I'm in the Netherlands, more specifically Hoogerheide. OK, I'm actually in Ossendrecht, about six kilometers south. It is a pleasant bike ride along the Wall of Brabant....which is not a wall, so much as a historically significant ridge that rises up to look out at the windmills standing up to the North Sea.
The Romans, the Spanish, the French, the Germans and even the Canadians all became familiar with this area during assorted military endeavors here.
Hoogerheide means High Heath in Dutch.
Say it aloud: HOOGGGGG-er-HIGH-da.
Do you feel that word in your throat? Cyclo-cross town names sound and feel like the sport itself; gritty and strong, scraping one's epiglottis like a cobblestone.
Most of us enter the world of cycling via road cycling, which features places such as Paris or Rome or Madrid. These are places that roll off the tongue delightfully. You can almost hear Handel or Mozart as you roll into the sport.
Some of us enter through mountain biking, which features pretty places such as Moab and Crested Butte. These places sound like fun campgrounds with pretty post cards. It's like The Sound of Music on a bike.
And those lovely elements of cycling are like gateway drugs, spritzers and lagers.
Inevitably, those who truly love cycling, find themselves drawn like Ulysses to the siren call of cyclo-cross, which is like back-alley heroin, with a soundtrack laid down by The Clash.
Places associated with 'cross sound like what they are: hard. Tabor, Koksijde, Sankt Wendel, Hoogerheide... These are places where the Romans got their asses kicked by savage tribes. And the Spanish are still licking their wounds after the Dutch threw them out after 100 years of fighting. (Few realize that Belgium was referred to as the "Spanish Netherlands" for a long time.)
If you want to know about 'cross - and all cycling for that matter - pore over a map of this region. For a study of cycling in this area curiously mirrors that which happened in history.
I find it curious how many cycling tour operators focus on Spain, Italy and France, but nobody I know of ever brings a group to the Netherlands. Hoogerheide is a short bike ride from Belgium. Antwerp, Ghent, and Brussels are not far away. And all those classics - Flanders, Amstel Gold, Ghent-Wevelgem - are run on the roads of this area. And Roubaix is perched on the Belgian border, barely in France.
This entire area is effectively the delta of the Rhine River, where it empties into the North Sea. Effectively, these guys ran the toll booth for a vast amount of Western European farmers and artisans and traders hoping to get their goods on a boat or off a boat. So while assorted armies and empires pompously stomped into this part of the world, the Dutch adopted a strategy of forging alliances, giving unto Caesar and all that, and then loaning them money.
...If you didn't pay them back, they made it rough on you to do business here.
One of the traits of Dutch civilization is they don't like such proud people telling them what to do. Like, the Holy Roman Empire....The match of the Protestant Reformation hit the Netherlands like a tinderbox. A lot of the savagery of the Thirty Years War happened in the Netherlands.
Almost poetically, the Dutch and the Belgians embrace 'cross with a similar zeal with which they rejected such empires. The French, the Romans, the Spanish, the Germans, the British can do what they like with their empires, but with government or sport, these guys will do it their way. To some degree, the celebration of 'cross here is a big flip off to the Grand Tours. American fans adore stage racers; these guys live for one-day race champions who race not with calculated defense but with savage offense.
I touched down in Brussels after a pleasant flight with Cody Kaiser, Chris McGovern and Tobin Ortenblad. Fortunately Ortenblad, who dressed like a crystal meth sales rep, did not try to sing on board the flight. I took time to speak with Max Chance, a fine junior from Boulder.
Upon arrival my driver, Bart, whisked me north and east towards Antwerp and into my hotel, just over the border. To my surprise I encountered the bluest of skies and sunshine.
After a brief nap in the hotel, I had to get to the venue for the awards rehearsal.
As I walked out of the hotel, I felt the eyes of three people on me from inside the restaurant. One of them smiled and nodded a greeting. It was a Marianne Vos, who grew up about 40 km away.
I tramped around Ossendrecht in search of a bike shop. Once there I rented an upright Gazelle for 7 Euros a day. I just walked out with the bike, the proprietor kindly stating I could settle up later via the hotel.
This little town has an eery feel. I saw about 20 people total, with most of them pensioners. I felt as if the entire place was boarding up for an invasion of sorts.
I pedaled north by braille, with neither a map, nor a GPS, and not so much as an address, towards the race venue. Keeping the mid-day sun behind me, and following a bike path...uphill into that North Sea wind....I reached Hoogerheide without incident. I immediately found the venue, as this town only has 10,000 residents. The worlds venue will eclipse the town in geographic size and multiply its population sixfold on Sunday.
I walked through much of the venue, watching the forklifts and trucks and workers steadily erect this temporary city out of scaffolding, trusses, bridges, and fencing. The sheer size of this thing is amplified when it is not populated.
I found Kees Maas, the veteran Dutch announcer I first met here at the 2012 Road Worlds in Valkenburg. After securing our credentials, we tramped down to the podium for the rehearsal....Something I find comical each time I do so. Nothing goes right; everybody is freezing in this January wind; podium presenters never have a clue about how to dress for outside endeavors; and we always have fun with assorted course workers playing the part of podium finishers, waving to their adoring co-workers who roar with laughter as we pretend to put on their rainbow jersey.
Adri Van Der Poel drove through the venue in his comfortable Citroen. I pedaled out with my Gazelle, ripping southward with the wind at my back.
Dinner, some Leff darks, and then research, research, research on the junior men.
Some of the highlights of that research include:
Saturday will likely have some rain. The Namur World Cup is likely to be the best indicator of a rider's strength on Saturday. Just sayin'......
YANNICK PEETERS of Belgium is the hands down favorite. He is the World Cup champion, has more than 10 major wins, and proved the winner at Namur. But he did not win his national title, which went to the 17-year-old ELI IZERBYT.
The Belgians had an amazing 56 starters and 26 finishers at their nationals. At issue is just how many of them have a chance to win Saturday; and this Lord of the Flies situation can work against them...Somebody has to be Piggy.
ADAM TOUPALIK of Czech Republic is a favorite. And he is just 17. He was second at Namur.
FRANCE is always good at this race. They are led by twin brothers, LUKE AND JOSH DUBAU, who shocked all going 1-2 at the Valkenburg World Cup. Josh has not returned a similar result since; Luke, who went ninth at Namur, has been consistent enough to maintain a world rank of seven. But neither won their national championship, which went to SEBASTIEN HAVOT. Watch YAN GRAS, who finished third in the European Championships. Of note with France is that the top eight finishers in their national championships finished within 23 seconds of each other.
I expect to have dinner with Brook Watts, Mike Plant, Tim Johnson and Peter Goguen while here...Stay tuned for that report.