Friday, February 02, 2007

Mark Noble's Report from Worlds

Current 40+ National Cyclocross champ Mark Noble, who was in Belgium with his son Chance (who competed in the U23 race), filed this exciting report for us from Hooglede, Belgium. Thanks Mark!

There are those that claim to have been at Woodstock, closer to home maybe, Paris 1989 to witness Lemond’s miracle eight second win over Fignon. I can’t claim to have been at either of those events, but I can claim to have been at the ‘07 Cross worlds in Hooglede, West Flanders and to have witnessed the near miracle there.

After picking Chance off the floor after his ride on Saturday in the U23 race, we were making our way back to Ghent with my family from England, discussing the events of the day. Danny Summerhill’s stellar, though less than surprising silver medal ride. It was so close. What did he do wrong ? What he might have done to have won it, there were so many things that might have changed the result.
We marveled at Lars Boom’s total domination of the U23’s, here was nothing to discuss, Niels Albert would have needed to grow wings, this was not to be his Worlds. Not even close. If here is anyone who can break the strangle hold the Belgians have on the cross world in general it must surely be Lars.
Finally we took bets on who might win the Elite race the next day. In my book there was only Nys or Wellens. If not them, one of the other five Belgium team members, I just couldn’t see anyone else making an impression. I asked Chance which of the Belgians he thought might win. He stunned me by saying he didn’t think a Belgium was going to win it.
“Who then?” I inquired.
“Page” he matter of factly replied.
“Son, you rode too hard today. We need to get you home. You are not well! Hell will freeze over, Pigs will fly the day Page wins Worlds!”
We woke Sunday to a typical Belgium late January morning, gloomy, grey, windy and damp, but mercifully it wasn’t raining or especially cold. We made our way to the course and after successfully dodging a number of unmanned roadblocks we were lucky enough to park within a mile of the course. From there we joined the sea of humanity surging towards the flags fluttering in the distance. The first thing you notice about this ‘sea’ is the perfusion of silly red, yellow and black head gear. Next is the fact that half those making their way to the race are already two sheets to the wind. I suspect the other half are equally tanked, but more able to be discreet about the level of their intoxication.
The worlds course at Hooglede, though in the region of eight minutes long, was surprisingly compact. Run over a small wooded hill that projects out of the flat Flemish landscape. Conditions underfoot were not especially muddy. Hooglede is notorious for it’s epic muddy races in the past. This weekend was not to be one. There were a few muddy spots, but by Sunday most had dried slightly and become deeply rutted.
We arrived about fifteen minutes before the women started. Already the course was packed by the crowd that would swell to close to forty thousand later in the day. We staked our claim to a small patch of hillside overlooking ‘The bowl’, a compact area were the course snaked back and forth five times with two staircase run-ups and three white knuckle rutted drop-ins. Best of all was we were able to view the rest of the race on a monster big screen set-up beside one of the ubiquitous beer tents. The crowd was busy ‘enhancing’ their beer booze in preparation for the forthcoming Belgian swipe of the elite podium.
I had felt Katie might be able to pull something off this weekend. She didn’t disappoint. Sadly, the big screen in front of us remained blank throughout the women’s race, and we were forced to listen in bemused anguish to the Flemish and French commentary after the breakaway of two French women and Katie stormed out of sight to complete their last half lap. She looked strong and had always been in control. Maybe had she had more international experience we would have been celebrating the USA’s second cross world title, a small miracle in it’s self. Again it was a case of the one that got away. I for one hope Katie comes back next year and takes care of business.
By now we are all feeling pretty darn good, if a little cold. There were still two hours before the Elite race got underway, so we took refuge in one of the heaving beer tents. The scene inside must be something unique to Belgium, the crowd was packed in shoulder to shoulder. All had beer in hand. A dj in one corner, was blasting jams that boggled the mind, everything from new wave to polka and then some totally crap Flemish anthem that set the drunken crowd canting and stomping their feet in time. I know if this were in England or America this would have been the perfect recipe for a fight to breakout, and yet the crowd was remarkably good natured.
Perched on our hillside lookout, we watched the Elite men start. No big surprises, Gerben de Knegt got the lead as he so often does, followed by one of his countrymen (Not Greonendaal) This was not what the Belgian crowds had come to see and they expressed their disapproval with some very unsporting booing and howls of derision. In the US we have always been overly partisan in support of our teams, and individuals, but on the other hand we, in general, have given other nations polite applause, at worst maybe indifference. So it came as something of a shock to witness this ugly underbelly of Belgian cyclo-cross.
The Dutch lead soon fizzled and order was restored as Bart Wellens and Sven Nys powered off the front, followed by defending champion Erwin Vervecken. The crowd erupted into rancorous applause, the party was on. The Belgian express train had left the terminal and was bound for podium swipedom.
