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Belgian crisis brings cycling community back to earth

November 24, 2015
Greg Keller drops into the Louisville, CO bowl

Greg Keller drops into the Louisville, CO bowl

A few notable riders were absent at Saturday’s local cyclocross race in Louisville, Colorado: juniors Eric Brunner (Boulder Junior Cycling) and Gage Hecht and Evan Clouse on Alpha Bicycle Company – Vista Subaru, and U23 rider Grant Ellwood (Boulder Cycle Sport/YogaGlo).

They had all traveled to Europe several days prior as part of USA Cycling’s development program to race the World Cup event in Koksijde, Belgium on Sunday.

It was Brunner’s first trip to Europe with USAC and Clouse’s first jaunt to Europe for cyclocross. I was excited for both of them, thinking about how they would feel after riding and running through the long stretches of axle-deep sand that define Koksijde’s course.

I mentioned that to Pete Webber, head cyclocross coach of Boulder Junior Cycling, who was at the local event and preparing to race (and win) in the men’s 40+ category.

“It might not happen,” he said, about the Belgian World Cup.

“Oh,” I replied. Right. Belgium is reeling in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Paris. Brussels had just been effectively locked down with citizens advised to stay home and avoid places with large crowds. Like sporting events. European ‘cross races can gather 30,000 spectators.

Hecht’s father said Koksijde is about an hour outside of Belgium. “We’re freaking out a bit,” he said while leaning on a fence near the Louisville finish line, adding that the USA Cycling vans have ‘USA’ stamped all over them. As a precaution, the boys hadn’t previewed the course that morning.

What are the chances of terrorists targeting a cyclocross race on the coast of Belgium, we wondered? The risk couldn’t be ignored and international cycling officials were taking it seriously.

Elite women climb a hill just after the Louisville start

Elite women climb a hill just after the Louisville start

With the Louisville elite women’s race was about to start, I hustled over to the hill after the first turn and set up to photograph the field.

It would be a bummer if the young men would not race, especially for Brunner I thought, after what had to be an emotional build up to testing himself in a famed venue against the world’s best junior competition.

The whistle blew and the women’s field rapidly reached the turn. Disc brakes squealed as riders including Meredith Miller (Noosa Professional Cyclocross Team) dismounted to run up the hill.

Just like these women, I turned my attention to this little square of earth 4,800 miles from Koksijde.

Mud mitigation in Louisville, CO

Mud mitigation in Louisville, CO

Miller would win handily and enjoy the most mud she’d plowed through thus far this season.

Boulder Junior Cycling’s Denzel Stephenson would outdistance the elite men on that initial hill and could have won if not for a rolled tire near the end of the final lap which helped Yannick Eckmann (Maxxis-Shimano) to slip by and win.

Riders would queue up to hose off their bikes, dislodging clumps of caked up mud from frames and shoes with sticks as they waited their turn.

Later while waiting for the elite men’s podium presentation, I considered how the realities faced by our friends who might or might not race the next day in Belgium highlighted all the reasons why our little community had gathered around the Louisville venue – the good stuff we take mostly for granted. To spend time outside doing something we love. To hang out with like-minded people always ready with a hug of joy or consolation. To savor salty freshly grilled bacon and buy a coffee from a team raising money to support the Movember Foundation. To honor the generosity of the sponsors who believe in athletes.

Just before the men stepped onto the podium blocks Webber shared some news. After careful deliberations, the Koksijde show would go on with extra security and precautions. With that welcome news, we hoped and prayed our friends would be safe doing what they loved to do.

Meredith salutes after winning a muddy Colorado race

Meredith Miller salutes after winning a muddy Colorado race

Cyclo-X Louisville women’s elite race action

The first turn followed by a muddy hill quickly separated the riders. Melissa Barker (Evol Racing) took control over the front of the race. Kristin Weber (Boulder Cycle Sport/YogaGlo) tailed her and Miller found her early place in third wheel. After a couple of passes in and out of the bowl at the center of the course the track took riders out of view to the west and into turns and dips.

On the return to the bowl in lap one Miller moved up to the lead. She quickly established a gap that she padded over four laps. Barker finished second and Weber third.

Snow had fallen the night before, turning much of the course into varieties of mud that ranged from soupy to sticky.

Miller said it was the most mud she’s raced to date this season. She and Noosa Professional Cyclocross teammate Allen Krughoff are currently home in Boulder on a three week break from UCI racing.

“It’s been a good break, nice for both the head and the legs,” Miller commented. However training continues on break and the local race fit the bill for a hard effort. Miller seemed clearly at ease, happy for the mud practice and a relaxed time with friends that contrasts with the stress of the traveling UCI scene.

“It’s one thing to race one day,” she said. “It’s another when you are on the road plus racing two days; it takes a lot more out of you. Here you can just drive home, pull yourself out of your car and shower, and you’re already in your own bed.”

Denzel Stephenson rides well in the mud

Denzel Stephenson rides well in the mud

Cyclo-X Louisville men’s elite race action

The men’s elite race saw a closer battle for top step honors that only materialized in the last lap. Stephenson seemed untouchable in the muddy conditions as Krughoff chased but lost steam midway into the race. Later Krughoff said Friday’s climbing training had left little in his legs for Saturday’s race.

Meanwhile, Eckmann, who got off to a slow start, gained intensity as the race entered the second half. He surged in the fourth lap with the fastest lap time out of the field and passed Krughoff.

Stephenson fought on and held off Eckmann until about a quarter of a lap remained. When they came together Eckmann bobbled. But Stephenson couldn’t take advantage; almost immediately he rolled a tire and had to dismount. He worked the tire temporarily into place but too many seconds had been lost. Eckmann won with Stephenson second and Krughoff third.

“Denzel was technically a little better than me, but then I gained time in the power sections,” Eckmann said. “He was amazing. I was expecting a real battle to the finish. Maybe if I hadn’t bobbled he might not have rolled the tire.”

Yannick Eckmann's back in the cyclocross saddle

Yannick Eckmann’s back in the cyclocross saddle

Eckmann smiled broadly when talking about the win; it felt good after a trying road season on a European continental team. His ‘cross season began with the Boulder day 2 UCI race and he’s aiming for a good performance in the elite field at nationals in January.

Stephenson is a former junior 13 to 14 national champion. Now in his first year in the 17 to 18 junior age category, he’s been achieving great results in junior UCI races, including third in Boulder and Louisville, Kentucky. Even so, he said he hadn’t expected his stunning ride off the front.

How did it feel to outrun Krughoff and nearly beat Eckmann? “It was pretty cool,” Stephenson said.

Rolled tire and all he seemed content with the day’s effort. “It’s all pretty good. I rode smooth other than that [rolled tire] and I felt good. So I’m pretty happy with it.” Stephenson indicated he might receive an invite to attend the USAC December camp in Europe.

For complete results from Cyclo-X Louisville, see the Without Limits Productions website.


From → Cyclocross

  1. Susan Hecht permalink

    Great article, Mary. Thanks for bringing the Belgium situation to life for our cycling community here. You are right, we don’t think as much about the severity of the situation until we have a loved one in the midst of it all. I appreciate you!!

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    Susan and Bruce

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