This Kerstperiode, nine U.S. Junior cyclocross racers are in Europe to race with the EuroCrossCamp program run by Geoff Proctor. During the next few weeks, the young athletes will be sharing their stories and experiences in rider diaries written while they are in Belgium.
by Ryder Uetrecht
Sloughing my way up the gray brick climb, I hone in on my fellow countryman, Jamie Williams, dangling five seconds up ahead of me, just out of sprint’s reach.
Rounding a corner, I try to throw away this negative notion of incompetence and replace it with the ability to catch my carrot on a stick. As I throw open the gas and stand ready to bridge the small gap, I feel my tire warp and flex more than it should, signaling the end of my race.
Shortly thereafter, I’m standing on the side of the course watching my competitors stream by me while I repeatedly press my empty tire to confirm what I already know. As I begin my long run down the course to the pit, I keep my head swiveling between what’s ahead and behind as to avoid impeding others who come racing past me.
Through the sandpit, the crowd stares daggers at me as I continue to run past the empty mechanics pit [Editor’s note: Diegem is one of the few Belgian circuits to still have two separate pits—an upper and lower; only enough camp personnel to work lower pit], except for one small child. With his tiny mitten, a young boy holds out a weak hand compelling me to hold out mine for a small, but monumental, high-five. With this, the crowd shifts from staring to cheering me as my running pace picks up, paralleling to my mood.
There’s a shift as I hit the pavement and the crowds thin, no disappointment exists in the crowd’s faces. Just sympathy.
I keep trudging forward, and with the rounding of a corner, I make eye contact with a crowd of men hooting and hollering toward the racers streaming by before they notice me walking with my bike fixed upon my shoulder. Rather than casting their gaze away as others have, they choose to chant “rennen” to the march of my shoes on the stone.
For a burst, I feel energy come back as eyes are fixed on me along with an unspoken expectation to keep pushing forward even if my placement is decidedly last.
Compelling my legs up the stairs, I snap my head back one last time to see my fellow American, Lucas Stierwalt, remounting rapidly to outpace another racer attempting to avoid a competitive sprint finish.
Still walking, I cheer him on as the crowd furiously slams their hands against the sponsored barricades. His sprint leaves them in the dust but the crowd doesn’t repent with their pounding and I realize they are banging for me. Crossing the line, I know I’m a lap down but that still doesn’t stop the crowd from going ballistic for some American they’ve never seen or met.
My greatest takeaway from this trip has come from the full force of cheer the crowd will put out. No other mass of spectators is as full of energy and atmosphere as the beer-and-frites-fueled groups filling the barricades of the venue.
It’s not just Mathieu Van Der Poel or Sanne Cant who receive a cry of applause, but even the Juniors who have fallen behind or find themselves walking their bikes. To turn my mood from frustration to a full grin takes a full party lining the barricades deafening my ears with their voices.
In American races, the crowd may gaze upon you with empathetic frowns, recognizing the pain, but not doing anything to boost a racer’s mood. As silly and egotistical as it sounds, this sort of Belgian applause has left more of an impact on me as both a participant and spectator. As I watched the pro men’s and women’s races later in the night, I bellowed for more racers than just those whom I recognized and as many as I could encourage before my voice disappeared.