On Wednesday the 29th I drove to the USA House in Izegem to ride up to the race in Loenhout with the U23 team. Loenhout is a small town up by the border with the Netherlands, so there were gonna be a lot of Dutch folks there. And from what I had heard, the race generally has the largest crowds of the week.
We pulled out of the House at 7:30 that morning, a full hour after the Junior team left. The drive takes about 1:45, and the Juniors weren't scheduled to start until 11:00.The schedule allows for the riders to get up there, signed in, suited up, and able to get out on the course for a few laps before coming back to the vans to get warmed up on the trainers. When the U23 team rolled in they had a spot for our van and car, and the Juniors were just getting on the trainers to start to sweat.
I went with the U23 riders to sign in, and as they were picking up their numbers I went into the press room to pick up my credentials...as well as the coveted photo vest. The vest allows total access throughout the course. We walked back and the U23 racers suited up and went out on the course while the Juniors sat on the trainers. 15 minutes or so before the Junior start, they headed to the start line while the U23's came back to start warming up on the trainers. By this time the Elite riders were showing up, to start the same process.
The Juniors are at the starting line 10 minutes before the start, and the call-up starts. They are cordoned off behind barriers and get called up one by one to take their place in the starting grid. Yannick Eckmann generally gets a front row spot, while the other U.S. racers line up not that far behind him. After everyone is called up they announce two minutes to go. Racers start taking off their coats and tossing them to the team representatives. With most Juniors, it seems that family members take care of this, but with the U.S. Team, there's always a support staff person there to catch them. This person will also meet them at the finish of their race, just past the finish line, to hand the jackets back.
There's no gun that goes off for the start. Generally it looks like a stop light at a traffic intersection. The lights are on red, and when it hits green, the riders take off. The starts in Europe are fast. The U.S. Juniors are the fastest in the States. There are 8 Juniors in the camp, and at Nationals at Bend they took the top 5 places, and 7 out of the top 10. This doesn't include Eckmann, who's a German National and the German National Champion.
The starts are generally on a long stretch of pavement. All of the U.S. racers have said similar things, that they generally can get through the mud and technical sections as well as, and even better, than the Europeans. But on the pavement sections, the Euros have huge engines and can put the hurt on.
In the Junior race, Eckman was in the top five the first few laps until a crash knocked him back a bit, to finish up in 8th. Andrew Dillman and Jeff Bahnson (U.S. National Champion) chipped away during the race after somewhat slow starts, to finish 18th and 20th overall. At the finish line all of the Juniors stopped and collected their jackets and started talking about their individual race. I was there with them, shooting constantly. The course was a mixture of snow and dirt...and it was starting to get muddy. The Juniors had mud all over them, with a mixture of....manure, I believe. It was run partly on a cow pasture. It was gonna be a great day of shooting.
As soon as the Junior race is over, the riders head back to the cars and change. The mechanics take their bikes to clean and pack for the drive home. Basically, when the racers finish each race and hand their bikes off, they don't see them again until the next day. They'll be clean, maintained, and ready to ride. (Like I've mentioned, it's a total pro operation and the riders are taken care of at all times.) Within 30 minutes or so of being finished the Juniors are headed back to the House in Izegem. They generally are back and in front of the TV in time to watch when the Elite race comes on.
When the Juniors are driving off, the U23's are at the start line for their call-ups. In the U23 race in Loenhout, Zach McDonald (D1 National Champion, as well as 2nd in the U23 Nationals. Side note...he was leading until he hit a spectator on the course) got a 2nd row call-up, but started somewhat slowly. The first turn off of the pavement, there was a crash that he got caught behind, and he had to put a foot down before he started again. However, by the 3rd lap, he was in the front pack. With the long stretch of pavement, groups started to form and drafting (and tactics) were coming into play. When I saw Zach on his 4th lap, he was sitting in 5th position. That is huge in a big European race. There was a rider off the front, but Zach was in a group looking comfortable. With two laps to go however, the same corner where the opening lap crash happened, another crash went down, and Zach was stuck behind it. He ended up finishing 19th.
That's how fast things can change in these races. Afterward Zach said that he was able to pass and out-maneuver the Euros in the mud (and it was getting muddier for sure), but on the pavement sections they were killing him. That's how he got caught up behind the crash. He was in a small group on the pavement, and another group caught them and shot right by. Even though he lost a number of spots, he was jazzed about his race. He has two more years in the U23 group before moving up, so there's a ton of potential there.
By the time the Elite race started, the mud was now thick. This is what I had been hearing about before I came...the big mud. With all of the snow and cold in Western Europe, the mud had been hidden underneath, but now that it was warming up, it was coming out to play. The U.S. Elite racers don't have quite the call-up positions as the Juniors and the U23's. They are pretty far back. And when the gun went off in Loenhout, a crash happened in the first few meters, causing all of the U.S. racers to get delayed. While they weren't able to get up with the leaders, the race was thrilling. Sven Nys and Neils Albert were one and two for most of the race. It's amazing how fast those two can go, and how technically proficient they are.
On the final lap, in the final pit, Nys had a mishap. He was changing bikes to get another with higher air pressure and a smoother tread. The sprint was going to be on pavement, and he was looking for an advantage. However, as he was dismounting, and before he was out of his pedal, his mechanic grabbed the bars of the bike too soon and Nys went down. He was quickly back up, but Albert was able to easily win. The mishap was played over and over on tv and in the media.
At the end of the Elite race, the riders went back to change, and get ready for the ride home. I rode back in one of the cars with the riders and staff. The organization of cars, vans, mechanics of the camp in intricate to say the least. All of the racers are at the race only as long as they need to be. This allows for the most rest and recovery for racing.
The crowd in Loenhout was indeed big. Guesses were in the 25,000 range. This makes the drive out after the last race somewhat slow. But it's a nice time to relive the race, and gather thoughts, and start thinking about the next race. And during this time of year, Christmas week in Belgium, that usually means the next day.
For more photos you can go to trp.
And for a write up on the race, go to cxmagazine.
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