BRUSSELS (VN) — An eye injury sustained at age 13 left him nearly blind, but it is largely thanks to the vision of Etienne Gevaert that Belgian — and, in fact, international — cyclocross is where it is today. The founder and president of Belgium’s Hansgrohe Superprestige cyclocross series, Gevaert’s efforts promoting cyclocross both domestically and abroad have made the name Superprestige synonymous with cyclocross and, at the same time, are no small part of the reason Belgium and its riders now tower over the international cyclocross calendar.
Here’s the kind of outsize influence Gevaert wields in Belgium: when the country’s sole astronaut, Frank De Winne, spent six months aboard the International Space Station in 2009, Gevaert helped to arrange for cyclocross races to be transmitted to him via NASA’s satellite internet link. That’s right. Cyclocross in space.
With talk of cyclocross internationalization in the air in recent weeks and the world championships set for this weekend just over the border in Hoogerheide, Netherlands, VeloNews sat down recently with the 69-year-old Gevaert over glasses of Trappist beer for a far ranging conversation about the past, present, and future of cyclocross in Belgium and around the world.
VeloNews: You started the Superprestige series more than 30 years ago and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how it has changed since the beginning. It went through a very international phase, but now it’s much more a Belgian series, with only one race abroad, in Gieten, in the Netherlands.
Etienne Gevaert: When I started in 1978 the period of Albert Van Damme and Erik De Vlaeminck was finished, and we decided we must make something, a classification, Superprestige. Eventually, it started in Belgium with four organizations, then after a year we had friends in Holland, we added a Dutch race organization (Valkenswaard).
Before that, I was the soigneur and the masseur for Erik and Roger de Vlaeminck, and I did the Tour de France with Joop Zoetemelk when he was second after Eddy Merckx. So I know many people in France and Italy, all over the world of cycling. Well, in that moment that was the world of cycling, there were no Americans at the time.
After a few years we had 12 organizations, four in Belgium and eight in foreign countries—France, Spain, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland. And at that moment we paid Belgian television to come and do reports from the races in the other countries. We paid television instead of television paying us at that time!
But the other countries weren’t really much interested. Switzerland was more interested in skiing. In Holland, their national sport is skating, so they were as much interested in that as in cyclocross. And then at that moment, Hein Verbruggen (president of the FICP governing body and later the UCI) asked if they could take over the Superprestige.
I told him no. The UCI wanted to take control, but instead they started the World Cup. But I think after that the other countries had not enough interest (to sustain the foreign races), and in Belgium, we could have 20,000 people and television. Every Sunday in Belgium — we have about 10 million people here — one million watch cyclocross on television.
VN: So after more than 30 years of the series, do you think the Superprestige can take some credit for Belgium’s rise to be not just the center of racing, but maybe the best, competitively, in cyclocross?
EG: When we make a new parcours, little boys of 10 or 11 years come to look and try to ride. So, of course (cyclocross grows here), because cyclocross is alive in Belgium, and many people are interested. As you see on every parcours, people come during the week. Small children come with their bike and drive with their fathers. And it grows, of course. So yes.
VN: One of the ways that the sport has changed a lot in the last 10 years is the growth of women’s cycling. And the women in cyclocross sometimes say that Superprestige doesn’t respect them. Superprestige runs women’s races early in the morning, there’s no general classification for women, and they don’t get much money for racing Superprestige. What do you say about that?
EG: The spectators come for Sven Nys and Niels Albert, and not exactly for the girls.
VN: Ok. But I think it’s fair to say that the Bpost Bank Trofee puts the women’s race later in the day and there are more spectators for them. I think a lot of women would say that you can’t change people’s minds if you don’t put the races out there where people can see them. In Superprestige, the women even race before the juniors.
EG: Well, in the Bpost there is no classification for under-23 and for juniors. Superprestige you have a classification for juniors, espoirs, and elite.
VN: Ok, but don’t you think that if you added women to that list you might have a chance to attract an even bigger audience?
EG: Maybe, but as long as Marianne Vos doesn’t come, there’s not much interest. She could be a deciding factor I think.
VN: She might say it’s not worth her while to make the trip.
EG: But then they are contradicting themselves. Katie Compton has come to Gavere. If all the good ones come, we don’t have any trouble to bring this higher. But if the best riders don’t want to come, then what are we pushing? We’re pushing empty bottles. If the bottles are full, there’s more incentive to push the bottles. But if you’re pushing empty bottles, what’s the use?
VN: Some people say that there’s a danger for Belgian cyclocross, that it’s becoming so internally focused that the sport can’t grow. And Superprestige is an example — there’s one race in the Netherlands, but it’s a Belgian series. Is there a way to grow the sport even if it stays sort of focused on Belgium?
EG: The problem is that road cycling — look at Zdenek Stybar — they swallow the best from the foreign countries. So if there’s no Zdenek Stybar, if you go to the Czech Republic, who’s coming to watch the race? That is the main problem.
VN: Is there a way to attract more foreign riders? Or is there a role for Superprestige in the growth of the sport outside of Belgium?
