Cyclocross days start early. Before 9 a.m. — six hours before the elite men will race — the fans are drifting into the venue and racers and teams are setting up camp. For team directors like Telenet-Fidea’s Hans Van Kasteren, Sunday is the busiest work day. It is a chance to meet with his riders, like under-23 Nicolas Cleppe, to deliver contracts and paperwork or discuss the good or the bad of the ongoing season
For teams — and even more so, team sponsors — race days are days to entertain clients and supporters. And races like the one in Zonhoven, which has become one of the biggest and most popular races on the calendar, are special opportunities. By 9:45, just about the time the nieuwelingen — the newcomers — then the under-23s, rolled off the line, caterers had already prepared the reception area where the Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace team will hold a pre-race celebration.
Meanwhile, in the team Sunweb-Napoleon Games camp, mechanics for Klaas Vantornout were already hard at work, preparing Vantornout’s fleet of Ridleys in Belgian black, yellow, and red. On a sandy course like the one in Zonhoven, racers likely start on a file-tread tire, but there will be other bikes set up with more aggressive tread in case the weather deteriorates, and additional bikes in case of mechanicals or just to swap out for a quick cleaning.
A couple of hours later, fans have begun filling in the slopes of De Kuil, the huge sand pit that is the defining feature of the Zonhoven course to watch the under-23 race. By the time the elite men start at 3:00, the pit will be packed, wall-to-wall with fans, transforming it into the loudest arena in cyclocross.
The early event turns into a two-man battle between Telenet-Fidea teammates Eli Iserbyt and Quinten Hermans. Hermans had the early lead, but he could not match Iserbyt’s late surge and could only try to hang on and follow on the pit’s steep, sandy ascents.
Hermans may have ended up second on the podium, but he was still able to give a very special experience to two young fans. Rune Aernouts, 6, Arne Paglialunga, 8, both suffer from leukemia. Hermans brought them along to Zonhoven and gave them an insider’s view of one of the sport’s biggest races, including a chance to stand on the podium.
In the women’s race it was Britain’s Nikki Harris (Telenet-Fidea) who was the first to make the spectacular plunge into the pit. Harris and Belgian champion Sanne Cant (Enertherm-BKCP) quickly distanced the rest of the field, setting up a thrilling duel for the win. “To be honest, today I felt pretty shit in my legs, so I was quite surprised,” said Harris. “I think it was really good for the spectators, because it was obvious me and Sanne were having a little battle. I crashed and then she crashed. It all came down to the last lap.”
There is no riding the steep sandy climb out of the pit. There is barely any running. All you can do is hoist your bike and take it one step at a time.
Zonhoven is a relentless race. Once out of the pit it’s back on your bike, and back to full speed on the fast, twisting track through the woods. British champion Helen Wyman impressed some young fans waiting on the first turn at the top of the climb as she hopped back on her bike and into the chase.
Harris crashed dramatically on her third trip into the pit, slipping to third behind the Netherlands’ Sanne van Paassen and Sanne Cant. But Harris quickly returned to the chase, reeling in Van Paassen just after the top of the climb, then reconnecting with Cant at the front of the race. Soon after, Cant took her own tumble in the sand — going over the bars but somehow remaining on her feet — and was herself forced to chase to regain the front of the race.
Telenet-Fidea is arguably the best women’s team in European cyclocross — but they came to Zonhoven down two riders due to illness. Nonetheless, the team managed an excellent showing. While Nikki Harris battled Sanne Cant for the win, seventeen year-old Fleur Nagengast raced to 11th and Jolien Verschueren, showing off some career-best form, rode away from Sanne van Paassen to round out the podium.
“Sanne attacked me just past the pit, then I tried to go with her, and I followed her down the descent, then we came to the other side of the sand pit and I attacked her,” said Nikki Harris of the battle during the final lap. “Then we were together, and it came down to the last little run-up, and she just had a little bit of an edge on me and I couldn’t react anymore.”
“I thought I could shake Nikki off in the final passage through the sand pit,” said Cant. “Eventually I could not. It took a couple more attacks in the flat stretches of sand to finally do it.”
In the end, Sanne Cant took the win, setting up an exact repeat of the outcome of the first Superprestige race in Gieten at the beginning of October, with Harris in second and Jolien Verschureren in third. The three now sit in the same order atop the Superprestige standings as well.
Sunweb-Napoleon Games’ Gianni Vermeersch took an early lead in the men’s race, gapping the field on the first descent into the Kuil and igniting the crowd and the chase behind him. A lead is valuable on the descent, where it means an unimpeded path to the bottom, but it is hard to sustain on the nasty climbs out of the pit. Vermeersch was reeled in almost as quickly as he got away.
