Editor’s note: Dan Seaton has been literally crawling through the Belgian mud covering European cyclocross since 2008. Catch his Crossland Q&A column on Thursdays this season. 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.
RUDDERVOORDE, Belgium (VN) — Until just a few years ago, if anyone mentioned Americans racing cyclocross in Europe, they invariable were talking about Jonathan Page. Page, arguably the most successful American man in international competition in the history of cyclocross, first committed himself fully to European racing during the 2003-04 season. He went on to notch a second place at the 2007 world championships and subsequently signed with Sunweb, becoming the first American to earn a contract racing for a major European team.
Page was, and remains, a pioneer, but in the inaugural Superprestige race of the 2012 season, it was clear that there has been a seismic shift. For the second straight year, three Americans will spend a full season abroad, and two of them will be racing for major, Belgian-based teams. The difference: those two are women.
While Page searches for a primary sponsor, Amy Dombroski is riding in the yellow and blue of the powerhouse Telenet-Fidea team and Christine Vardaros is the only woman on the Baboco team —former home of Belgian legend Erwin Vervecken. Last year a change in UCI rules required promoters hosting Category 1 international events to include a women’s race. While many events already did offer women the opportunity to race, the newly added races proved to be some of the most exciting of the season, fueled in part by the intense rivalry between Dutch countrywomen Marianne Vos and Daphny Van Den Brand. And, in a country that has not always been welcoming to women’s cycling, interest began to grow.
Although the women’s race on Sunday was relegated to a relatively unattractive time slot some four hours ahead of the elite men, the course was — if not exactly packed — busy for the women. And the increased fan interest has meant new opportunities where none existed before.
Dombroski, who, after spending last season in Europe largely on her own, is now riding for one of the biggest teams in cyclocross, told VeloNews that she thought the additional support would translate to new success on the bike.
“It’s incredible,” she said after a sixth-place finish on Sunday. “Last year, I had one or two people helping me out, and this year it’s unbelievable how many people are stepping in to help me out — mechanics, massage therapists, motorpacers — and then, of course, once you get to the race, everyone’s out there shouting your name. I think it’s not been apparent these last few races because it’s been pretty chaotic getting settled in — I just got over here a week-and-a-half ago — but I think down the road the results will really show.”
Dombroski arrived only days before her first Belgian race last weekend after spending the summer and early season at home in Boulder, Colorado, and will remain here until returning to the United States in January for the national championships and, hopefully, the world championships in Louisville, Kentucky, in January.
Vardaros, meanwhile, lives with her husband in the Brussels suburbs year round, and has raced with Baboco’s support for several years — long enough to have earned a devoted Belgian following and, occasionally, be mistaken for a local. While Dombroski will try to use skills and fitness developed in Europe as a springboard to success in North America in January, Vardaros is enjoying the opportunity to take a slightly more relaxed approach to the season.
“I’m going to do all the World Cup races,” she explained, “but really just try to enjoy the moment. The focus this season is on having fun: no pressure, no team pressure. But I’m just really excited to represent America in the World Cups and other UCI races.”
But Page, experienced in dealing with the pressures of racing abroad, is feeling pressure of a different kind this season. Page told VeloNews that he waited too long to let prospected sponsors know his contract with long-time sponsor Planet Bike was ending at the end of last season. Though a number of potential sponsors expressed interest in him, by the time it was clear that he was available, the ink was already dry on other contracts, and Page found himself unattached, at least for the moment.
Page said he has had some interest from a few potential backers, but for the moment, it looked unlikely he would have a new deal before the beginning of next year. But Page, no stranger to adversity, is realistic about his position right now.
“All the people who supported me in the past have continued: Blue Bicycles, Lazer Helmets, Spy Eyewear, Clement. But I don’t have a main sponsor,” he said after a deeply disappointing ride in Ruddervoorde. “Honestly, I wanted to come out here at the beginning of the season and say, ‘Here I am, I’m doing well,’ but, obviously, right now, it’s not that. But I’ll be there. This, right now, isn’t me.”
But Page, who arrived in Europe with his family of five just days ago, has often struggled with recovering from travel, and, like Dombroski, has long-term goals in mind. Sponsored or not, he’ll look for results in World Cups, Superprestige, and the not-quite-yet renamed Trofee series before trying to find the magic that landed him on the worlds podium once before — this time on home soil.