By Christine Vardaros
I caught up with some of our favorite European cyclocrossers at the Tour of Vlaams Brabant, a 5-day stage race from July 23-27 that meanders through the Flemish region of Belgium. They were using this event as their last racing block before heading off to their respective pre-season training camps.
On the start line were some of the biggest names in the cross scene such as Sven Nys, Bart Wellens, Tom Meeusen, Sven Vanthourenhout, Rob Peeters, Dieter Vanthhourenhout, Bart Aernouts, Martin Bina, Corne van Kessel, Gianni Vermeersch, Jim Aernouts, brothers Laurens, Diether and Hendrik Sweeck, Quinten Hermans, Julien Taramarcaz, Vinnie Braet, Tim Merlier, Daan Soete, Nicolas Cleppe, Davy Commeyne and Mike Thielemans. While they all had their own unique stories to tell regarding their offseason, they were all brought to this race in particular for the same reason.
Wellens [Telenet-Fidea] explains, “This race – and the others like Tour of Liege – was on our schedules because, as cyclocrossers, we can race in the front because they are not all [road] professionals riding here. This is the level of competition that’s the best for us. We can make the race as you see with Julien Taramarcaz [KwadrO Stannah] leading the event midway through, or like the guy from Sunweb-Napoleon Games who had the mountains jersey in Tour of Liege while Wout van Aert [Vastgoed Service – Golden Palace] won that race. This level of racing is also best training for us.”
As for Wellens’s personal progression midway through the offseason, he appears to have his health issues that plagued him last season all ironed out. “My back is finally good! In the races, I feel almost nothing but when I’m suffering or when the races are long I still have pain. But I think every racer here is suffering at that point in one way or another – pain in the legs, or maybe in the back. If I look back to how I was last January where I lasted maybe 15-20 minutes before the strong pain kicked in and knocked me down a level mentally, then I can be pleased that those days are behind at the moment. Now it’s mainly after the races that I suffer most. My right leg feels like pins and needles from riding hard – a stupid thing!”
To combat the incessant back pain that claimed many races in the past, Wellens turned to an alternative therapy last year in the form of a mouthpiece made by a man in Italy. “It’s on hold for the moment because I am having teeth work done and need a new mouthpiece made. After the team training camp in St. Moritz later this month, I’l l have a new one made.” As for its efficacy, Wellens says he believes it helps although it is not always easy to use it 24 hours a day. “For training and racing, it’s so difficult to wear it. You get a dry mouth. You can’t eat with it in. Mentally it’s also difficult to wear it around the clock. In the beginning it was easier because I thought it helped me. But when I needed to train 5-6 hours with a mouthpiece, I had to take it out after 3-4 hours because mentally it was so difficult to wear.”
Going into the upcoming cross season, Wellens keeps his asprirations modest. “I’m gonna try to be one of the toppers again. I hope to get to a higher level than last year which shouldn’t be hard to do since I was very bad! [chuckles] I hope that when everything is ok I can steadily place in the top 8. Another goal is to help Tom [Meeusen] and Corne [Van Kessel] who are the two best riders of the team. Tom won a lot last year and Corne was one of the new names in the peloton. He was very good in every Series event he did. When I can help them, it’s good for me. And when I can sometimes ride a very good race, then I’ll be happy. And if that happens in a World Cup or at Nationals, then even better!” When Wellens is without injuries or illness, he can be a threat for the podium as he proved in last year’s Belgian Nationals in Waregem where he placed third.
Wellens’s teammate Tom Meeusen also appears to be on target for a solid cyclocross season, claiming with age (at a mere 25 year old) comes wisdom regarding his offseason preparation. “I tried to be good in the first two European mountain bike World Cups in Novo Mesto and Albstadt. But I knew already that it would be too much to keep up the mountain bike racing the whole season so I added some road races. Next week I’ll take a break from cycling to go on holiday to the tiny island of Kos, Greece where I’ll start my running training there as I haven’t run at all the whole summer. It’s easier for the muscles to adapt to the running when you’re not cycling at the same time. I’ll also do some power training there. But the holiday is more to clear the head for the hard training to come in preparation for the winter. And I love traveling so now I’ll get to tick Greece off my country list! After that it’s to the team training camp.”
At training camp, they’ll be joined by Corne van Kessel who finished an impressive fifth in the Tour of Vlaams Brabant. No matter his result in the stage race, he stands by his word that it was not about the result. “Of course it’s a good sign for the next winter but this race is more of a training race as part of my pre-season program. After this, I have five days rest then build up to the next winter with our training camp in Switzerland. It should all prove to be a good platform for the cross season.”
In only his first season as a pro, Van Kessel made a real impression. He placed top ten in World Cups – something many seasoned pros could only dream of. “The season was better than I expected. I surprised myself as well as everyone else I think. I was 12th at Worlds and at the beginning of the season I would have been happy just to be able to race Worlds (considering The Netherlands has a reputation of taking a bare minimum number of riders). It was amazing!” Looking forward to next season, Van Kessel muses, “When I ride the same season as the last one, then I’m happy. When you expect more, then the expectations of those around you are also higher. And when you don’t have a good race, then it’s disappointment all around. But…if you expect the same, and do the same then you’re happy.”
As Van Kessel is still young, he plans to race only the World Cup series as well as one of the other two series events, either Bpost Bank Trofee or Superprestige. He has yet to decide.
Another young guy in the peloton who impressed at the Tour of Vlaams Brabant with his 10th overall is 20 year old Laurens Sweeck [KwadrO Stannah]. Needless to say his is pleased with his shape at the moment. But with such solid results on the road, one would wonder if we’ll lose him to the road like we did Lars Boom and Zdenek Stybar. Sweeck responds, “I just haven’t given that any thought yet. My priority now is to again shine in the cyclocross season. It’ll be my last year as U23 so I hope I can do the same as last year…or even better. [smiles] I’ll never forget the feeling of winning Koppenbergcross while wearing the National jersey.” He’ll kick off his season with Erpe-Mere, the first UCI event on the Belgian calendar.
Taking a different approach to the offseason is Rob Peeters [Vastgoed Service – Golden Palace]. “I was sick in the beginning of the offseason so I’ve pushed all my road racing back a bit on the schedule. You know how it goes…the kids go to school and bring home with them all sorts of germs.” He raced in the Tour of Liege (July 16-20), the Tour of Vlaams Brabant, and will start in the Tour of Namen – a 5-day stage race that started on July 30. Then it’s off to team training camp in Levigno, Italy. “If my adjusted offseason racing schedule of starting later in the season proves successful, then I’ll stick with it for the next season as well.” The proof will be in the mud, if Peeters has any say in the weather conditions.