Find yourself even a little off the back, as Telenet-Fidea’s Niels Wubben did on Sunday, and you’re in trouble. The exits from the pit are steep and narrow and the field tends to back up as it absorbs the full force of the climb. There is little hope of making up spots on the climbs early in the race, and the risk of losing even more time as the group strings out as riders reach the fast, flat section that follows is great.
“Dropping into the pit on lap one sounded exactly like it does when Aaron Rodgers throws a touchdown at Lambeau Field — loud!” said American Brian Matter (KS Energy Services), who raced in Zonhoven as part of a short swing through Europe. “It was one of the best Euro cross races I’ve done! Beautiful, extremely difficult, and that sand! The run ups — I felt like I was on a stair stepper going nowhere. On a few occasions the step would actually slide down and I would make no progress. The rope on the left side was a life saver. Nothing like it anywhere else.”
A lap into the race and Wout Van Aert (Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace), who has dominated cyclocross so far this season, was back in a familiar position at the front of the race. “The plan was to wait a little bit until the second half of the race, because it’s a really tough race to get full gas from the beginning,” he said later. “But after a few laps I got to the front and, yeah, I just though I had to run on my own pace and I directly felt that it was faster than the others. So it was my big advantage, my running skill is really good.”
Behind Van Aert — who would eventually lead by more than a minute — a four-man chase group featuring Lars van der Haar (Giant-Alpecin), Rob Peeters (Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace), Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Napoleon Games), and Sven Nys (Crelan-AA Drink) emerged. For Peeters it was his first shot at the podium in a long, long time. He told reporters afterward that he had drawn motivation from an emotional milestone: the first anniversary of the last race Peeters’ father, who died last season, had attended.
It was not a great outing for Belgian champion Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Napoleon Games), who abandoned the race after a very hard fall in the sand, fearing perhaps a broken collarbone, which later was diagnosed as a severe shoulder sprain. Vantornout has struggled to find good form this season, skipping last week’s World Cup in favor of a much-needed recovery day, but told reporters later one bright point on a bad day was he felt his legs were once again fresh.
Sven Nys, racing for the last time on a course he has flagged as one of his all-time favorites, looked poised for a place on the podium before a flat tire in the final lap undid his chances. Nonetheless Nys held off van der Haar for fourth place and later tweeted that Zonhoven is a race he will never forget.
Zonhoven is famous for the drama of its plunge into the pit, but is lesser known for the arresting, desolate beauty of the heathland on the backside of the course. The scrubby, low bushes that cover the sloping, sandy terrain are the perfect place for a game of hide-and-seek.
After the sheer volume of the fans in the pit, the heathland that comes later is a strange counterpoint. It is all but empty, and as the sounds of the race fade the farther you go, the event transforms from one of the biggest Belgian cyclocross races to a strange and striking ride through the gorgeous, autumn countryside.
“I think three laps from the finish, it felt very good and I was on my own,” said Rob Peeters. “But then a little panic when I looked behind in the last lap and I was scared that they would come back. In the last climb, I started very early with the running, and they were able to come back. And I [felt] I was already last, because they were much faster than me in the sprint. But then Kevin made a little mistake to go in the smallest gap, and I just needed to ride in the right line to the finish to hold him.”
Van Aert’s victory on Sunday was a return to form after a rare misfire last weekend in Valkenburg. Van Aert said he had been sick over the weekend, but that a recovery ride on Tuesday had cleared his head. “Afterwards I felt better, and then Wednesday I did a good training,” he said. “It was good to take these two days for rest. Yesterday, I already felt that my body just needed to slow down a little bit, and I felt back the freshness with my legs. I think this weekend we saw back the Wout of the first races. And it was also great for me to feel that.”
Peeters managed to outmaneuver Kevin Pauwels coming into the final straightaway and setting up a sprint in which Pauwels found himself trapped on the wrong side. “I think I didn’t close the door,” said Peeters. “I could feel he was there, but I don’t need to say, ‘Hey, come on, take my second place.’ I just ride straight, didn’t intend to make him crash, and that was the only concern for me.”
“That second place was maybe possible,” said Pauwels. “When we came into the sprint I thought there was enough space between Rob and the barriers. I tried on that side, but Rob did professionally close the door a little bit. Certainly not enough for me to complain. I’ll settle for third place, with Wout today there was nothing more to be done.”
Another win by Van Aert and Peeters’ second place meant Vastgoedservice shared the top two steps of the podium, a first for the season. After posing for formal pictures, Peeters hopped off the podium to share the some of spoils of victory — a huge bottle of Jupiler beer — with his supporters.