Cyclocross is huge in Belgium. But that doesn’t mean that spectators are kept at arm’s length.
Cycling Weekly was a guest of Ridley Bikes at the recent Superprestige Gavere. Although the press pass opened some doors, with Mathieu van der Poel’s and world champion Wout van Aert’s mechanics happy for us to carry off bikes to shoot unsupervised, all spectators were still within touching distance of the pros’ bikes.
The bike trucks and riders’ campers arrive early at the course, with the mechanics setting up and prepping the bikes, while riders either arrive later or stay locked up inside, often hanging out together.
Chat to the mechanics and you find that they’re often the riders’ dads: women’s world champion Sanne Cant’s father was setting up her bikes, junior men’s champion Eli Iserbyt’s bikes were in the care of his dad, while Adri van der Poel, himself a former pro rider and cyclocross world champion, was in charge of the Corendon-Circus team’s machines.
Smaller teams were equally approachable, with the riders themselves more accessible. With minimal budgets, they rely on friends and on mechanics from their local bike shops to prep their bikes and work the pits for them.
Only van Aert’s mechanics were a bit more cagey. With a representative of SRAM in attendance, they were guarding a secret Stevens bike, hidden in their van. Nevertheless, you could walk up and watch van Aert’s warm-up prior to the race.
But the real crowds were around van der Poels’s camper, with fans three or four deep waiting for an appearance and lining up for photos and autographs when he emerged for a warm-up lap.
As the races near, spectators spread out around the course, picking their favourite spots. You can make your way alongside the majority of the course and cross it at supervised gates when riders aren’t passing. The other popular locations were the beer tent and the hot dog stands.
Position yourself by the finishing straight and you can quickly swap between the two sides of the hairpin as riders pass. Plus there’s a giant screen and running commentary in Flemish, with occasional bursts of English, to keep up with the action when the front of the field is out of sight.
The crowds were noticeably thicker for the men’s race than the women’s or juniors, but even then you’re not hemmed in, with crowds only getting more than a couple of people deep in the finish area once the riders had passed on their final lap. It was easy to get close to the podium ceremony too.
Once the races were over, most riders warmed down outside their campers, again with an audience for the stars, while their mechanics washed down bikes and shut up shop.
Meanwhile in the beer tent, the party was just beginning, with hundreds of people enjoying a drink and the music even a couple of hours after the race.