Koppenbergcross : bikes, beer and boisterous Belgians
A light autumn wind blows an intoxicating mixture of frites, beer and other fried delicacies around every inch of the course. The excitable hum from the beer tents, audible between pauses on the public address system, suggests we could only be in one place.
That's right, Belgium. The Flemish Ardennes to be precise, to watch the notoriously hard Koppenbergcross. Based on the devilishly steep Koppenberg, the course explores the worst, or if you're that way inclined, the best of Flanders fields.
It's the second round of the prestigious GVA Trofee Series and we arrive early in Oudenaarde, only a short hop from Calais, to find a thin line of spectators already building on the Koppenberg. Mercifully for the riders, the course turns off halfway up the cobbled climb (which rises to a ferocious 22 per cent), but far enough up it to cause splits in only the first lap of the U23 race.
The cobbles are brutal and jarring; the only respite from them is a thin gully at the side of the road, the more experienced riders sticking to it religiously, forcing the others into the rougher centre.
Cyclo-cross is big in Belgium, but it's the enormous infrastructure that supports each race that reinforces just how big it is. "It's a very important part of Belgian culture," explains Steve De Haes, from the Belgian press. "There are not many things we are good at, but cycling, and cyclo-cross in particular, is one of them," he smiles.
For a race the standard of the GVA Trofee, it will be broadcast live throughout Belgium and Holland on high-definition TV. This requires an army of cameras, lorries and support crew as well as live screens dotted about the circuit. Each team of any note will have a campervan full of bikes, spare kit and, at junior level, a gaggle of family members. Flatbed trucks full of sponsors' hoarding line the long roads that lead up to the small town of Oudenaarde.
During the break between the women's and the men's race, fans flock to the beer tents to get some serious drinking in before the action resumes, and the number of spectators starts to swell. Coachloads of supporters from the official fan clubs take to the course, distinguishable by their official jackets, hats and flags. Those from the fan clubs take the sport very seriously, and it is little exaggeration to say that their devotion approaches religious proportions.
One of the red-jacketed army of supporters of old-hand Erwin Vervecken, who also happens to be his first cousin, explains that she has attended every one of his races for 20 years. "The atmosphere is fantastic," she enthuses. "You get to know a lot of people if you come often. Cyclo-cross is very special in Belgium, and it's a great sport to watch in winter. The Koppenbergcross is special because of its association with the Tour of Flanders."
Black clouds group ominously above the course, threatening rain. In late October when the ground is already soft and porous, a heavy shower will turn the place into a mudbath. Secretly, it's what everyone is hoping for, but instead, there is just a light shower greasing the pavé.
Despite the legendary status afforded to the cobbled climb, it's surprising to see the majority of the spectators congregating on an impossibly steep zig-zag descent from the top of the course. With thick mud and hairpin bends, it is here more than anywhere else on the course that the riders' technical skills are tested to the limit. From the bottom of the hill, the number of spectators is so dense that riders appear to float through the raucous crowds.
By the time the men's race comes around, the crowd has worked itself into a frenzy of beer-fuelled excitement. The only audible sounds of the riders' passing is the screech of new brake pads as they wind their way gracefully down the zig-zags.
Europop provides a constant soundtrack. Despite showing such partisan support of individual riders, fleeting attacks from Czech Zdenek Stybar and Italian Enrico Franzoi elicit large and knowing cries of encouragement. However, the man the majority have come to see is cyclo-cross legend Sven Nys, and the crowd is united in its support for the Belgian.
By only the second lap, Nys has worked his way up from a lowly starting position, thanks to a lacklustre start to the year, much to the visible delight of the crowd who lean over the barriers to yell words of encouragement at their passing hero. Niels Albert, the Belgian world champion, has also made his way up after getting his handlebars caught in the hoarding on the first lap. Albert gets a roar from the crowd, but it pales in comparison to that given to Nys.
The atmosphere is comparable only to something equally Belgian: kermesse racing. For the thousands of people attending the many events on the cyclo-cross circuit, it is as much a social occasion as it is about watching the race. A chance to have a drink, a catch-up and a gossip. Each lap at the Koppenbergcross is roughly eight minutes long, time enough to walk to the beer tent, queue up and walk back to where you were in time to see the riders passing again.
Midway through the race and it starts to settle down into a groove, the attacks of the main contenders have all been neutralised and the lead group has been whittled down to a select bunch of seven riders, Nys and Albert included.
After the initial excitement of seeing the riders pass, the crowd quietens sufficiently to overhear predictions being made. Will Stybar go for a long one? Has Nys got what it takes to fend off the world champion? Of course he has, is the overriding consensus. Come the penultimate lap of the race and the lead group is still intact and Nys is still in with a fighting chance. The Belgian, who got off to a slow season - by his own exacting standards - is also the most experienced of the group and blessed with the best bike handling skills. It will certainly be a close scrap.
The crowd lining the zig-zags - who are watching the action on a big screen - explode with delight as Nys powers away from his breakaway companions on the muddied, technical uphill section on the last lap of the race. It's not so much an attack; he simply rides away from the others. But is it premature? Albert, distanced by Nys on the ascent, digs deep in the flatter section. A collective intake of breath is taken as Albert is visibly eating into Nys's slender advantage.
The latter, carried on a wave of noise and encouragement from the crowd, powers along the finishing straight to take his seventh win in the event. The old hand hasn't lost his touch quite yet, it seems. Albert hangs his head in exhaustion and disappointment. The beer-fuelled crowd erupts with elation; not only has their hero come up with the goods, but he has provided the perfect prelude for the after-race party when the beer really starts to flow, the tacky Europop starts to blast and sobriety becomes a distant memory.
Events still to come this winter
Gieten (Ned) - November 29
Diegem - December 27
Zonhoven - February 7
Vorselaar - February 14
Koksijde - November 28
Igorre (Spa) - December 6
Kalmthout - December 20
Heusden-Zolder - December 26
Roubaix (Fra) - January 17
Hoogerheide (Ned) - January 24
GP Rouwmoer, Essen - December 12
Azencross, Loenhout - December 29
Baal - January 1
Lille (Fra) - February 6
Oostmalle - February 21
Tabor (Cze) - January 30-31