Todd Wells warming up pre-race. Christine Vardaros

Todd Wells warming up pre-race. © Jonas Bruffaerts

by Christine Vardaros, photos by Jonas Bruffaerts

For all the diehard cyclocross fans here in Belgium who have been deprived of their ’cross races for almost two months now, they were given one last hurrah last weekend at the Houffalize World Cup where they could scream their favorite riders’ names once more. And for all of you who couldn’t be there for the big event, I’ve done my best to record their memories.

This year, the course layout was much tighter, as per the newer mountain bike style of shorter, more action-packed laps to make it a spectator-friendly event – but not quite to the level of cyclocross.

The most successful ’crosser of the weekend was UK’s Annie Last of Milka Brentjens MTB Racing Team. This top-ten Cyclocross World Championships rider beat out big names like Italian Eva Lechner (Colnago Sudtirol) to take the Eliminator win. For those of you who haven’t been following World Cup mountain bike racing the last year or so, Eliminator races have been added to the lineup of events at some of the venues. They are like short mountain bike races lasting no more than a mini-handful of minutes, where the riders must qualify to participate by posting a fast enough time trial on a mini-mountain bike loop. The fastest riders are then pitted against each other in heaps of four at a time, where the best two from each group move on to the next round until there are only four riders left. At that time, they battle each other for ultimate glory.

In Last’s final battle, she came out on top – literally – in the final turn when Lechner made a last ditch effort to pass her. They both hit the ground but Last was the first to remount and ride across the finish line. “It’s my first victory at a World Cup so I am really, really pleased. Mountain bike is still my thing, but I love cyclocross as well. At some point I’d like to do more ’cross as well. The Belgians love their cycling, so it’s always amazing to race here,” exclaimed Last to Cyclocross Magazine. Lechner agreed with Last’s sentiment about the Belgians saying, “The people here are really enthusiastic about their mountain biking.” Now if only she’d come to a ’cross race here, she’d be blown away.

While Last may have walked away with a victory, the rider who may have felt even more victorious was none other than Belgian rider Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet-Colnago). His result may have only been 33rd, but he was a bit over the moon when I ran into him just after his race. “For this time of the season, I am really happy with my result. It was really my limit because I started at 90th place. I had a good start but I felt I didn’t have the competition in my legs yet and that’s the reason why I couldn’t do something more when I came to the top of a climb. I needed to sit down a little bit. But having so many supporters here motivated me a lot to do a good result. I was happy to have raced here. It was the first time and maybe I try to come back next year.” Nys was relegated to 90th position at the start because he missed out on valuable points in the opening round of the World Cup in South Africa due to a flat tire.

Even though he knew he’d be far back in the starting grid, Nys remained optimistic before the start. “With a starting position that is not really perfect, you lose two or three minutes in the first lap simply because there is no space to pass. But I trained well the last couple of weeks so I hope my shape is good enough to have a nice result even so. As for my bike, it is the first time I ride with a 29’er and it’s a better feeling for me because of course I am used to riding with the big wheels. It feels more comfortable in the downhills so I can make a little more speed. Colnago doesn’t have much interest in mountain bikes so now I will only now try their prototype and see what happens.”

Another ’crosser that has shown his face enough times in Belgium to make an impression finished quite a few spots ahead of Nys. José Antonio Hermida (Multivan Merida) crossed the line in ninth, sporting a semi-upside down smile. “Actually if I’m honest, I’m not really proud of my race. The new style is terrible. You hit the first uphill at 42kph then the speed drops suddenly to 5kph so the guys in front made so many mistakes so only the first ten riders can pass through on bike while the rest have to walk. I made a small mistake there and I couldn’t recover the whole lap. In the first lap, I was 20th then I caught back up but then I had too much air in my tires and had to stop to take some out. Then I slowly caught riders. In the second half of the race, I started to feel better though. For this time of the year my result is OK, but I hope that in summer it goes better. I am far from the top at the moment, but I am confident I can close the gap for sure.”

When asked if his cyclocross racing gave him an edge in this event, Hermida responds, “Yeah, for sure. All the spectators here in Belgium know me more or less so they pushed me in the uphill or at least they cheered for me so that was motivating.”

Finishing just behind him in 11th was Canadian personality Geoff Kabush (Scott-3RoxRacing) who has shown his face here and there at the ’cross races over the years. “I got lucky off the start so I was able to avoid a lot of the mayhem. I started in 37th. That was my big worry –the first couple of minutes. But luckily, I was able to sneak into the top 20, so from there I could just get into a rhythm. I’ve had a great off-season but a pretty disappointing South African World Cup, so my goal for this race was to ride with the top ten and I was there – so it was a big improvement. I’m not guaranteed a spot for the Olympics but this result should go a long way in the decision-making. This time of year I can’t partake in as many beers and frites as I like, but hopefully I can come back after the season to enjoy it a bit more.” As for his cyclocross ambitions, Kabush explains, “It’s on my list to race ’cross in Europe, but there just aren’t enough months in the year to make it happen yet. I need my down time.”

Farther back in 45th was USA rider Todd Wells (Specialized Racing), the man who has proven he can do it all – at the same time – when he claimed three National titles simultaneously: MTB cross country, MTB short track, and cyclocross. Houffalize unfortunately left him with a bit of frustration this time around regarding his thoughts on the upcoming Olympics, where he is still in the running for one of the coveted spots. Wells explains, “I missed the first World Cup so I earned no points there and this one I was bad, but everyone else has also been bad. I don’t want to go [to the Olympics] if I’m getting 40th or 50th at a World Cup. When you do poorly here, you let yourself down but when you do poorly at the Olympics, you let your whole country and your sport down. So if I’m not competitive, I don’t want to go. But there are two rounds left and nobody [of the USA long list riders] has really shone yet, so there is still a good chance for me to have a good race.” As for his ’cross ambitions, Wells continues, “Last year I raced more ’cross than the previous year. This year I will definitely try to race nationals and hopefully qualify to race worlds. Those are my goals – make the Olympics as well as mountain bike worlds, then try to have a good ’cross nationals and make the worlds team to have a solid result at worlds.” Sounds like a great plan!