EG: Well, if the UCI said, “Superprestige, you may take three or four (race) organizations in the foreign countries,” I have no problem. There needs to stay seven for me in Belgium, we don’t want to sacrifice Belgian organizations to do something in a foreign country. But if they give us permission to do more, then we can do it. [UCI rules currently limit the number of races in a single series to eight. —Ed.]
We have to make the money (that sustains the series) in Belgium, so I must keep seven (Belgian) organizations. We wouldn’t make the money in the other countries. But I would do two or three foreign races. If UCI gives us space and dates and slots on the calendar, then we are prepared to think about whether maybe we can do a race in Spain or whatever. But we have to make our money in Belgium because the sponsors — Telenet, for example — they aren’t very interested in Spanish races, because they don’t have customers there.
But if UCI says we are limited to eight competitions a year, and then we have to do three in a foreign country, this means we have only five to make money.
VN: When people think about Belgian cyclocross, I think many of them think primarily of the Superprestige races. What do you think makes Superprestige so different from the other races?
EG: The atmosphere. More people come to our races, and we have the best atmosphere.
The Bpost is organized by (the Belgian sports marketing agency) Golazo, and Golazo works with 75 people. They use their staff to organize races. Superprestige doesn’t have staff, but they have people who are motivated to make their own race the best. There’s a difference between if I pay you to do something and if you do the same thing because you love it, that’s the difference.
Golazo, they organize, but it’s for the money. Of course it’s always for the money, but people work there to get paid. In the Superprestige people work there because they want to. And that is why they do more and do it better, and that’s why there’s more and better atmosphere for the crowd.
For example, at Superpretige, there’s singing, there’s entertainment after the race. Of course the reason for this is for the police also, because we don’t want to let 20,000 people at the same time into the streets. So the police say, “Thank you very much that you do this entertainment so not everybody goes out at the same time.”
But another reason we do it is that people like it. They pay 10 euro and they can watch the juniors, the espoirs, the girls — they get four races and they get entertainment on top. So it’s a good price, it’s a package deal.
But the main reason is that the people behind Superprestige do this because they like it. At the Bpost Trofee the do it because they get paid.
VN: The races in the series have changed over the years. Are there any races that are gone from the calendar that you wish could return? Any that were particularly special races?
EG: Wetzikon (Switzerland), Zarautz (Spanish Basque Country), they were beautiful tracks. In Zarautz, the parcours overlooked the Bay of Biscay, and that was one of the races you regret losing. We haven’t been there since the early 1990s.
VN: How do you decide which races to include? Do they bid for a place in the calendar?
EG: You do have to have a good date on the calendar. If you don’t have a good date, we are not so much interested in the race. That’s number one. Then you have to prove that you can organize and not lose money every year, because we also connect our name with each race. It’s a little like a franchise. If you become a part of the Superprestige, you’re a part of us. If you mess up, the Superprestige also messes up. So we are very reluctant, we watch out not to give someone a license to join the series before they prove they can do it.
But it’s not that if you throw the most money on the table you get it. It’s not bidding. It’s about a good venue and a good organization.
We were really charmed by the world championships in the U.S., and we proposed to Peter Van Den Abeele (UCI cyclocross coordinator), “Give us a possibility and an extra date and we will try to set up something in the USA.” And he didn’t want to do it.
VN: No doubt a lot of people in America would be excited to see a Superprestige race there.
EG: Normally, I think the whole month of September we should be racing cyclocross in America. That’s what I think it should be but, again, it’s the same problem. We have to make our money in Belgium. So if they give us some extra dates to do it, we can set something up. But we can’t throw out a Belgian race.
It’s not that we don’t want (races in the U.S.); it’s that the UCI has to give us the possibility to do it. The UCI is limiting us to what we are doing now, and we’re not prepared to let a race like Gavere or Ruddervoorde — we cannot drop these in favor of something else.
VN: Do you think that the UCI doesn’t want to give you more dates because it wants to promote and protect the World Cup?
EG: Well, I heard that UCI pays the World Cup organizations a million euro per year, because otherwise they would be bankrupt. The organizations in the World Cup have a revenue of minus one million euro! So UCI has to pay this just to keep the World Cup alive. So this answers the question; are they protecting their own? Yes. We talked earlier about how when the Superprestige was international, Hein Verbruggen said, “Give it to me, thank you very much.” So we’re not exactly the biggest friends of the UCI, because they have tried to play a strange game.
Still, we are always correct in dealing with them, but it is indeed strange when you ask, “Why don’t you give an extra date so we can try something in the USA or something new somewhere else?” Well, we can only ask, and they refuse. That’s all. What is the reason? Ask Mr. Van Den Abeele.
It’s crazy for all the racers to go to the USA for one day and come back. That’s also the reason why we said we should go in September one whole month to the USA and do several ’crosses there, because then it’s worth it. Sven Nys can go there with his mechanics and everything. For one day it’s a little bit crazy, but not if we could make one Bpost, one Superprestige, one World Cup, and fill the month of September. That’s our proposition.