Wednesday, January 5, 2011
I've always been fascinated by this race. I knew nothing about the course, the town, or what type race it was. But what I wondered about was here was a race that was named after a current racer. How does that happen?
Well...I know a little bit more now. While all of the top cross racers, and top bike racers for that matter, in Belgium are big... Nys if like Tom Boonan. Really big. Nys is cross to a lot of folks. After Erwin Vervecken retired, Nys was the name that I knew best. He seems to have the most fans around his trailer during pre-race warm ups, and by my unofficial count, he has the most supporters. (It's easy to spot the riders supporters here. They have jackets that say "Sven Nys Supporter" and "Neils Albert Supporter" right on them. If you are a big supporter, you also carry a huge flag that says so. At this race, I saw one guy who had a HUGE fishing rode with a flag on top. The race is in Sven's hometown of Baal..so, he has his own race.
This race also had a feel of a Montana race, in that it's held in a park on the edge of town. The parking is on a tiny street in a neighborhood...it's so tight. I left early so that I wouldn't be shut out of the parking. But when I arrived at the "press parking" there were only 6 spots and they were all taken. The "race guy" told me I'd have to head back to the village and take a shuttle in. Damn. Matt wasn't with me today...had I lost my parking mojo? So I drove directly over to the racer parking, flashed my media badge, and just kept driving. I was able to get within a half block of the U.S. folks.
This was a GVA series race, so while the venue seemed tight, the crowds were going to be fairly large. At some of these races, there's a race that takes place before the juniors race. It's even a younger group of juniors. So I stopped by the press tent, picked up the photo vest and walked in to check out the course. The crowd was already starting to gather, and my oh my, it was already muddy. Today was going to be special.
When the Junior race did start, the mud was flying. It was tough to get around for me to shoot. Generally I'm in a spot for one lap, and then try to sprint to another spot. But it was more difficult today because of the number of people and the tight walkways. I noticed though that people weren't really walking off of the walkways, so I took off that way. Well, I found out real fast that nobody was out there, because as soon as I stepped off the pathway, I sunk down a bit into even deeper mud. From that point on, I just walked on the course. Generally with the photo vest, I can do this during the Junior and U23 races. And while I can be on the course to shoot the Elite race, they really don't want the photographers to walk on it during their race.
So I scooted around and shot, trying to focus on the pits. I had shot Geoff and the U.S. support crew in the pits in earlier races, but it was always a bit slow. Not today, they were hopping every lap. The pits have two sides to them. So the races come down one side early in the lap, head back out, and then later in the lap come down the other side. This allows the racers to have two chances for pits, with one crew being able to work both of them. (And also allowing the riders to have one spare bike instead of two)
The mud was so thick that the junior race split up in a hurry, and Geoff and company were sprinting back and forth between each side trying to keep everyone serviced. After two laps the riders were riding by with the grittiest sounding bikes I have ever heard. Just loaded down with mud and gunk. The more they rode, the muddier the course got. Andrew Dillman was at one point in 4th for quite a while, when on the last lap he went through a particulary muddy section and dropped his chain. It took a while to get going again, and he was able to hold on for 6th, followed by Jeff Bahnson in 7th. These were good results in a pretty good-sized field.
The U.S. only had 1 U23 racer in the next race. The Juniors changed and were headed out by the time the U23 race started, and the only support for Cody Kaiser was Geoff and coach Jim Anderson. Geoff was at the start to gather Cody's jacket, and then he sprinted to the pits to help Jim. Talking to Cody afterwards, he said he pitted every lap to lap and a half..and that it would have been almost impossible to finish without a fresh bike. Cody is an up-and-comer and has raced all over the country, even in the thickest mud that Portland has to offer. But he said he had never raced in anything like that.
I totally understood. I was having trouble walking around in it. As the Junior and U23 races progressed, more and more people kept coming through the gates for the Elite races. The more people that walked through the mud, the muddier it got. (A huge thanks goes out to photographer Chris Milliman who has shot in Belgium quite a bit, and told me that I needed large rubber boots) At one point, I was in one spot for no more than 60 seconds. I could feel my left foot sinking the longer I stood there. When I finally tried to move, I was stuck. Suctioned in a deep hole that took me another minute to free myself from.
All of the Euro Cross Camp Elite racers were taking today off, holding out for another race the next day. As the U.S. folks headed back to the USA House, I went back to the course. The racers started to a huge roar, and it only got louder as they passed the beer tent. Lars Boom, who was racing the cross races for training, led the first lap, when on an ultra-sketchy descent, crashed. Brian Matter and Mark LaLonde (two of the U.S. racers in the race, along with Jonathon Page) passed Boom by the time they got to me.