Along with Polish crosser Mariusz Gil (Baboco Cycling), Michael Broderick (Kenda-Seven Cycles) had the worst starting position of all the cyclocrossers lined up to compete: they both stood in the very last row. Broderick explains of his finishing position of 127th: “It is super hard to make up positions. Anyone who can move up at all is talented! If you look at the lap times, I lost four minutes on the first lap versus one and a half minutes on all the other laps. It is a huge disadvantage to be in the back of the pack at the start.” But in true Broderick fashion, in two seconds flat he spins the race into a positive experience. Mary [McConneloug, his wife and teammate] and I have been racing Houffalize now for nine years and every time the crowds that come out and the spectator enthusiasm never ceases to amaze me. It is the most classic MTB course on the planet. It’s fantastic! We thought a lot about coming here in Belgium to give cyclocross a try as well.”

Mary McConneloug, who finished 37th, parallels the sentiments of Broderick almost perfectly, adding, “The course was awesome – it was so much fun to ride. It was tough to ride in this pack of very strong competitive women. It’s been about 13 years of racing for me so it has been amazing to watch the women’s field increase in size and talent over the years. It is also nice to see the support for them increase – the sport of mountain biking is thriving and it’s cool to be out there. Houffalize is a classic race with the crowds and the history of cycling in this country, so I feel honored just to line up here with the best in the world and give it a fight.”

Six spots behind in 43rd was USA Cyclocross National champ Katie Compton [Rabobank-Giant]. “It went really well. I didn’t feel particularly good, but I had a good race. I was pretty smooth on the technical parts, so that made me happy. I don’t know where I finished and I don’t really care – it was a good race so I’m pleased with that.” As with all the ’cross racers, two seasons in one year can be trying. “I’m definitely tired. I think it’s a lot to do to go from one season to the next and I hadn’t really had any good break or training period. It’s hard. I definitely need to figure out how to balance it better.”

The top female ’cross finisher was Georgia Gould (Luna) who rode to a solid 12th place. Always one to entertain, Gould quips, “When I pre-rode on Thursday, I came straight here from the airport. While riding, it started hailing, turning the course into a mud-slop-fest. Since I didn’t sleep on the plane, I was like, ‘Holy crap, what is going on! I am not prepared for this madness.’ When I started the lap, I asked for directions and was told, ‘Yeah, it goes up here.’ I didn’t make it up the first time without a warmup. I wasn’t too sad that there wasn’t mud on race day, because there were climbs that I was already barely making it up in tacky dry conditions.”

Gould’s teammate Katerina Nash was not as successful by the end of the race. She started off well in fourth position until disaster struck that caused her to run almost half a lap. “And when I finally got to the pits, they basically had to take my chainrings off to fix it, which left me in dead last.” Once moving again, she made up many spots to finish in 49th.

A face on the world cup scene, French rider Julie Krasniak (Focus Mig Team) rode in for a solid 25th but admitted to feeling the effects of coming off ’cross season. “It was OK for the first hour. I was top 15 but then I ran out of energy from fighting too hard to hold my spot. I’m OK for one hour now – two months after cyclocross season. Now I am training again to increase my endurance to an hour and a half.”

Yet another common face on the European ’cross scene to show up at Houffalize was Czech rider Pavla Havlikova (Fidea) who came in 65th. “I am training only on a road bike until today where I am on my mountain bike for the first time this season. Maybe it is a little bit crazy to do this…”

She continued: “I will be doing a full racing season but will mix it up with mountain biking and road races like stage races in Czech Republic. Everything is in preparation for cyclocross. Czech Republic only has one spot for the women for the Olympics so it will be too difficult to qualify for that spot with Katerina Nash. Before the season, though, I spoke with my national team coach to try to earn more points for my country so we can send another rider, which is why I am here, but I think the chances are very small.”

In the U23 category, the biggest cyclocross star at the start was World Championship bronze medalist Michiel van der Heijden (Rabobank Giant) who placed sixth at Houffalize. “The start went well for me. The first climb was very steep and I had to go really deep to catch up to the guys in the front but after that I was just behind the leading group. I just couldn’t get up to them. And in the last two laps I had cramps in my legs so I had to hold back a little bit. Two guys got me before the end.”

As for the mixture of cyclocross and MTB, Van der Heijden says, “Well, it is good to have a goal in the winter. It felt good that I could do some intervals with cyclocross although with this track [in Houffalize] my cyclocross training is maybe less of an advantage because the climbs are a little bit longer. But for other races, especially for those in Holland, they are almost like cyclocross, so it’s good to do ’cross in the winter. I still like mountain biking so I cannot choose between cyclocross and mountain biking. For now they still work together so I will continue to try and do them both. Cyclocross is special because off all the spectators – it’s a very popular sport, but with mountain biking the tracks are bigger and more technical which is what I like.”

Of all the experiences I personally had while standing on the sidelines watching the racers go by, the one that hit me most was hearing the waves of “Sven Nys” cheers. Cyclocross may be another four months two weeks and three days away from now but for that one moment in time I was able to feel the excitement of ’cross!