Dan Seaton has been literally crawling through the Belgian mud covering European cyclocross since 2008. Each week this season he’ll look ahead to the weekend’s races and answer your questions about ’cross on the other side of the Atlantic. Got a question about your favorite Euro star? Want to know the inside story of the legendary Flemish fields? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is Jonathan Page up to? Will he be racing in Europe again this year?
—Sarah in California
Although the Page family bought a house in Utah this summer and Jonathan raced in the U.S. during the early part of the season, Page will spend the majority of the season in Belgium, and will kick off his campaign at the first round of the Superprestige series in Ruddervoorde on Sunday. Jonathan told me that even though he would love to race more domestically, after years of racing primarily in Europe, it’s easier, both logistically and financially, to spend most of the season on this side of the Atlantic.
While top Americans are flying thousands of miles back and forth across North America to get to premier races, Belgium-based riders rarely are required to travel more than an hour or two. Page can sleep in his own bed and eat breakfast with his family before almost every race, while his American counterparts are living out of a suitcase for most of the season. He also has an established support network here in Belgium, including the aid of his long-time mechanic, Franky Van Haesebroucke, and a mobile home that serves as a base of operations at races.
Page is also without a title sponsor this season and, with a family of five to feed, the start money offered to athletes by the major European series is also undoubtedly an important boost and another reason he’s spending at least one more year focused on racing in Belgium.
We’ll see Jonathan and the other Americans based full-time in Europe this year, Amy Dombroski and Christine Vardaros, in action in Ruddervoorde, so look for more about their plans for the season in our weekend wrap-up on Monday.
What is Dirk Hofman Motorhomes and should I be carrying a sign at the race this weekend?
—Mark in New York
Dirk Hofman Motorhomes is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a motorhome dealer located in Elversele, Belgium — a little village about half way between Ghent and Antwerp — with a highly successful guerrilla marketing campaign. The campaign usually involves one or more people deploying “Dirk Hofman Motorhomes” signs just as the cameras come by during major bike races, especially the spring classics. And since cycling broadcasts are some of the most watched television programs in Flanders, the northern half of Belgium where the business is located, his strategy allows him to reach literally millions of potential customers with a minimal investment.
His distinctive, homemade signs have won him a following even outside of Belgium, and now the signs turn up even at American events with no TV cameras.
Hofman, by the way, isn’t the only one with a clever marketing campaign centered around cycling. All those yellow and black Flemish flags that line the finish of nearly every race aren’t just spontaneous outpourings of support from die-hard Sven Nys fans. They’re a coordinated effort, the brainchild of Ivan Mertens, a proponent of Flemish solidarity. Mertens started organizing displays of the iconic Lion of Flanders flag at the finish line of races in 2001 in order to promote Flanders both domestically and abroad, and, despite his passing in November 2010, the displays continue.
Nonetheless, the flag displays remain deeply contentious in Belgium for political reasons, but they’ve been criticized for other reasons as well. Why? Well, just ask Ben Berden, whose nose was broken by an errant flagpole at a race in Kalmthout in 2003.
So, want to add a little bit of Euro authenticity to your race this weekend? Sure, break out the Dirk Hofman sign and Flemish flag. Just remember that you might be unintentionally endorsing a Flemish mobile home salesman or separatist movement.
Who is the favorite to win the Superprestige overall in 2012-13?
—Phil in Chicago
Superprestige, as I mentioned above, kicks off on Sunday in Ruddervoorde, and, with 11 overall Superprestige titles under his belt, Sven Nys is the clear favorite to take the overall title. Nys is so successful in the iconic Belgian series that only three times since 1998 has someone else won the title. Of those three others, only Bart Wellens, who took the overall during the most successful season of his career in 2003-04, remains full-time in the sport. (Winner in 2009-10, Zdenek Stybar is focusing on road racing this season; 2000-01 winner Richard Groenendaal retired in 2009.)
Nys started his season slow, with an 11th place finish in Switzerland, before storming to back-to-back wins in Belgium last weekend, and looks poised to deliver an early strike on a writhing, technical course in Ruddervoorde that is well-suited to his strengths.
Nonetheless, Nys will hardly go unchallenged in the quest for the overall title. Kevin Pauwels missed out on the Superprestige title by only six points last season, and will surely be motivated to try again. Meanwhile, world champion Niels Albert has never won the overall Superprestige title, and told the Belgian paper Het Nieuwsblad that the series would be a top priority for him; given his track record in targeting specific season goals, Nys’ 12th title is far from a sure thing.
On the other side of the coin, Superprestige still steadfastly refuses to add an overall competition for women. The series was forced by a UCI rule change to add a women’s race to each event last year, but its embrace of women’s cycling has been, at best, half-hearted, relegating the mandated races to early hours, before even the juniors tackle the course. The former GVA Trofee series, which will unveil a new title sponsor when it kicks off in Ronse next weekend, has been more welcoming to women, and I’ll take a look ahead at that series’ prospects for both men and women next Thursday.