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By Geoff Proctor
When Noel gave me the “time to go” nod from across our expansive 28-person table (all the riders, staff and their spouses/families) at the camp’s final steak-and-frite dinner, it seemed abrupt. The hour was early and we hadn’t yet seen the Belgian dessert tray.
Ah, but this is cycling and late nights a la mode aren’t part of the plan. In fact, the end of Euro Cross Camp II took on very much the feel of unfinished business. In this case, some guys were staying on to prepare for a race in Spain two days later, and many of us were flying trans-Atlantic imminently, with the business end on our minds — prepping for top results at St. Wendel in just over three weeks’ time.
The final weekend of the camp was fairly solid. Our juniors continued to progress beyond their experience level with Bjorn coming 11th, Brady 16th, Alex 17th, and Toby 20th in the Baal GVA Series race against a stellar field of some 50 riders. Then Sunday, Adam had the race of his camp, turning in a fifth in nearby Waragem, with Bjorn and Alex both top 10. As a coach, you at least want to see your riders in the hunt, and these five guys were in the mix at every race. Hats off to them. Job well done.
The rest of us took on the big drive to Switzerland for the World Cup in Aigle, posh home of one mint piste along with the stainless offices of the UCI. A highlight on the 12-hour trip came when the guys took in some training en route in the snowy French foothills. For whatever reason, after the ride, Jeremy, Jesse, Ryan, John, Barry and I happened upon this totally enticing pilgrimage rising out of the town of Sombacoeur. At each of the short hiking switchbacks, we read in French of the 12 stations of Christ. Albeit blasphemously, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel with the levels of pain the riders would be feeling the next day.
Impressive as the race environment was, the Alps rising staggeringly upwards from Lac Leman, the race atmosphere itself was a bit of a letdown. Cyclo-cross is less popular here than elsewhere in the country, and with the announcer mispronouncing the top riders’ names, it was anticlimactic. This World Cup had nothing on our big U.S. races in the “show” department.
But, not surprisingly, the racing made up for its lack of ambiance. Working the pit at these races day in and day out, I find myself shaking my head, wondering how these guys do it. The “Sven Nijs Club” (essentially those riders who can hang with him right now) had just raced an epic in muddy Baal on Saturday — the same race our juniors did — and then flown from Brussels to Geneve that evening to arrive at their Aigle hotel just past midnight. Then, after the World Cup on Sunday, their plan was to reverse their air journey Sunday night and be on the rivet again on Monday at St. Niklaas in Belgium.
Ironically, the flight option backfired due to weather and only a sleep-deprived Tom Vanopppen started the next day. The rest of “the club” got back to Belgium at 4 a.m., forgoing substantial race contracts to rest up for the “Belgian world’s” (a.k.a. Belgian national championships) this coming Sunday. Thanks to the driving of Luigi, our chief wrench, and Noel, we were home safe by 2 a.m. and on the line in St. Niklaas by 1500 hours New Year’s Monday.
As I said, it’s hard to fathom the fitness, consistency, and perseverance these top ’cross guys have. And certainly, when the dark-side rationale rears its ugly head, you have to at least wonder. Before the Swiss WCS, I spent some good time visiting with Erwin Vervecken and his parents in Erwin’s aqua Team Fidea camper. There, he shared with me the latest (pun intended) smack talk from Berden, who was claiming in the press that the only difference between himself and Nijs and Wellens was that they were on a better medical program! “Program?” “Better?” Hmm.
At any rate, our guys have a ways to go to reach the level of the world’s best. We just didn’t get untracked in slippery Switzerland, hampered by a bad start. In contrast, JP hole-shotted and then salvaged a 22nd for best American.
Things went better in GP de Ster (St. Niklaas) the next day with Ryan and “Harry” Wicks hitting the diesel stride for 13th and 16th. Jeremy came close in 17th and Erik broke the top 20 with his seventh race in 10 days to claim the camp’s Brent Favre award. Jesse and John had a rougher go, but everyone raced more aggressively which pleased me, given our “ain’t rubbin’, ain’t racing” debriefing from the day before.
Final impressions? Well, first, I was proud as punch of our U.S. guys for their maturity, strength and commitment. Second, I liked how we came together as a group in a very challenging theater. Finally, on the morning in Switzerland, with intermittent rain showers blowing in off the lake, a crisp rainbow arced across the entire width of the valley. For a brief moment, I allowed myself to get caught up in omen, prophecy, and my dream for our American ’crossers. A little unfinished business?
Euro Cross Camp II thanks all team sponsors (Kona-Les Gets, TIAA-CREF, cyclocrossworld.com, Jelly Belly, NCC-BikeReg.com, Corner Cycle, Alan Factory Team, Redline-Excel Sports); the former American Cyclo-cross Foundation; the Granogue CX Organization; Noel Dejonckheere’s Belgian staff; and all friends and family for their support.