As I write this I’m sitting on an airplane on route to Belgium. Heading to Europe is always a daunting prospect. On top of the logistical challenges, the travel, the cost, there’s also the knowledge that you need to be riding at your absolute best to make an impact on the races. Racing in Europe takes everything from you. You can go from challenging for the podium in North America to struggling to finish on the lead lap overseas. Not only are the courses more challenging, but the level of competition is so much greater.
Whether from your own mouth or from the mouth of others, it’s a story we’ve all heard before. The rider crosses the line, shakes a fist at the sky, and utters something along the lines of “I would have been in top-3/5/15/20 if I hadn’t had that flat/crash/poor start. At the moment, I feel like I know that story all too well.
80,000 screaming, drinking, and jeering fans. 80,000. Within my three months in Europe, I’ve been to a lot of big ‘cross races where spectators were lined shoulder to shoulder around the entire course, but this was at a whole new level. People sloshed through the pouring rain and muck for forty-five minutes just to get from their car to the venue. People camped out to claim a course-side spot for hours before the races started. And those same people let out an primal roar every time their cyclocross king, Sven Nys, got anywhere near them as he craved around the course in his final World Championships.
"That level of comfort completely went away in Europe. We have, or at least I had, this perception of cyclocross in Europe that just about everyone there is better than just about everyone at home. For the first few weekends I would line up at the back of the race and unconsciously relegate myself to staying right there, at the back of the race. Without ever admitting it, I saw these famous courses as so far beyond my own abilities and because of that, that’s exactly what they became."
There is sand. Lots of it. When we think of sand in North America, we think of just muscling our way through a volleyball court. I don't know how to explain the sand here other than say that if you take that volleyball court, triple it in size, add another foot of sand, put in some elevation, and then do it five or six times per lap you are starting to get an idea of what Koksijde is like. And that’s before you consider the big muddy bogs in between those sand pits.