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Erwin Vervecken was never from from the front of the race. © Joe Sales

by John Parbst and Christine Vardaros

In the fall of 2007 amid the usual workday ritual of cruising Bikereg on company time to assess the competition in upcoming ‘cross races, those of us in the Northeast did a collective double-take.  Without forewarning or blazing announcement, a Fidea rider appeared on the list of Pro/1/2/3’s at the Whitmore’s Southampton race on Long Island.

Many of us refreshed the web page several times before the image of rainbow stripes racing on US soil snapped to focus in our brains.

Erwin Vervecken, the current World Champion, was on his way!

For me, living here on Long Island and already pre-registered in that big-number category that goes off first thing in the morning, this was a rare opportunity to see the absolute best Europe had to offer right in my backyard.  I could hack through my race first thing then pop open a beverage, pull up a chair and watch the show unfold.

In 07 the Long Island race went off in early October and, characteristically, the weekend weather was hot and dry. My brother-in-law, Todd, made the trip out east from California and we both did what we could in the early a.m. race to beat down the course dust and remnants of tall fescue to clear a path for the champ.

As the day heated up through the autumn haze, spent racers and those who came out to watch buzzed with excitement. A contingent of Belgian fans made the crossing and wore their oversized “Supporter” Vervecken fan club coats. I even spoke to a Belgian native living in New York City who, when she heard the news, just “had to be here” to see the champ.

But the show wasn’t just Vervecken that day. The big names in the US men’s elite field all came out to play along with several other riders from Europe.  Trebon, Wicks, and Johnson were all primed to take a shot at what would turn out to be perhaps the most talent-rich US cyclocross start line in recent memory. Without a doubt the hot, fast course promised a blistering pace, and those of us lining the course tape knew the big-engine riders would crank out everything they had in this early-season showdown.

The racing that unfolded that weekend was spectacular and web content history now.  Vervecken battled with the Kona Towers and blasted out from behind the wheel of Wicks to take Day 1.  A similar battle unfolded on Day 2, but this time a blown drivetrain dropped Vervecken from contention on the last lap and Wicks cruised in for the win. No one-fans and racers alike-left disappointed.

In hindsight, however, the real winner that weekend was USA cyclocross. Some of the best in the world came to our house, and we proved apt hosts for an international ‘cross throw-down.  Since that day rumors have circulated about possible future international events in the US such as a world cup or a world championship. Who knows what’s in store down the road, but what is clear is that US ‘cross racing is rumbling up through the field on the world scene.

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Erwin Vervecken on his way to victory. © Joe Sales

But while a growing number of US riders cross the Atlantic to start lines in Europe, it is still a rare sight to see the best European ‘crossers lining up on American soil. However US fans are in for a treat with the return of 3-time World Champion Erwin Vervecken to the 2009 edition of CrossVegas. Cyclocross Magazine’s European pro racer and correspondent Christine Vardaros caught up with Erwin to find out about his upcoming season and return to racing in the US.

I just heard you confirmed your participation in CrossVegas in September. Are you excited? What do you think your chances are for a win?

I have seen a lot of pictures and videos on the Internet about the race and I’m looking forward to participate! The fast tracks at the beginning of the year are not my thing so I’m going to have a hard time to win. It’s maybe too early but you never know – three years ago I beat Sven Nys in the second race of the year!

Is that the only race you will be doing while in USA?

I would love to do the races the weekend after Vegas but the problem is often the money. As one of the top riders I can snatch a lot of money in Europe and especially in Belgium but maybe we can work something out…

When you race in the States, do you ever give tips to other racers? I’m sure many idolize you…

Well I try to give some tips to the youngest riders because they often ride with too much pressure in the tubular, for instance. But the topriders like Trebon, Johnson or Page also know how it works.

Are you scheduled for an autograph signing at Interbike bike show?

We plan to do something at the fair but I don’t know what or when yet. [Check out the Champion System Clothing booth for more information.]

After so many trips to USA, are there any American racers or friends you look forward to seeing?

I hope to see some of the Americans I know from previous races. I know Geoff Proctor really well. And also Adam Myerson from the UCI Cross Commission, Lyle Fulkerson, Jim Brown, Myles Romanow, Brad Ross. I even made a website for spectasport [www.spectasport.com] who does the announcing and PR of cross races.

Las Vegas’ slogan is, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Any plans to test that slogan?

I already visited the city in 2000 but I can’t afford any partying or playing now. I hope to have a party after the podium.

What is it like to race in America compared to Belgium?

