A few weeks ago I was invited to attend the media presentation for the annual Koppenbergcross race, which doubles as the second round of the bpost Bank Trofee series. Along with two other local Oudenaarde-based riders, British champion Helen Wyman and Danish representative Margriet Kloppenburg I was asked a few questions about the race and my time here so far. After greeting everyone and working out how to use the microphones they spent about two thirds of the time talking about the various parking facilities that would be available on the day for the VIPs - business associates who wear button-up shirts with pullovers draped over their shoulders, come to the races to drink beer in a tent on the best part of the course and ignore the racing. While this media presentation wasn't quite what I had expected, the race lived up to its reputation in every way.
The Koppenbergcross is a classic of the cyclocross season, and every year draws crowds of up to 30,000 people to watch riders face arguably the toughest course of all 'cross races. Typically wet and muddy, 2012 proved to be no exception. The autumnal weather has taken another turn towards winter lately, and so it was with a chilly breeze and intermittent showers that we spent the day riding up the Koppenberg - whose name is derived from the cobblestones that are colloquially called kinder koppen, or children's heads, due to their resemblance of said body parts.
This is a UCI Category 1 race, so crucial points are up for grabs for the top contenders. I was hoping to get as close as possible to finishing the race, but it was always going to be a tough ask.
The day started well, with a TV crew from the Belgian national broadcaster coming to my place early in order to discuss the day's filming schedule. I was going to be the "Figuur van de dag" (person of the day) on the series Iedereen Beroemd (everybody famous.) Once we had worked out the timetable for everything, we loaded my now substantially increased bundle of bikes and equipment into the van, and Gregory my mechanic took us the short drive to the race start at the base of the hill just outside of town. It was already very busy as the juniors and U23 riders had their races underway, and team trucks and riders' motorhomes lined the road for hundreds of metres in all directions. We pulled up alongside my team's truck, the Los Pedalos wagon, as manager Harry had arrived early to reserve a good spot.
Throughout the day I had to do everything at least about 3 times so that the TV crew could get different shots, and repeat myself ad nauseum so that I eventually stopped waffling so much with the segments of dialogue, and got the words out in less time than the duration of the whole video clip. Admittedly I'm inexperienced at interviews for television, so along with trying to ride as fast as the world champion I've got a bit to learn in that regard too.
I was invited to play on the "Space Bike" with fellow rider Jan Denuwelaere, which consisted of us strapping into a theme-park style seat and pedalling ourselves up and over in a complete circle like the hands on a clock. We did this three times, after which I was suitably nauseated. We followed this with a series of commemorative photos and then I was free to do a few investigative laps of the course.
The course is essentially a big climb followed by a swooping switchback off-camber descent back to the main road at the bottom. I made my way up the hill without any problems, enjoying the encouragement from the fans as they pushed me on verbally all the while pushing on copiously with their beer aplenty. Once I started heading down the other side things got a bit more interesting. The crowd was huge already, several hours before the start of my race, and they were out to watch learners such as myself testing the boundaries of traction, experimenting with uninformed line choice and generally relying on instinct to survive the slippery chaos that had already claimed plenty of riders in the earlier races. I did not disappoint, making my way back to the team truck half an hour later covered with mud on my legs, arms and back. My final attempt at getting down had been more successful than the others, so I was envisaging with hopeful certitude that I got all of my crashing out of the way in the practice, and thus would scoot down scott free during the race.
The race was harder than I could have imagined, straight from the moment pedals began to turn. I started quite well from the very back, jumping ahead a few spots in the first section of mud off the sealed start/finish straight. I was doing all I could to hold onto the wheel in front of me up the Koppenberg but just couldn't do it, and after being passed by several riders, turned into the paddock to find myself riding alone already.
I'm fairly used to this situation, so it didn't surprise me much. I had hoped to stay in the foray for a little longer, at least to the top of the hill. My individual time-trial skills will have surely grown a huge amount over the past few months, and once again I put them into practise up the steep and slippery pastures.
I got down without any problems on my first lap, to find myself already a whole minute behind the lead. The trouble is, for riders in my position, that this series is based on time now, not points for position. So like a classification générale in the Tour de France, and the sort of dyslexically-titled third book by Lance Armstrong, every second counts. Sven Nys and Niels Albert aren't going to ease off when they are ahead, they are going to keep on pushing. Pushing me out of the race it turns out, that's what. I did manage to get in four laps, so half of the eight in total. My final run down through the snaking slip'n'slide became an unintentional show for the fans, as I lost control several times, coming through corners stripped bare of substance at warp speed only to have my head redirected down below my front wheel.
The insistance of the crowds to cheer as loudly as possible for me, more or less along the entirety of the course, was such an incredible feeling. I think there were about 20,000 spectators, and the noise was deafening. It was doing funny things inside my head, sort of echoing and fizzing. Combined with the exertion of trying to ride all of the course as fast as possible without slipping over proved to be quite an exhausting exercise. Not long after I was pulled off the course, Albert and Nys came flying past. It hadn't rained while I was out, but the moment I took my shoes off back at the van an almighty downpour erupted and spewed forth for the remainder of the race. This lead to several other riders taking spectacular spills down the hill, cursing that final gratuitous yet instinctive twitch of finger on brake.
Although it was a fairly short race for me, I couldn't really be disappointed with how I went. The courses like that really do highlight how extraordinarily strong the top riders are, and everyone finds it hard. Having hundreds of people chanting your name in unison is a very special thing to experience, and as always makes it that much more possible to squeeze yet more out of your bedragled, ragged sinews.
The video from the day can be viewed here on Sporza.be