It was a cold, dark and rather confused start to the day for me as my brain struggled to clunk into gear and come to the realisation that it was Sunday. Superprestige Gavere day.
After a hearty breakfast of choco nougat pillows and yoghurt I got my camera ready and started the lengthy dressing process. I was reliably informed that there would be very little chance of movement once we were positioned trackside, so I scrounged what thermals I was unable to fit into my Ryanair hand luggage allowance and tucked everything in. Then jeans, thin jumper, jumper, coat and all the basic winter accoutrements – hat, scarf and gloves – plus a pair of festive-patterned wooley booley socks. Then the cyclocross supporters’ piece de resistence, Wellington boots (or, in the native tongue, caoutchouc botten, said cat-shoe-bott’n. I know, bloody ridiculous language).
Then, naturally, I needed a wee.
Ronny and Joni picked Jonas and I up at 0930 and we drove to the pre-chosen parking place. This is no rock up, find a spot and you’re there situation. Oh no. This is research the parking options, smile nicely at the army of police officers waving glow sticks around in the middle of the road, use killer instinct to find and squeeze into an almost not illegal space and then, get on a shuttle coach. Yes Anna, that coach waiting at the end of the road is there for the specific purpose of taking you to the race course, free of charge. I really was like a kid at Christmas. Eyes like saucers, a massive grin and a questioning furrow to my right brow: Really? Can it possibly be?
We spilled off the bus and joined the throngs of other caoutchouc botten-clad fans heading to the gate. I took the opportunity to use a porter loo whilst the males of the species pissed into a large quad-sectioned plastic urinal, not showing the least care that their modesty was very thinly veiled on this rather nippy November morning. That typically European indiscretion aside, Jonas handed twenty euro into a tin hut and was handed back two tickets. I tagged onto his rucksack and shuffled along into the venue like the small, easily lost in a crowd, person that I am.
The woman’s race had already started and the first of the action that I saw was Nikki Harris, a lone leader, pushing hard through the tacky mud and then onto the start/finish straight. I shouted encouragement and was promptly reminded I was “in Belgium jonge!”. “Ja, but I’m still English. Jonge!”
We wove our way further into the centre of the park, passing Telenet stands selling bright yellow gloves and a veritable feast of frituur and frinkandel vans which got the better of Jonas, who dived in for an elevenses of hot dog with onions.
The crowds were still relatively small at this point which is both fortunate and unfortunate. Fortunate because moving around the venue and finding a trackside spectating spot was pretty easy. (Jonas would like me to add that it was his inner ‘cross compass and incredible crowd skills that facilitated this ease). Unfortunate because the 12,000 or so people who piled in later missed out on the women’s racing, and the women missed out on them. The women’s race is the warm-up act for the warm-up’s warm-up. I mean to say, the women’s race is the second race of the day, after the U15s, and is followed by the junior men and then the U23 men before the the great spectacle of the senior men’s race. I think it is fair to say, though I don’t like it, that the men’s race is what everyone comes to see.
The day had the sense of spectating a grand tour stage. You secure a spot to watch, you get excited by the prospect of the caravan, then it all settles down, you get Haribo and a hat from the caravan, the exitement dissapates again, then you hear the helicopters and you know the race is coming, the excitement builds, the race comes, everyone goes crazy! It’s an emotional rollercoaster! The junior and U23 men already get a better audience than the women, and they have the prospect of the best possible support when they join the senior ranks. The women are the best in the World, they have reached the pinnacle of the sport, yet they are a sideshow.
Still, I managed to get excited! It was great to see Helen, Nikki and Gabby battling out with, nee as, the World’s best. Belgian Champion Sanne Cant was the strongest rider on the day and she took the victory. Nikki was tiring in the second half of the race and eventually Helen got the better of her to take second. A two-thirds British podium is pretty awesome though, and to hear Wyman and Harris’ names called out over the PA as they stood on the podium was a little bit goose-bumpy to be honest. I felt very proud.
As soon as the women’s race had finished the juniors and U23s were out on the course, practicing lines and getting a feel for the conditions. Points of note from this period include questioning why Rabobank Development riders were wearing white over socks, and the realisation that my feet were already numb. With a slight lull in activities – though really there were riders struggling through the mud in front of us almost all the time – I stomped out a flat patch on the muddy slope where we were standing in the hope it would make the rest of the day less tiresome. I was still tired by the end but I was certainly less wonky, and I think that counts for a lot.
The Junior race was a real mix; of really tall and really small guys. Belgian and European Champion, Yannick Peeters was in a class of his own, riding in a way that belied his young years, though perhaps not his heritage. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilfried_Peeters)
The U23s offered more of a spectacle, although it was again a domineering win from a young Belgian talent. Wout van Aert rode away from his rivals, including the habitual clutch of Dutch challengers including the World Champion, Mike Teunissen, and the very impressive Van Der Poel brothers, particularly the younger, Mathieu, who has this year stepped up from junior ranks like it was really no significant transition.