The sport itself is more or less the same like in Belgium. But in Belgium the crowd pays from 8-15€ to watch the race and riders get paid up to 8000€ to take the start. In the States riders have to pay an entrance fee and spectators come for free. That’s the big difference. Top riders are famous people in Belgium.

Congrats on an excellent cross season last year. Two World Cup wins at Koksijde [Belgium] and Roubaix [France], in addition to all your other fine performances! Just incredible! How do you feel the season went?

I started very slowly last season so October was really bad. As one of the older riders at 36 last year I need to have a lot of competition to reach my good form and I no longer like the super fast tracks at the beginning of the year. In November, when it gets tougher and with more dirt, I’m getting better.

How have you been spending your “offseason”?

I spent a week in Egypt with the kids and four days in Dubai with my wife. Afterwards we went on training camp with Revor in Spain and I did two stage races in Portugal and Spain during the summer. I didn’t race very much, but right now I feel good to start a new season.

Are you excited about the upcoming season?

I really would like to win one big race which is live on television. We also plan a final race in my home town on Saturday, the 27th of February. It will be a mass cyclocross with one massive start and everyone can participate – cross bike, mountain bike, young and old, licensed or without license. I hope to get 1000 people at the start.

I heard the Revor Team is undergoing some changes.

There was a problem with the management of the team. At this moment I’m in negotiations with some other sponsors to find a solution for the financial problems in Revor Cycling Team. I will surely leave the team this fall in September or October but I prefer to stay with Revor as a sponsor because they invested a lot in me and paid me the whole summer.

What are your goals for the season? Is it true that this will be your last?

It will surely be my last. I will be 38 in March and my motivation in the summer is getting less and less each year. I hope to win one big race and participate at Worlds in Tabor where I won my first title. Participation in the last [Worlds] is always hard in Belgium with a lot of top riders like Nys, Albert, Wellens, Vanthourenhout, Vantornout, Pauwels, Rob Peeters, Bart Aernouts, Dieter Vanthourenhout – we can only select seven riders.

Who’s your closest friend in the field?

My best friend before was Peter Van Santvliet but he retired two years ago. I’m good friends with Sven Vanthourenhout, Sven Nys, Jan Verstraeten.

At the beginning of last season, a lot of people said that your days of winning races are over. Then you went on to win two World Cups and had stellar performances at some “hard mans” events like Asper-Gavere. What are your thoughts?

I really wanted to prove that I was still capable of winning at the beginning of the year so I put too much pressure on myself and the results were bad. In November it all turned and I came back to my old level.

Considering how harsh Belgian fans are when it comes to judging racers, how long do you think you have this upcoming season to prove that you are still a top rider before they start talking about your age again?

Oh, I’m already used to that. This last year was good with two World Cup wins but it was also very up and down. Sometimes 1st and 20th place in one weekend. And then people say stupid things. Best is not to react.

What kind of adjustments have you had to make in your training and racing as you’ve aged? What do you plan to do after bike racing?

I train more hours than before and know better how to keep the good shape for a longer time. I have an offer from Golazo, a sports marketing office, to work for them next season. It’s something I really look forward to. It’s a combination of sport, organizing, management and administration. As a former accountant and pro bike racer, it’s really a big challenge for me.

I also heard you are into website development. How did you get into that? Possibly that could also be a fulltime job option?

It started as a hobby but my skills are not good enough yet to make it a full time job. But I hope I will have more time after my career.

Regarding the state of bicycle racing today, so much negative press makes it into the headlines during the high-profile road races. Do you think drugs are a big problem in cyclocross?

I’m not naive to think it doesn’t exist in cyclocross but it’s a fact that most of the drugs that are being used in cycling are focused on improving endurance and recovery so it’s more useful for stage races. Most of the top riders are staying on top from 20 years old until they retire at 35-36 and everyone knows that drugs kill you after a few top years.

Should the UCI expand the World Cup to other continents or change its name to the European Cup?

I still hope that the World Cup will cross the ocean one day. I really think it’s possible.

Many of our readers are curious to know the details of how a pro prepares for the season. Do you normally train alone or with friends or groups?

I train most of the time with one or two friends.

Do you use a power meter?

No, I don’t even use a polar anymore. I think my body knows how far it can go after all these years.

What is on your MP3?

Coldplay, Novastar, U2, …

Favorite hobbies?

Travelling, web design, my three kids.

Thanks so much for a great interview and see you in Treviso. Fingers crossed you start the World Cup Series off on the top of the podium!