very well be keen on heading off to Vegas, especially taking into consideration Watts’ approach to holding an event. And Albert could always extend his trip on either end as there are lots of races in America to combine with CrossVegas both before and after the event.
On a side note, some of the younger Belgian riders were treated to yet another way USA differs from Belgium. Wout van Aert, Bronze medalist in the U23’s, was denied his celebratory champagne at the Belgian Bond reception after the race. “Is he 21?” asked the waiter in a strict tone. Adding, “I don’t believe it. Can I see your passport?” After a bit of effort to make it happen for Van Aert, the final words of the waiter was, “No bubbles, sir. Sorry.”