This year marked the first time that a team of Australians contested the cyclcross world championships. Nick Both was thrown into a cauldron of noise in Hoogerheide on the first Sunday of February… here is how he saw the elite men’s race.
Cyclocross World Championships, Hoogerheide, The Netherlands
– by Nick Both
Imagine if you will being a gladiator in the Roman Colosseum, faced with many foes, other gladiators and super fast, hungry, aggressive lions. Envisage the crowd: 60,000 strong of men and women all drunk with passion for the spectacle, for an epic battle, for triumph, for failure and for blood. The clash of equipment, the crashing of bodies, the crowd roars!
Far fetched in this day and age? Not as far as you would think. I witnessed this first-hand recently at the cyclocross world championships held in Hoogerheide, The Netherlands. Partly as a spectator, but firstly as a rider. As a gladiator.
An Australian team rocked up at this year’s race, for the first time. Sure we’ve had individuals competing on this stage before, giving it their all and I commend these brave souls – but this year, if you get creative, you could find an unlimited amount of ‘firsts’ to be ticked off. Six riders giving it their all and expectations were virtually nil. None of us had any idea or benchmark against which to compare ourselves in an environment like this. Even the two weekends of racing in advance of the championships only gave a vague idea of what to expect; hard, fast racing.
So it was the world’s best making sections of the course look like child’s play in practice. The presence of the eventual elite champion, Zdenek Stybar on a Thursday confirmed that high-profile racers – past and present – are treated with respect, like royalty. The huge Omega Pharma-Quickstep bus was on hand… for one man, the throng of photographers, the silence as he lapped. Dutch favourite Lars Van Der Haar hitting rutted corners with aplomb. The Australians with eyes wide open taking it all in. Even the spectators were glad we were there with many wishing us “success!” or giving us a shout at our team pit (complete with borrowed camper van).
The crowd built steadily on Saturday as the Friday night rain meant the course would also deteriorate just as steadily. Reports of 60,000 seemed well short for the women and under-19 races. We wondered if it was all the hype was just that – how can the estimations be so off?
Don’t despair, something we had learnt was the people want to see the Kings and they will come.
Sunday arrived with fine weather and an early start, descending into techno and plastic beer cups. The masses came. A stream of face painting, Oranje, musical instruments, cheering and flags. The atmosphere was amazing and it’s difficult to detach yourself from it to concentrate on the task at hand: getting a good start. Every race that weekend consisted of an Australian owning the last or second last row of the start grid, making the 300m start/finish straight a valuable overtaking lane. Somewhere in the 30 second start window that straight becomes akin to a Tour de France bunch finish or, in some cases, a casualty ward.
Your earlier image of the Roman Colosseum is now relevant. The bodies, the breathing, the crowd, the intensity…
Take positions and move forward where you can. The elbows, lines, deep ruts – some so deep riders actually went over the handlebars! It was immense! All the while concentrating so hard on the task at hand, not to be swamped or defend a line while completely cross-eyed from the effort. ‘Just pedal hard’, I’d continually remind myself, and then push on the pedals even harder.
It becomes somewhat of a time trial once the field spreads out, battling with the other lesser fancied nations but, all the while, with crowd support. They know we’ve come so far to be here and that we’re working hard; they appreciate the effort that shows on our pained face or in the imprecise technique. You can give no more to the cause whether it’s pedalling or running. You take the cheering on board and use it to drive you forward. The simultaneous gasps when you make a mistake, the applause when you recover.
Eventually the cheers get even louder and you begin to worry. It’s the leaders, the big cats bounding forward unstoppably from behind. Moving with such power and grace, the speed is impressive and try as you might there’s nothing to be done but put your head down and fight. Fight for another lap, push past any reservation you have about any part of the course, or your legs burning with sour lactic acid. Soon it will be quiet, it will all be over.
And it is. The official calls it a day on your worlds experience. You exit with dignity so as to not be shrapnel in the wake of the leaders. Doubled over my bike I was handed a beer by a local and congratulated. Riding to the pits I was patted on the back, the random Australians in the crowd came over to say hello. Even at the pit, still in Australian kit, still buzzing from the experience and as the crowd filed out they cheered and offered kind words. It’s amazing. The community of an event so big is extraordinary. Finishing 55th from 63 starters is no disgrace either. Am I satisfied? Well yes, I couldn’t have done more on the day, only time and training will improve the result. I also remind myself this is against the world’s best!
Personally I’d go back. Having learnt so much but experienced only a little leaves me wanting more. That’s not to say I’m disappointed; remember we had no expectations, only to give our all in the true Aussie spirit and enjoy the experience for all it’s worth. Now that I can recall the day’s events, I am satisfied and will be for years to come.
You can be told umpteen times about something you’ve never experienced and still never grasp the reality of the situation until you’ve tried it. This was one of those instances. Sensory overload. It’s hard to block out at the time and hard to forget now, or ever.