Again, as soon as the racing finished riders for the next race came onto the course for practice. It was time to come face-to-face with the big guns. They really were very close – only the tape between us. Where we were (still) positioned gave us a pretty good view. We could see the riders come through a deep muddy section which most were running, then remount in front of us and work the gear over to get up the hill and out of sight. The seniors were attempting to ride the muddy sections to our right but with limited success. Both Sven Nys and Niels Albert were forced to dismount, both getting big cheers from the crowd as their bikes stood upright, unaided, in the mud. They made it a spectacle, turning to the crowd and laughing along with us.
Laughter also rang out in our little team as someone who can’t be named for his own safety (it was Ronny) made jokes at the top riders who aren’t Nys and, with a hint of hooliganism, teased Mario de Clercq – manager of the Sunweb Napoleon Games Team and a three time World Champion no less – about his riders. I was reassured that all this is quite normal when Jonas saw the look of horror on my face! This is not like Britain when you shout for the person you most want to do well, but also give a friendly cheer to the others too. This is SVEN NYS ‘TIL I DIE!
As the riders cleared the course for their turbo warm ups and gridding, the sense of anticipation grew. We passed the time with a ‘selfies’ photoshoot and Jonas proved he still hasn’t grasped the sensitivity of the six frames per second setting on my camera as he went about photographing anything and everything at least twice. My favourite shot is of a jolly old man wearing brown leather shoes and his jeans rolled up to mid-calf. A strong look.
It was getting colder and everything was starting to ache; my legs, my back, my shoulders. I soon forgot about that though when Joni, in a bid to keep her gloves on and her hands warm, started using her nose to operate her phone. A strong look, too.
Over the PA we heard the riders called to the grid. So many big names: Nys, Albert, Vantornout, Pauwels, van der Haar, Wellens, Aernouts, Peeters, Meeusen…
The race was underway, and despite us being half way around the lap, people were craning their necks already. Jonas looked down at me – “Have you ever seen crowds like this at a cyclocross?”, to which I replied, “All I can see is you and a green coat when I look to the right!”.
The riders’ heads appeared between the crowds , bobbing along as they ran through the mud. The noise built. It didn’t seem that loud until I saw Joni leaning over the barrier shouting at Nys at the top of her voice and it didn’t stand out from crowd. I could hear Ronny too, offering advice to ‘his’ rivals – to Albert: “oei oei, slow down, not so fast jonge!”, to Pauwels (of the Sunweb team): “Mario says you should get off and run here”, to Vantornout on the penultimate lap: “you are the strongest man in the race Klaas”, and to Vantornout on the last lap: “too late!”.
The race followed a familiar pattern for this season. Lars van der Haar had the fastest start, Klaas Vantornout then took an early lead, Nys had a slow start and then caught the leaders, Philipp Walsleben was strong, Nys took control and won.
The last lap was pretty tense with Walsleben and Nys ripping each others’ legs off at the front. When they passed us for the final time they were wheel to wheel. As they raced round the final sections of the course the commentator was getting increasingly animated, it sounded incredibly close. Everyone was still and quiet, their ears turned to the speaker. Thankfully Nys won the sprint and a volley of high fives and cheers went up. Ronny’s face was an absolute picture of delight and I couldn’t help but reflect his smile.
With that we turned and joined the masses as they headed for the exit. It was at this point the amount of people in the venue became apparent. Although we had been in a relatively quiet spot all day, there were still more people within the limited scope of my sight than at an entire National Trophy race. Now, at the end of the day and with the mud at its muddiest (thank you for my birthday Wellingtons Imogen), I was completely swamped in people. There were thousands and thousands of fans. Being five foot tall is often less than ideal in large crowd situations but with a bit of ducking and diving and some swanky sideways chasses, Joni and I could keep up with a triumphant Ronny and long-legged Jonas, and, perhaps more impressively, managed not to have any of a great number of Belgian beers or Jenever (the local tipple of choice) poured over us.
Following a scarf-swinging, dodgy-dancing celebration from Ronny as Nys was announced onto the podium, we joined the back of a very long queue for the shuttle coach back to the car. I say we joined the back of a queue, it wasn’t the back and it wasn’t really a queue. This is certainly not England. Either way, eventually, as the sun began to set, we pushed our way onto a coach and crept our way back to the drop off point amongst a great many other coaches and cars.
I remember more police officers waving glow sticks, gazebos on the pavement with people selling Jenever and Ronny’s Sven Nys scarf draped across the dash board, and then I fell asleep, dreaming of the frites and mayo that was waiting for me at the De Backer’s.
For more photographs from Gavere, head onto to the homepage of my blog and click the appropriately named “Superprestige Gavere Cyclocross: Photos from the Crowd”.