Belgium's Kerstperiode is stuffed full of elite cyclo-cross racing, where muddied Santas mix with hordes of excited fans keen to make the most of the action high on festive spirits. We jump into the heart of Belgium's home sport.
This year's Kerstperiode, the festive break between Christmas and New Year, began with a round of the UCI CX World Cup in Zolder on 26th and was followed by a night time race in Diegem, a northern quarter of Brussels. The riders had a day of rest and returned on 29th December for Azencross and then Versluys cross on 30th. New Year's Eve was left for partying and riders returned to racing on New Years Day with a rip up at the GP Sven Nys. If anyone had any energy left it was onto Leuven for a race on Sunday 3rd January. All the races were part of the elite calendar and with a captive audience the racing stars were out.
We headed across the channel to see superstar Sven Nys close out his twenty year cyclo-cross career and help Condor's Claire Beaumont and her ViCiOUS Velo team mate, Delia Beddis, take part in the elite women's races during the Kerstperiode.
Newbie to Belgium cross, Gem Atkinson captured the action.
Gem Atkinson, rides a Condor Acciaio
On the experience: It's new year, the temperature is teetering slightly above freezing and I'm stood in a boggy field outside a military base in Belgium for my first taste of European cyclo-cross. Everything you've been told about these hallowed races is true: people are getting smashed on beer in plastic cups (it's not even 2pm yet); euro-house remixes are banging out over the Tannoy system and the vibe is, in a word, lively.
The courses are nut-bustingly difficult, ramps so high I'd probably get mild vertigo just walking up them. The great thing is how open and close the sport seems to be, from the courses right up to the professional riders. Ideal for me to navigate about using a small camera system and prime lens. Want to get on the floor and crouch down right next to a mound to catch the riders smashing over? No problem.
On the race action: The overriding thing I took away is just the level of the sport over in Belgium. Even the weekend warrior rank-amateurs are so incredibly professional, and well... fast. Trudging back to the car after watching the girls smash the race, I picked up a spent bullet shell from the ground, a perfect reminder of the level fire-power I just watched tear up the course at Leuven.
Delia Beddis, trains on a Condor Fratello
On the racing: The courses were punishing, the organisers aren't volunteers, they've created courses that are designed for spectators, built obstacles if necessary, dug in ruts if it makes it more exciting.
GP Sven Nys pretty much had everything you'd want in a cross race - technical descents and climbs, mud, bridges, steps, Tarmac. There wasn't a single point on the course where you could take breather. Even the descents were hard work because they were so fast and super muddy. Definitely the best course I've ever ridden...and the hardest. I raced for 55mins and was wrecked at the end.
On the atmosphere: They [the fans] love Sven Nys. At the GP you knew he was coming because the fans were cheering so loudly for him. He was definitely more popular at the end than the winner.
The woman with the shoes and short skirt deserves and mention. And the generally merry people at the end dancing around. Also the spectators who cheered us on, no matter who we were, that was motivating.
The Pit Man
Paul Sheers, races on a Condor Terra-X
On the experience: Cyclo-cross in Belgium is much more of a 'thing' than it is here in the UK, so when I get the opportunity to cross the channel and go to one of the big races that happen there most weekends, I grab it with both hands.
On pitting: If the trip also involves getting dirty in the pits, then even better. Being a pit man for a rider gets you the magic, access all areas wrist band then you're as good as royalty. Riders whoever they are are seen differently and thus so do their pit men. Paying public move out of your way or even offer to help carry bikes and equipment. They appreciate the role the pit crews play in keeping their riders in the race for the duration, after all, they've parted with some hard earned Euros to come and see the riders, and get on the Smeets of course.
See it for yourself
Usually at some point someone you ride with or in your club will suggest making a trip across the channel to see the sand dune filled Kosidje World Cup or attend a the Cyclo-cross World Championships. Don't wait for these races to come around and bunfight in the heaving crowds watching the action on a big screen. With the same line up of elite stars, big screens, deafening music, and beer tents, the atmosphere is no less intense.
Our tips for getting to the action:
- Check the website for Bpost Bank Tropee series, Soudal Classics or Superprestige. A calendar is displayed with locations and dates.
- Find a 'cross race you like the look of, follow the link and look for "Praktische info" then "Parkings" for the location and ideal parking for the race.
- Use the 'Programma' link to view the race timings.
- Entry is on the day and usually between 10-12 Euros. You'll need to purchase at a little booth.
- Take cash as cards aren't accepted.
- Crowds begin to build up before the elite ladies race at 1.30pm.
- Always take wellies with welly liners.
- To purchase food/drinks firstly buy your tokens from a little booth. Then use your tokens at the bars and fast food vendors.
- Never underestimate how cold you will get.
- You can take your own food if you like but don't forget to eat some Belgian Frites.
- There are usually big screens at all the races.
- Unsure what races to attend? Take a look at Balint Humvas' book.
Phrases and words
- Dank U: thank-you
- Ya: yes
- Renner: rider
- Laste ronde: Last lap
- Smeets: a Schnapps type liqueur
Bpost Bank Trofee: GP Sven Nys, New Years Day
Ellen Van Loy spent much of the race out front and on the attack in the elite women's race. She was reeled in by the European Champion, Sanne Cant. On the final lap, Van Loy fell on a tricky muddy drop-off, allowing Cant to romp away with the win.
For legend Sven Nys it was the last time he'd stand on the start line of his home town’s race. The race was won by Wout Van Aert, who rode off from an elite front group. In the closing laps Sven and a group of four rode free with Sven out-sprinting the others for second and the biggest cheers of the day.
Soudal Classics: Leuven, Sunday 3rd January
The course is on the site of an army base, fairly flat save for three gruesome run ups and three gnarly descents and a few gullies to sprint into. There are three man made objects to break up the flat ground including steps, a ramp and hurdles.
The elite women started fast and a group of four established itself. A loan rider from Liv looked like she would stay away but an error on the steps caused her to fall, costing her the race. Several crashes from strong contenders meant that Belgian riders Sanne Cant and Sophie de Boer broke free with De Boer inching out Cant in a two up sprint.
The men's race ran out in similar fashion with a loan leader breaking free for most of the race. Belgian Toon Aerts ensured he didn't make any technical errors to take the victory with his team mate, Tom Meeusen.
*Delia Beddis finished 20th in GP Sven Nys and 21st in Leuven. Delia went on to finish 3rd in the British National Championships the following week.
Claire Beaumont finished 27th in GP Sven Nys, 22nd in Leuven and finished 6th in the British National Championship.