I love Belgium. It’s a bit like cyclocross itself – no one really knows how to put into words why they love it so much, they just do. Probably most people think of it as a place to drive through to get somewhere and from the motorway it’s mostly just industry and agriculture…and rain usually. But if you dig slightly deeper the people are welcoming and their home is a stunningly beautiful place. It’s hard, make no mistake, but it’s also real and honest…
A group of us rolled into Gent for the Friday and Saturday night of the Six day meeting. Why I’ve never been to this before is beyond me – used to Manchester and Lee Valley I figured I understood how track racing works, but nothing can prepare you for Gent. We walked up the ramp into the track centre with a beer in one hand and a hotdog in the other and were met by hundreds of semi-drunk Belgians signing and cheering. A huge smile made it’s way across my face and then within feet of me, moving at over 50mph Iljo Keisse handslings Michael Morkov into the steepest banking you’ll ever see to finish a 166m lap in under 9 seconds – again some people won’t get what the big deal is but I was in heaven!
Saturday morning gave us a good chance to get some riding in and to continue the theme the wind blew the freezing cold rain at us for pretty much the whole time! Some mutterings about real Flanders conditions confirmed that it was going to be a five and nine kind of day – the ones that make it worth it. Luckily we had a fantastic guide in the shape of a proper Belgian hardman who took us straight to the best cobbled and non-cobbled sections of the Ronde. A proper cafe stop in a bakery, the Qwaremont and the Eikenberg made the mornings ride one of my favourites this year.
After a second night of Six day racing I loaded up on as much speculoos as was safe under the watchful eye of the breakfast buffet waitress and headed up the road to Koksijde for the World Cup Cyclocross race. Koksijde and nearby De Panne are basically Belgian holiday resorts and were looking seriously bleak in the grey chill of November, but thousands of warm hearted fans with banners, scarves, vuvuzelas, supporter club jackets and an excellent array of woolly hats helped build the atmosphere. Held in an army camp on the dunes at the back of the resort the world cup track is a mix of sand and mud making tyre choice and technical ability king.
Punctuated by more freezing rain and hailstorms the juniors and U23’s battled and watching them I was sure they were flying – when the Senior men came out for their warm up it became clear just how fast and skilful they could be. The Women’s race was excellent to watch especially getting three of our five brits in the top twenty, but when the men came out the atmosphere was turned up to eleven! Spectators battled with sharp elbows for the best viewing spots shouting only at their favourite rider and then turning to watch one of the big screens when their man was out of sight. Ooohh’s and arrrrghhh’s echoed around the army camp as various riders moved forward or back, until a unanimous, “hup hup hup” broke out for one rider.
Wout van Aert is the future of Belgian cyclocross – a prince in waiting for the crown – but the man that wears the crown hasn’t quite been deposed yet. Sven Nys was hungry for a back to back win after a fallow season last year and at the start of the race he looked to be nowhere. When he made his way through the pack you could feel the collective hope that thousands of adoring fans were now expressing just about any way they could. Van Aert and Nys broke free from the pack and each pushed the other harder and harder until breaking point – after an hour of racing his #sveness decided the result a mere 250m before the line. The joy was wonderful to see and finished off the perfect Belgian weekend for me…well that and my third steak and frites in as many nights anyway!
Glen rides for the Southborough & District Wheelers. He races Mountain bikes in the UK National XC Points and Eastern XC Series, Road bikes in the Surrey, South-East and Eastern Leagues, TT in the South East Region and ‘Cross in the LCCA League. He receives personal support from Helly Hansen, The Velo House, and THE.ÆIGHT.BICYCLE.CØMPANY. #aeightracer @eightbikeco
Glen runs The Velo House with Olly, a coffee shop, workshop and bike shop welcoming all cyclists and even well behaved non-cyclists. We’re based at 5 St.Johns Road, Tunbridge Wells, TN4 9TN – 01892 554 505 –