Compton chasing van den Brand and Vos. © Bart Hazen

Compton leads the Americans in Europe. © Bart Hazen

by Dan Seaton

Kalmthout, Belgium – Since last weekend’s National Championships marked the end of the racing season in the United States, a host of American riders made the trip to Belgium last week to continue to test their legs against the best in the world. Cyclocross Magazine had a chance to catch up with a few of the United States’ best ’crossers after the World Cup race in Kalmthout.

Belgium, of course, is famous for its dramatic winter weather, but it’s normally rain, mud and darkness that riders contend with. For many American riders, the snow that buried the World Cup yesterday was a welcome challenge, if a bit of a shock to the system.

Jonathan Page, the top American finisher in the Elite men’s race in 17th, told us that he was a little stunned to arrive to the unusual cold and snow after spending a few days with family in the southwestern U.S. after Nationals. Like a number of riders who made the trip in the past few days, his transfer back to Europe was hindered by the weather.

“I got in Saturday,” he said. “It was funny—we couldn’t get off the plane. We landed in Brussels and the jetway was frozen and they couldn’t get it to the plane. So we stayed another hour just at the gate.” But Page’s trouble didn’t end there. The whole Belgian railroad system has been backed up since the snow first fell on Thursday afternoon and Page was delayed by several hours as he made the trip to his European home in Oudenaarde.

Nonetheless, Page said that he felt very good following the long day of travel to return to Europe. “I can’t complain too much,” he told us. “It’s easier for me to come this direction, and I never really got used to the time in America, so I don’t feel too bad. I wasn’t Superman today, but you didn’t have to be Superman, you just had to drive your bike well and it was ok.”

No American racer has had more experience than Page in European ‘cross, and he told us that in his many years of racing in Europe he had not seen conditions like those in Kalmthout before. “I’ve seen a little bit of snow, but nothing like this,” he said, adding that he enjoyed himself during the race. “I think it’s great. It’s fun to see all these people like, ‘Oh my goodness!’ And I say, yeah, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.”

For Page, who grew up in New Hampshire, snow is not unfamiliar. Neither is it for Jamey Driscoll, a native Vermonter, who told us he was very surprised to see a Belgian race that looked a lot more like one from back home. “It was pretty ridiculously snowy,” he said. “Very unlike Belgium, for sure.”

Driscoll said he wasn’t really aware of just how much snow there was on the course until after the race started. “During the start, you know how everyone’s tape to tape,” he explained. “Just when we first hit the snow, I realized how much snow had actually fallen. It felt like in some places it was six to eight inches. It was crazy. Snow was flying off everyone’s tires and a lot went down.”

He also told us that success on the technical Kalmthout course was a matter of finesse rather than power. “Whoever could be smooth and stay upright was going to come out ahead,” he said. “I felt like I would gas it too hard on the sections I could actually pedal and then be too in-the-red to handle my bike well. People who were more slow and steady could hit the turns smoothly, carry their speed and be better off. I could have ridden my bike better today.”

Driscoll was another rider whose already long trip was made even longer by the bad weather, spending hours getting home from the airport on Friday evening.  Nonetheless, he told us that he felt pretty good with a 38th place finish in his first European race of the 2009-10 season.

“I’m happy with how I was pedaling,” he said. “It’s just the bike handling, some days I just don’t have that. I just have to get used to it, because it seems like a lot of the races in the States are just all about pedaling and there’s nothing like this.” He added, with a laugh, that there is rarely anything like Sunday’s conditions in Belgian racing either.

But the difficult terrain—and, this time, weather—aren’t all American racers have to contend with.  They also face both a level and depth of competition far greater than that back home. “It’s so much deeper,” Driscoll told us, “because there’s the lead group over in the States and here there are just so many groups. Over the years I’ve realized that you can’t expect to be with anybody because things are so different here. And the guys that come over to the States who are European, you can kind of race with them over there. But this is where they race, so it’s in their house, and they’re a lot better.”

Brian Matter, a Wisconsin-based racer making his second trip to Belgium, agreed with Driscoll about the strength of the competition. “It’s totally different coming over here and racing,” he told us. “In the US we are all kind of friends. There is pretty much no bumping after the first corner. I see a lot of guys get content to ride with familiar faces. Here it is completely opposite. You don’t know anyone, you’re bumping elbows for an hour, and it’s impossible to prepare for. The only way to prepare for this type of racing is to come over and race.”

Matter used a word that gets tossed around quite a bit in ‘cross, but was perhaps the only truly apt description of what riders faced during Sunday’s race. “Conditions were definitely epic in Kalmthout,” he said. “Being a mountain biker and being from the midwest, I’m pretty accustomed to those conditions.  Back home every Saturday morning a group rides—rain, snow, ice and freezing temps. The beaches of Lake Michigan freeze and turn into a superhighway. It’s perfect for training but, when the sand has a little moisture, it turns to ice. Just like Kalmthout.”

Like both Driscoll and Page, Matter also had his share of trouble during the trip across the Atlantic. Despite having a direct flight, Matter’s bikes only found their way to Belgium days after he arrived, leaving him to contemplate borrowing a five-year-old Salsa that once belonged to Driscoll’s teammate Jeremy Powers.

The bikes arrived just in time, but all the stress, he said, takes a toll on any rider. “I think the travel takes something out of you for sure,” he explained, “maybe more mentally than physically. We only race for an hour and I know most of us can handle the time, it’s who can dig deeper mentally.”  For Matter, the stress and confusion of the bikes’ late arrival left him worrying more about missing equipment than the race itself, which he said affected his ride in the early laps.

Matter, who was 63rd in Kalmthout, said he was hoping to elevate his game in Belgium this year.  “Last year I had no expectations,” he told us. “I was coming over a complete rookie. I was told I would be lapped at every race. I didn’t get lapped at all! I was really happy with those results, maybe it was beginner’s luck and the ‘no pressure attitude.’  Now that I have a general idea of what to expect, my plan is to take it to the next level.  Race in the next group up the road and be five or ten spots better and gain some more experience to bring back to the US for next cross season.”

Before the men took their turn in the snow, Women’s National Champion Katie Compton rode herself to a third place finish, good enough to preserve a ten point lead over Daphny Van Den Brand in the overall World Cup Standings.

Compton, who tangled with fifth place finisher Sanne Cant just after the start, rode almost the whole race with a broken front wheel. Cant’s quick-release lever caught on a spoke in Compton’s wheel and tore it out of the rim. Compton, however, managed to ride like nothing was wrong.

Compton, who dominated the early season World Cup races in Treviso, Italy, and Nommay, France, had to battle back from difficult starts both in Kalmthout and Koksijde, also in Belgium, at the end of November. She told us that, after one more World Cup race this weekend in Zolder, she was looking forward to returning to the US for some very focused training.

“My legs are pretty good,” she said. “I definitely need to start training again and I’m definitely feeling the travel catching up with me. I didn’t feel great for Nationals last week and I was able to just kind of pull it out. Coming here is a lot of travel and I need some rest.”

Despite not being able to reach the two leaders, Compton said she was happy with the way the season was going.  “I have a bit of a cold,” she said. “So considering how I’m feeling right now, I was pretty happy with the way I rode today.  I didn’t make many mistakes and I felt pretty smooth.  I had good legs, so, all-in-all, I’m happy with the day. I just wish I would have gone faster.”