Culture

At the back: Erwin and Me

If you had a chance to tell a world champion something, what would it be? I guess I hadn’t really thought about it either.

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From the December 3, 2007 issue of VeloNews 

At a UCI cyclocross race weekend on Long Island this October, current world champion Erwin Vervecken headlined the star-studded fields of national champions and elite riders from around the world. I showed up to race in my category, then watch the pros over a beer or two.

I raced in the 3/4 field, which allowed me to get my anonymous performances out of the way early, medicate with a couple of Belgian beverages and then sit back and watch the big engines take over. And take over they did.

The lowlight of my weekend was a failed attempt at passing my off-the-back compatriot before the finish
line. We jockeyed back and forth throughout the race. The last 180-degree turn put me away for good. I took it wide, he got the inside line again, and I barreled in for 28th place instead of 27th.

Contrast this battle with Vervecken, Barry Wicks and Ryan Trebon motoring away from a talented field and trading blows all over the course. After a long, hot 60 minutes, the outcome played out right below me from a vantage point high on a hill. Trebon appeared to tire from his big pulls and fell off the pace. Wicks took the lead and Vervecken sat in. During the final full-gas push to the finish, the world champ charged out from behind the big Kona rider’s wheel and took the win amid a chorus of screams and cowbells.

With so much happening on the cyclocross scene right now in the U.S. and Europe, I was thrilled to soak it all in. After the race I hung out with my brother-in-law Todd, who flew in from California for the event. All the big players were surrounded by media types, and we picked up scraps of color and sound from the post-race buzz as riders and spectators filed out of the venue.

After a long day of racing and tramping through forests and hillsides, we decided a shower was in order.

Luckily the locker rooms on site were still open. Todd and I gathered up our bars of soap and towels, made our way through the empty space of the community center, and pushed open the locker room door.
And there was Erwin.

In an otherwise completely empty locker room sat Vervecken, rainbow kit draped on the wooden bench
next to him, finishing off the last couple of buttons on his shirt. I stood in the doorway with the look of an East Hampton deer about to get slammed by Martha Stewart’s limo.

I looked over at Todd for help. Nothing there but a blank stare as well. So I took the plunge.

“Nice race.”

Nice race? That’s all I had? Nice race?

“Thanks,” said Vervecken. “It was hot out there. I’m not used to that in Belgium. Did you race?”
My belly tightened. It did the same thing in 2nd grade when Mrs. Lovejoy asked me to stand up and give my presentation on Costa Rica that I thought was due the following week. Did Vervecken just ask me about MY race?

“Yeah,” I stammered. “I raced a bit earlier in the day.”

“And your results?” the world champ asked. “Were you happy with your results?”

At that moment something happened. Maybe the fact that Vervecken slipped the rainbow threads into his duffel prompted my bravery. Suddenly he was just a guy in the locker room talking up the race day. He wanted to know about my race? Fine. So off I went. Vervecken got to hear all about my poor start, my struggles through the rutted, sandy turn in the woods, my inability to ride the steepest climb, and how “Methane Hill” (i.e. a 10-foot pile of soft, gassy dross that somehow made the final course cut) put me into the red zone and out of contention on lap one. At one point I could even hear myself talking and thought, “When is this guy going to shut up?”

But isn’t that just how it is with us bike racers? Is there a bigger collection of self-absorbed athletes on earth with our runway-ready legs, worries over .08 watts/kg and endless brawls over whether to pinch or glue a tire? Here I was next to the world champ who had nothing better to do while he dried his hair than tell me about an epic, mud-caked battle with Nys, and I was blathering on about how I couldn’t catch some desk jockey accountant from the bike club across town on the last lap of a C race.

And let me tell you, Erwin listened.

Well, I’m here to report that even though that moment in time was a highlight in my sheltered athletic life, I know I blew it. Why didn’t I ask Vervecken about training or the Euro scene or, heck, where to get the best frites in Belgium? Eventually I thanked him for making the trip to the U.S., wished him good luck, and parted ways with the champ. Such wasted opportunity.

I did, however, have a chance to make good the next day. Katie Compton was parked right next to me. After she won the day by blistering the talented Lyne Bessette on a fast, dusty course, she sat on her bumper and got an earful about how those cheap clinchers I got on clearance were giving me fits through the off-camber sections.