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  • Donegal Bay at the Koppenberg Cyclo-Cross Race……in Belgium
  • 05Nov

    Donegal Bay at the Koppenberg Cyclo-Cross Race……in Belgium

    With the racing season long over and everybody getting into their winter training, this time of year is usually quiet on the racing front. One place where racing is still happening fervently though is Belgium where the Cyclo-Cross season is just kicking into gear. What is Cyclo-Cross you might ask? Well the easiest way of describing it is that it is like Cross-Country running in that it is cycling off-road but not like mountain biking. More like riding around a farm or park with various obstacles in the way!!! There is a small Cyclo-cross scene here in Ireland but it pales in comparison to the scene in Belgium and particularly Flanders, where Cyclo-Cross is huge. We sent our roving Donegal Bay reporter to Belgium to attend the recent Koppenberg Cyclo-Cross race and report back on what they witnessed.

    The Koppenberg Cross

    Cyclo-Cross is big in Flanders. How big I hear you ask? Well go into any newsagent in Flanders and there will be magazines devoted to the Cyclo-Cross season, the top riders are as big as the Star  road-cyclists in Belgium and 20,000 people attended the Koppenberg race last weekend.

    The Koppenberg race is probably one of the most popular races on the calendar with a circuit based around the cobblestone Koppenberg climb which features in the Tour of Flanders one day road race each April. Incredibly narrow and steep with an average gradient of 12%, this climb has been one of the iconic features of the classic Flanders race down through the years, with many riders being forced to dismount and walk up it, especially in the wet.

    The climb was actually dropped from the Tour of Flanders route back in the 80s as it was considered too dangerous following an incident in the 87 race. During that edition, the lead rider toppled over on the ascent and with the main bunch closing rapidly, the race directors car which was between the front rider and bunch ran over the fallen rider in an effort to get out of the way. After a 10 year absence, the climb was reintroduced and is now one of the pivotal points of the Flanders race. The climb has now also been the centrepiece of the Koppenberg Cycle-Cross race over the last 20 years.

    Attending the Race

    Attending a Cyclo-Cross race in Belgium is akin to going to a big GAA match in Ireland, you are forced to park far away from the actual event and then walk for ages to get there. Fortunately, the organisers of the Koppenberg race take this into consideration and have laid on shuttle buses to bring people from the parking areas to the race.

    The next thing that makes Cyclo-Cross races in Belgium different from attending ordinary races is that you have to pay to get in to watch, and the organisers ensure the closed circuit is well supervised to prevent gatecrashers sneaking in. It cost €12 to attend the Koppenberg race but I had somehow managed to leave my money back in the car and with time pushing on, I didn’t fancy going the whole way back to get it. I did have €11.60 on me so after a bit of haggling I got in for a reduced price. With 20, 000 people attending, 40 cent wasn’t going to break them I don’t think. As well as a ticket you get a nice stamp on your hand like you do at a festival or disco but I guess with lots of beer and chips present, it was a bit like a festival. Unfortunately, having spent my last €11.60 on the entry fee, I didn;t have money for chips or beer which are an essential part of the whole Belgian Cyclo-Cross experience.

    After paying, we now passed all the team buses with athletes warming up on stationery bikes and mechanics preparing bikes. In Cyclo-Cross, each rider has their own camper-van and back up team and the bigger the star, the bigger the support vehicle and team. As I moved through the vehicles, I noticed quite a crowd gathered at one vehicle and knew immediately this was the team of the Belgian Sven Nys.

    Undoubtedly Nys is the superstar of Cyclo-Cross and has been the top rider on the circuit for the last 15 years. He commands a salary that is comparable with many top road riders and the cheesy “Have a Nys day” on the side of his team vehicle says it all. Despite being the dominant force in Cyclo-Cross over the last 15 years, Nys has only two World Championships titles to his name. Frequently, there seems to be stronger rider on the big day. Now 37, Nys is the current Belgian champion but is facing a new generation of young guns but is still undoubtedly the biggest star and received the biggest cheers all day.

    The race circuit itself was based around the Koppenberg but only used a few hundred meters of this infamous cobbled climb, instead turning off the cobbles into the adjacent fields and then zig-zagging its way up through the huge crowds which is probably even tougher than climbing the Koppenberg itself. The circuit then cut back across the Koppenberg climb before ziz-zagging its way back down through the fields on the other side to the village of Melden, through the pits area and back onto the main road through the start finish area before starting another circuit.

    Like road-racing, there are a range of skills involved in cyclo-cross and different riders are good on different courses, some are good on technical courses, others on tough courses, others are good in the sand. The Koppenberg features a lot of climbing and with a lot of descending is also a very technical course, however it is a beautiful dry crisp day which means it will not be so muddy making it a little less technical.

