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Photo Essay: 2015 Superprestige Gavere

Photo Essay: 2015 Superprestige Gavere

Words and photos by Dan Seaton

Gavere isn’t the oldest race on the calendar, but it’s up there, with a history that dates back to the very beginning of the Superprestige series during the 1982-83 season. Laid out on a wooded hillside on a army base in central Belgium, the always-muddy course swoops and dives and plunges, then climbs back up though that same mud to the starting line at the top of the hill.

It is among the most popular races on the calendar, and by race time, the wide lawn above the pits fills up with thousands of revelers, drinking beer, cheering, and watching the race on the big screens that overlook the course.

But the Superprestige series hasn’t always treated women with anything even resembling parity to the men, and for years the race in Gavere was particularly problematic, running the women’s race in the least-desirable time slot — first thing in the morning. Thanks to the efforts of many people, including British Champion and UCI Cyclocross Commission member Helen Wyman, there has been progress. There is finally a Superprestige overall title for women and there is live television coverage of their race — which now runs where it belongs, immediately before the men’s race.

The later start time has translated to better-attended and more-competitive races, but also to a more relaxed schedule for those who take the start. Helen Wyman had time time before her race to sit on the steps of her mobile home and chat with friends, fellow competitors, and fans.

Just as many spectators were headed to find something to eat for lunch, the under-23 men were rolling off the line for a race that would be dominated by the Telenet-Fidea team. Telenet riders jammed the front early on, Thijs Aers leading the way for his teammates at the low point of the course, then they packed five men into the top-eight finishers. Two laps in, Telenet’s Eli Iserbyt was leading his teammate, U23 European champion Quinten Hermans, toward an easy one-two finish.

Even more than most cyclocross courses, Gavere is a labyrinth, thanks to the difficult terrain and dense woods on which the track is laid out. Signs, like this one pointing toward the pits, point the way for spectators and participants alike.

A brief pause in the schedule after the under-23 race and before the women provides some time for racers to scout the course and for fans to take a little break. If you’re lucky, maybe you can catch one of the stars on his or her way from the course to mobile home for a photo, like this pair did with Lars van der Haar.

Then the women are off and flying. Telenet’s Ellen Van Loy led the way early on, ripping down the fast, muddy first descent and leading rival Sanne Cant through a series of switchbacks in a field at the venue’s far corner. After unseasonably pleasant conditions all fall, more typical weather — cool and wet — has returned to Belgium in recent days, giving riders their first real taste of mud this season. Sunday was dry but the wind was fierce and gusty, providing challenge of its own for the racers. Still, the sun broke through the clouds a few times, shining on Belgians Birgit Massagé and Anja Geldhof early in the women’s race.

From the fields, the course loops back on itself and climbs up and into the woods, where it stays for most of the rest of the lap. Just after the first passage through the pits, the course hits its climax, plunging down a steep, slippery descent that arcs left and directly into an equally steep climb. It’s a place where plenty could go — and, on many occasions, has gone — wrong. But it proved no problem for Telenet’s Loes Sels on her way to an 11th-place finish.

“I had a pretty rubbish start to be fair, and crashed on the first technical descent, just after the pits,” said Nikki Harris, who finished third. “I’m not really satisfied. I’m a bit angry that I crashed. I need to start getting a few better starts, and every race I seem to crash [early on] so it’s a bit annoying. But it will come together in time.”

Harris announced this week that she will leave Telenet-Fidea for the Boels-Dolmans team to vie for a place on Britain’s Olympic squad in Rio next summer.

Sunday was another good day for rising star Jolien Verschueren, who overcame a slow start to finish second, overtaking teammates Van Loy and Harris on the way. As her successes continue, Belgian fans, like those lined up in the crowded fields near the pits on Sunday, are taking notice. Cheers for the 25-year-old schoolteacher are growing noticeably louder every week.

The sun shone on Luxembourg champion Christine Marjerus on Sunday too, as she posted one of her best results of the season, fifth place. Majerus, who rides for the Boels-Dolmans squad Harris is bound for, may be a role model for her British (soon-to-be) teammate. Majerus has been met with increasing success on the cyclocross bike, and has been a reliable lieutenant on the road for her teammate, 2015 world champion Lizzie Armistead, as well.

For European Champion Sanne Cant, it was back to business as usual, as she stretched a win streak to four races. Cant went free on the second lap and never looked back.

“It’s important to get to first position, because when somebody else makes a mistake there’s a danger you could fall,” she told VeloNews. “So I wanted to ride my own race. It’s really heavy, so if you ride too fast in the first laps it’s possible that you blow up. So I rode my own race and I’m happy I can win again here.”