Matter was even running down that descent. During the pre-ride of the course he realized that his brakes weren't really working on it, and in fact, he just kept picking up speed. He switched brake pads then went back out, and again...he kept gaining speed. It might not have been a problem, but there was a tree halfway down that the racers had to swerve to avoid. He figured that he lost about 5 seconds a lap doing this, but it beat a broken collar bone.
Boom pulled out when he went by the finish line, and the race was on yet again between Albert, Nys and Stybar. Eventually Nys and Stybar pulled away and it was a two-man battle. I worked my way up at the top of a climb and got to see for the first time the pain on the racers faces. It was a slow, painful slog up the muddy climb and everyone was hurting. I sat in that same spot for three laps, not wanting to go deeper into the course because of how long it would take me to make it through the crowd back to the finish.
With a lap to go, in the last muddy section, Nys made a pass of Stybar and opened a gap to take the victory. It was his tenth victory of "his race." And it was well-earned.
I didn't see much of anything else after this. As soon as he crossed, I literally grabbed my bag and sprinted all the way back to my car. There were so many folks on the course, once they started filing out it might take hours for me to make the 15k drive back to the highway. I realized two things while making the dash; one, large rubber boots, loaded down with mud, are definitely not made for running, and two, after almost three weeks in Belgium I had not exercised at all and man...that mad dash put the hurt on me!
As always, you can go to TRP to see more photos.
Along with my last write-up for CXMagazine.
Posted by tom at 7:46 AM
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
The day after the race in Loenhout was a smaller race in the coastal town of Bredene, Belgium. Thouhg it was smaller, it had three big riders coming for the elite race in the names of Sven Nys, Neils Albert and Zdenek Stybar. For the last couple of races, those folks had been on the podium anyway, so it was surely going to be a battle.
Matt Clark and I drove together to the start, just like the last few races. (Matt is a former Missoulian who many of you may know. He is the media director of the camp, keeping the eurocrosscamp.com site going, as well as the facebook and twitter post. Matt is also a film guy who has been shooting a ton of video this year for a short documentary of the camp) I mention that we've been driving together, because when we do, we get the most amazing parking spaces. It seems to pay off that we are Americans, and not really sure where we are going. That, and the fact that I have this official looking card that says I'm with the Media, gets us some amazing parking spots.
We pull up across the street from Geoff and the racers, and the juniors are already on the trainers. Matt is focused on following Geoff today, while I'm excited about shooting the course. It's the first race since I've been here where there wasn't snow on the course....there was actually green grass. That, coupled with the fact that it was a smaller race, meant that it was a bit easier to get around. Though really, these "small" races here probably have 5 to 10 times the number of fans that the biggest cross race in the U.S. has.
The U.S. juniors got good call-ups, and when the gun (traffic lights) went off (green), the racing was on. There were a pair of Euro's off the front from the start, but a couple of American riders were in the mix early on. Jeff Bahnson, the U.S. National Junior champ, rode a solid race to finish 4th, while Zane Godby, a member of the CLIF development team, kept passing folks throughout to finish 6th.
Again it seemed like the Americans rode solid in the technical sections. This race was on a flat course, but had a little bit of everything. Notably, a long sand section that was definitely ride-able. This was the most fun for me as a spectator, seeing the riders "surf" the sand as they spun through it. The other feature that was unique to my time here was a "ditch section." This definitely had a Montana feel to it, as the riders dismounted to run over the ditch, around a tree, then back over a ditch.
The U23 and elite racers were both in the same field for the next race, with Nys, Albert and Stybar getting the first call-ups. However, Stybar was nowhere to be found when they were doing this, so when American Brian Matter got called up, he took the last front row spot. Brian is a Euro Cross Camp alum, and along with Mark LaLonde, came over from Wisconsin to join the racing fun during the holidays. I was a fan of Brian from the first race...there not too may folks with full beards racing these days. We need more of them!!
As expected, when the gun went off Nys, Stybar and Albert took off, and had a gap pretty fast. Seeing those guys zip around on that grass is pretty cool. They definitely were much stronger than the rest of the field. In fact, Geoff asked Nys before the race why he even came to it. Nys replied that it was training for the weekend races.
It was great seeing the camp racers mix it up with them as well. Ryan Knapp, a racer from Indiana, was having his best race of his time here when a crash took him out. He had to run quite a ways to get to the pit for a new bike, and eventually pulled out because of an injury that occurred during the crash. After the race was over, he was upbeat though. He had a tough race up in Loenhout, and this race gave him some confidence again. He went on to say that he didn't think that his arm was broken....
Nys, Albert and Stybar were together on the last lap, but a mistake took Albert out of the sprint. Nys and Stybar battled to the line with Stybar taking it.
For more shots, head over to TRP
Posted by tom at 7:14 AM
Monday, January 3, 2011
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.
Posted by tom at 7:08 AM