And then something bizarre happened. In the blink of an eye, like watching a house of cards collapse, the invincible Belgian Storm troopers in an instant were reduced to bungling Keystone Cops, as one crash after another took one or more of their team out of contention. First on a fast road decent. The camera motorcycle made contact with a large plastic lane divider, kicking it directly in front of Wellens. He went sailing, Nys locked it up, lost control on the greasy road, collided with Wellens bike and hit the deck too. It looked like it was over for both of them. Vervecken now had a pretty good lead, Maybe ten seconds. The crowd was still trying to comprehend what they’d just seen. At least Vervecken was on his way. That was until half a lap later. As he was in full flight across a muddy rutted section his front wheel found and dropped into a muddy, man eating hole that sent him flying over the bars. At this point I couldn’t help thinking there was a certain hubris at play. Groenendaal took the lead from the Belgians who were now off the ground and regrouping. He looked in control, but there was no way he was going to hold off the avenging Belgian hordes. As all this was taking place, Jon Page was hanging in what was left of the lead group. Hell, he might make top ten again. He was nearly taken out by a charging Erwin Vervecken who overcooked a tight turn, slide down taking with him Sven Nys who by now must have been thinking his Belgian compatriots didn’t care who won so long as it wasn’t him. Wellens too was back, but at 40 seconds he looked out of contention. A few seconds later Davy Commeyne, also of the Belgian ‘team’ rediscovered Vervecken’s hole and was tossed over the bars and out of the lead group. Hell, Page could make top five!
A lap later, Greonendaal was still in control at the head of the race, but Nys was still making a concerted effort to get back. That was until he too found Vervecken’s hole and he was down for the count again. This had to be Groenendaal’s day. The crowd was now so stunned, it forgot to boo Groenendaal. To top off their misery the Belgian riders were now so far out of it they are no longer worth cheering for, the party was over. I’m beginning to wonder how long that drunken good nature was going to hold.
Then something happened of bouy the Belgian crowds spirit, Greonendaal lost control, fell heavily on the sixth lap and never regained his composure. This old dog’s day was over. At least it now looked unlikely a Dutchman could win. If A Belgian couldn’t win, let it be anybody but a Dutchman.
That left Franzoi followed closely by Page. My god! Page could medal! Jon looked remarkably composed and for the first time we got a chance to see how smoothly he was handling the course. but hey, there’s no way he can beat Franzoi. is here?? Sure enough he attacked Franzoi and quickly opened a ten second gap.
Now hold on a cotton pickin’ second there, this can’t be. An American leading Cross worlds within two laps of the finish? Did I just fall into some strange parallel universe? Satan made a grab for his wooly underwear and out there on Flemish farms, the pigs began making plans to take flight on a Southerly migration. If we weren’t screaming before, we were now going insane. When I say insane, In hindsight I think it was pretty insane to be chanting “Go USA” in front of menacing Belgian crowd who must have felt that they were about to have the equivocate of their crown jewels stolen from them.
We were so caught up in Jon’s lead that we failed to notice Vervecken had remade contact with what remained of the lead group. He now had his sights on Franzoi, who very nearly took him down as he went over the bars in the sand pit. With a lap to go Erwin made contact with Jon and the illusion seemed over. Jon I feel made the tactical error of pulling all the way down the finishing straight with a lap to go, but hey who wouldn’t have. It take’s a really cool head at that point to risk losing it all.
All credit to Jon, he resisted Erwin’s last lap attacks and even counter attacked, I quite honestly thought Jon’s luck would hold and Erwin would suffer another set back. Sadly it was Jon that was forced to dap over the final bridge. Erwin took flight, as he had done so successfully on the two other occasions he won Worlds and our dream shattered into a million pieces as we floated heavily back to earth. We were not even going to be treated to a real sprint finish. Belgium had dodged a Yankee bullet. There seemed more relief than any real joy to have taken the Elite title for the seventh year in a row.
I’m left wondering if we’ll ever see another year like this for the US. Undoubtedly we will have future success with our women and juniors. U23 and elites are more problematic. Every year, many of our younger and most talented riders opt to miss worlds, either though indifference, road season conflicts or just the prospect of forking over thousands of dollars to represent an indifferent federation. My hope is that this years successes have shown those who have sat on the fence on whether to compete seriously in Europe and those that might sponsor those efforts that success is possible and worthwhile. Few nations consistently field a full team as the USA does year after year. Fewer nations still have riders who are willing to cover every red cent of their expenses to compete for their country. That shows incredible spirit. It’s scary to think what might be possible if we had a serious program to encourage our most talented riders to stick with cross and make it worth their while.
It will always be fun, but until that happens I think we will be looking back on ‘07 as a very special year, a special year of almosts.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great report!
Maybe if the USofA got a world cup over here it will bring up the exposure level which in turn should bring more sponsorship money into the sport. I thought it was sad that NorCal or for that matter, SoCal didn’t have a stop on the Crank Bros. U.S.G.P. of Cyclocross. I know it takes a lot of money to put on a UCI event and I wonder if we as cyclocross racers/fans would be willing to pay to see a race? I know that entry fee for the most part went up this year, but I would certainly pay extra in my entry fee and or admission fee to see a national caliper event or God forbid a World Cup race!!

12:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the USA is a bunch of lilly afraid shy boys! The USA has won multiple Tour de France titles, a Giro, a few Road World championships, so i think the USA should stop being so giddy about doing well in Cross and just get on with it. The USA has millions of people, so just keep racing and keep on with developing riders. But to act like it is some amazing thing that a USA rider does well at the worlds is basically being a over dramatic hyper boil.

You should expect your riders to do well or you are selling yourselfs short which holds you back in the first place.

1:26 PM  
Anonymous The Limey said...

Excuse me, but what gives you the right to expect anything from our riders? What part did you play?
Our Cross riders are self financing and as such owe nothing to anyone but their sponsors. Sorry you are so caught up in your expections to appricate what joy this success has brought US cross fans.
Also: Who's being held back?

4:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am writing from France and it is true you took 3 medals at the cyclocross worlds, bravo to you! Now go do something really worthy like cure cancer, or stop global warming.

Sport is fun, yet not paramount in the worlds perspective of excistance.

The USA has raced well for many years, and this is not the 1970's or 1980's when your riders first really came to this country and made gigantic steps in cycling performance.

Now you are equal as a nation with all the cycling national bodies. So dont act like getting a few medals at a world championships is the most amazing thing in the world.

You are only holding yourselfs back thinking other nations are better then you and that your cyclocross is lacking in some aspects.

This type of reactions will only hold yourself and your rider development back.

Take this any way you want.

7:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just checked out your report, very exciting stuff! Way to go Mark! And way to go Chance!
Keith D.

8:25 PM  
Blogger funkdaddy said...

Bonjour Jean-Pierre-Francois-Luc-Michel,

I appreciate this site has gained international exposure, but really, with posts like "Bart Wellens is a Turd", how could it not?

Get off your "haut cheval" and let us be happy. CX is a teeny tiny speck of a sport in this country - in fact most avid CYCLISTS in this country have no idea what cyclocross is.

And congrats to France for winning the Women's race. Shouldn't you be happy about that? I mean the French have barely been able to win their own Nat'l Championship lately.

I'm glad you have your priorities straight, we should all be out there saving the world instead of wasting our time writing comments to blog postings on some obscure website on the other side of the world...

10:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yo Froggy, No Nation is better than us. That's what makes us great. Our blind expectation of greatness.

6:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes our France won the female race and we were very elated of this accomplishment. Also I have hosted many Americans here in my region to compete in cycling. I have supported American riders for years.

7:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


jonathon page has beat franzoi before this worlds race, so it is not like it is out of this world for page to place this high.

page has taken a number of top placings lately after the worlds and before the worlds, so get off the hyper sensations of thinking that page's result was a one off deal that was too good to be true.

page will be getting top placings for a long time to come so get used to it. his start position will be better and he will have better support and he will most likely be one of the top cross riders in europe for a few years to come if he stays healthy.

so get used to it.

9:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The USA did great and it will only get better!

Lets just hope we do not have to wait a few years to get some Elite medals again!

I really hope it is a regular deal now, and the USA keeps prgressing forward in the world rankings of Cross.

11:42 PM  

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