    I get there before the ladies race and already the crowds were huge and building, plenty of rider fan clubs were present with numerous kids wearing the Belgian National Champion jersey of Nys, just like the way an Irish kid would wear a Man Utd or Donegal jersey. There are loud speakers all-around the course pumping out music and when the races are happening, there is live commentary over the same speakers keeping you posted on what is happening during the race when the cyclists are on a different part of the circuit. Of course this is only necessary if you are not standing near one of the large TV screens dotted around the course. If you are standing in the right spot, you can see and hear everything that is happening at all times though proximity to a beer van or frituur is also very important…..if you had the money!!!

    For the ladies race, I position myself at a corner where the riders leave a paved path and head into the fields up a steep incline, its a great spot to watch as I have a view of them approaching and then departing. Each time around, the climb becomes tougher and tougher with the familiar sound of the chain dropping from the big ring into the little ring at the beginning of each ascent. Eventually one girl gives up, shoulders her bike and walks up the climb instead never to be seen again. Early on it is British rider Nikki Harris who takes an early lead but Dutch girl Sophie De Boer overhauls her to take the win from two local girls.

    As we await the start of the mens race the crowds really start to flow in as the atmosphere continues to build. The music pumps out as the commentators starts the build-up for the main race of the day, the mens pro race. A small plane circles overhead pulling a banner advertising a local car dealership, later on it will be joined by a Hot air-balloon, also advertising the wares of another local business.

    Finally the race gets underway and even on the first lap, the Dutch Champion Lars Van Der Haar has pulled a group of favourites away from the rest but next time round, everyone is back together before an attack from Sven Nys splits the field again. This is turning into a great race and what is so great about Cyclo-Cross racing. With an everchanging lead group, I move to a different vantage point on each lap, the climb, the downhill section, on the Koppenberg itself, at the pits and finally at the finish.

    One very interesting place to watch is the Pits, just like in F1 motoracing, cyclo-cross races also have pits, except riders change their whole bike during the race depending on conditions. Each rider usually has two bikes, riding on one whilst the spare one is stationed with their helpers in the pits. When too much mud accumulates on the bike and it becomes dangerous, the rider enters the pits, jumps off their bike performing a running change, giving the dirty bike to one helper, then getting a clean one from another helper a few metres further on. The dirty bicycles are then power-hosed down ready for the next exchange. Just like in F1, the pit changes can play an important part in the outcome of a race, especially when they go wrong and can result in disqualification if not done correctly.

    Halfway through the race, a new group of six has emerged containing all the favourites and it easy to identify whereabouts they are on the course as the corridor of noise follows them around the circuit each time, with fans cheering on their own particular favourite. As the race heats up on the last few laps, Sven Nys and World -U23 Champion Wouter Van Aert emerge at the front. Nys is going for his 10th victory in this race but as they emerge onto the finishing straight, there is a bit of a problem. A team-mate of Van Aert is also present and Nys doesn’t seem happy as he sits-up and waves his arms in disgust as Van Aert sprints away for the win. It appears that the team-mate of Van Aert was a lapped rider who interfered in the finale which is why Nys was not happy. This is a big no-no in Cyclo-Cross and even though it is not enough to change the results, the lapped rider is disqualified from the race. So its Van Aert, Nys and Kevin Pauwels in a Belgian 1-2-3. Of course Belgium is the No 1 Cyclo-Cross Nation.

    Standing at the finish and looking back up the hill to the circuit, it is amazing to see the size of the crowd just like some huge festival. The day is done but I am seriously tempted to attend the next event which takes place in Eastern Belgium the following day. These Cyclo-Cross races are brilliant to watch and because they are so huge in Belgium, it makes for a truly great event. That evening as I arrive in my hotel in Ghent, the sports news is on the TV. Top story, the Koppenberg Cross, ahead of the football!!!

    Tour of Flanders Museum

    Even though I didn’t attend the next Cyclo-Cross race, I did visit the Ronde Van Vlaanderen museum in Oudenarde which is a museum dedicated to all things associated with the Tour of Flanders race. Old Race footage, bicycles, jerseys, trophies and lots and lots of memorabilia including a stationary bike with computer that allows you to take on the challenge of riding the climbs from this most famous races. Indeed, they are currently hosting a temporary exhibition dedicated to 3 time winner, Swiss star Fabian Canceallara.

    I don’t think the Tour de France even has a museum, which illustrates just how important the Tour of Flanders and cycling in general is to the Flemish people.

     

    All in all, a great day out for the cycling fan so maybe next year we can get a few more Donegal Bay folks over for a great weekend away.

     

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