Cant has not looked stellar on heavier, harder courses so far this season, so for her, Sunday was an opportunity to prove she’s on top form in all conditions.

“It was a different course than the last week’s. It’s the first time it’s a little bit muddy, and I really love it,” she said. “I worked really hard this summer to get more power, so I’m happy I could show today it’s not only that I can ride fast on a fast course. I also can do this.”

Since 2007, Belgium has known only three women’s champions, Sanne Cant has held the title six years running. Before her, Loes Sels earned the title twice and Joyce Vanderbeken once. Sels and Vanderbeken shared smiles and stories on the finish line, while, meanwhile, Cant joked with the two women who shared the podium with her.

Gavere is one of the most popular races in Belgium; the crowds come for the racing and stay for the epic post-race parties. On the sidelines on Sunday, they seemed to be enjoying themselves in spite of the cool, blustery weather.

It was no surprise to see Sven Nys take the lead early in the men’s race. Nys has nine wins in Gavere, and was surely hoping for a 10th on Sunday. The race plays to all his strengths: It is steep and slippery, with long, hard, sustained climbs to contend with.

Nys attacked early and shed much of the field, but he couldn’t shake Wout Van Aert, Kevin Pauwels, or Lars van der Haar, setting up a four-man battle that lasted for much of the race.

“I know this race very well and I used my experience to try to win this race,” he told VeloNews later. “I felt directly that I had good legs and I tried. But, okay, there were three guys who were coming back. Then it’s more tactical and it’s stay on the bike, stay focused, don’t make any mistake.”

It may be less spectacular than Gavere’s famous plunge from the pits, but the course’s first big descent is no less harrowing. Muddy, rutted, and in the closest possible proximity to the spectators, racers must keep the speed high to stay in contact while avoiding a myriad of possible disasters. A strategic leg throw can sometimes mean the difference between a clean descent and going sprawling, painfully, into the mud.

By mid-race, it was clear that Wout Van Aert — who missed out on two wins last weekend — was back on form and in good position for a chance at another win, as he led Lars van der Haar, Sven Nys, and Kevin Pauwels.

“In the beginning I made a few mistakes, so the first half of the race was not really my best,” he said. “Afterwards, I took some time to come into a good rhythm. I was a little bit surprised that I got so easily a gap in the final.”

Non-Belgian riders don’t often draw approving cheers from the Belgian crowds, but Canadian Mark McConnell, with his beard, his flashy kit — by Belgian standards, at any rate — and some gutsy racing, has won over the local fans. He finished 30th on Sunday.

Wout Van Aert led his four-man group at the bottom of the race’s biggest climb as the race approached the final lap. By the time they got to the top, it was pretty clear everybody else would be racing for second place.

“At a certain moment, Wout was attacking on the climb, and I felt it was a little bit too fast for me,” said Sven Nys. “I waited until we were at the top of the climb and I thought when I tried to stay focused and tried to stay with Kevin, hopefully we could come back. But he was too strong.”

Behind the leaders, Sunweb-Napoleon Games’s Klaas Vantornout was fighting a battle for fifth place — and a chance to start turning around a season that has been beset by troubles: illness, injuries, crashes. He would eventually miss out to Era-Murprotec’s Laurens Sweeck by a handful of seconds, but sixth place still was something of a step forward for the struggling Belgian champion.

Wout Van Aert has had no trouble winning so far this season, but Sunday’s race proved he can match Sven Nys in a heavy, technical race. Van Aert rose to the challenge, launching one of the attacks that have become a trademark of his and taking the solo win.

“I wasn’t scared of the muddy races, I like them more than the fast races,” he said. “It’s easier for the beginning, and it’s [more quickly into] small groups than in the sunny races. The rain is now here in Belgium, and I’m also happy that I could win the first time in other conditions.”

Meanwhile, for Sven Nys, it was a chance to prove he remains relevant in a season in which he remains winless.

“I definitely [really wanted second place] because I felt that I had complete control over the race the whole hour,” said Nys. “The only problem was that there was one acceleration for me too much from Wout, and afterwards Kevin was trying to push to close the gap with Wout. But it was not possible. I felt I could stay with him, but it was a sprint with a lot of headwind. I had to wait until the last 50 or 60 meters, and then I could accelerate again.”

Nys may have had to settle for second, but he still earned a moment on the top step of the podium when the mayor of Asper-Gavere, the Flemish municipality that has hosted the race for 33 years, presented him with a lifetime achievement award, a token of thanks from his fans on his final appearance there. In a season in which Nys is still looking ahead to quite a few final races, it’s a ritual that figures to repeat itself more than once.