The layers of protection. Euro Cross Camp Day 4- Azencross in Loenhout. © Nathan Phillips

The layers of protection. Euro Cross Camp Day 4 - Azencross in Loenhout. © Nathan Phillips

by Nathan Phillips

“Protected riders” is usually a term reserved for road racing and rarely ever mentioned in the same sentence as cyclocross. Today in Loenhout, however, I witnessed a prime example of how the members of the Camp here in Belgium truly are “protected riders.”

Daylight hours are very short here in Belgium, so most days begin and end under dark skies and dim streetlights. At 6:45 a.m., the Juniors depart for Loenhout. At 7:45 a.m., I’m to report to the team house to leave in a large white Sprinter van reflecting U.S.A. Cycling branding through the light frost covering its sides. Els Deleare, a camp soigneur during the races, in charge of everything house related, head chef, and chief operating officer, makes sure all U23 riders have eaten, dressed, and packed their gear for the day. “You will notice, I’m very punctual,” she says to me in the dining area as riders make their way out to the other Sprinter van. Els drives the van I’m in to the race. She’s very familiar with the route to the race, both because of a life lived in Belgium and the ten years spent working at the house.

The Juniors warm up under the tents before their race. Again, the “Fox” is keeping things jovial with the riders as talk of betting and head shaving hovers over the noise of the trainers. The site is built up in layers today: first the back wall of the tent, then the riders on trainers, next the staff, and last the mechanics out in front. I see the physical manifestation of “protected riders.” Built into the setup of the Camp’s area in Loenhout, the staff look like working guards.

The riders get ready for their call-ups at Azencross. © Nathan Phillips

The riders get ready for their call-ups at Azencross. © Nathan Phillips

Suddenly it’s time; riders begin to be called up on the start grid. Name, then number, the field of seventy-six Juniors packs in tightly as I catch a few jackets. I pick a place along the course without too many spectators and begin counting positions to post on the Camp’s Twitter page throughout the race. In the last few minutes of the race, things get confusing as U23 riders begin to ride out onto the course while the Juniors are finishing up. Only a ten minute pause before the start of the U23 race, I catch Geoff Proctor with a bike slung over his shoulder running down a taped-off section towards the pits before the race begins.
Again, I stand behind the starting grid, waiting to catch jackets if any of the guys end up in the last few rows. Fortunately, all the Camp’s U23 riders make it into the first few rows, and I hop the fence to find a place to begin my Twitter updates again. During the second lap I hear Danny Summerhill’s name called over the loudspeaker, and a plump Belgian with matching grey mustache and wool pullover tells me Summerhill has just pulled out of the race. He provides no reason, and goes back to cheering for one of his own riders. Onto the next thing, I keep counting positions, and try and stay out the rain, which begins to fall halfway through the race.
Back at the Camp’s tents and vans immediately after the race, most of the U23 racers are already loaded up ready to head back to Izegem. One of the staff notifies me Summerhill might have caught an elbow before the first pit, and decided to save his legs for the upcoming races. At the races, there is no time for waiting around; it is race, then home. Els corrals the U23’s back into the van and they head back.
On the drive home in the team’s Saab, staff member Brecht Hannon, Geoff Proctor, and I chat about my impressions of the day. I tell Geoff about my “protected riders” observation, and we discuss the riders not being allowed to hang around after their respective races. He describes it being more of the Belgian way of doing things, everything is about the race, but mentions it serves another purpose as well. “I wish we had more time, but we need to do what’s best for the group.” With so many riders, he explains it is better to get them to the right facility and not have them waiting at the race location.

Switching topics, Hannon tells us about his possible aspirations to leave the service of the Belgian Army and join a local police force, as well as the importance of finding a place to live that was equally close to both his and his wife’s families. We also talk about Belgian reality, and how to really explain it. It’s amazing that so many people come out to these races in the pouring rain and cold, and we discuss how to properly portray the Belgian reality in my writing on the camp. Hannon reflects on my question as to why so many people make it out to these races. “People don’t get scared up here because of rain,” he says. Fair enough.

Then we debate the answer to what we later decide is the trivia question of the day: “How many times has Erwin Vervecken raced in Loenhout?” The answer is eighteen times over the course of his career.

As we near the camp home, Hannon falls asleep in his seat as I try and pin down what exactly makes the riders at the camp “protected,” and from what are they protected? I come to the conclusion that they are protected from racing in Europe alone, without any support, without any European guidance, and without any groups of friends.

Tomorrow is another rest day, with maybe a short trip to a neighboring city in the works, and for sure a trip to the local bowling alley tomorrow evening. With so many races in the last few days, rest days are crucial to bringing everything back to neutral and getting prepared both physically and mentally for the next race.

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Montana State Junior Nathan Phillips has embedded himself in EuroCrossCamp to document the inner workings of the camp that has had a pivotal role in developing American cyclocross talent. Nathan’s second entry, explores the chaos of a cyclocross-race-laden week in Belgium and gives a taste of life in the pits. Missed day three? Read about EuroCrossCamp during a rest day, plus an interview with up and coming cyclocross star, Josh Berry.