February 3, 2009 (Hoogerheide, Netherlands) – Cyclocross Worlds is truly one of the most interesting and exciting cycling events I have ever been involved with. The size and electric atmosphere at this event is mind boggling. On the final day of competition the course was filled with over 40,000 fans and some estimates were much higher. For such a tiny town and venue, this was truly remarkable.
To give you an idea of how seriously this event is taken, you simply had to look around at the fan clubs for each popular rider. The Beligians, in particular, are really passionate about the sport and their riders – with behaviour that sometimes resembled soccer hooliganism. At one point I saw about 30 Belgians surround the motor-home of Dutch rider Lars Boom – singing, taunting and yelling a cheer with a chorus that ended in LARS BOOM followed by some other words that can’t be repeated here. The Belgians clearly believe that they are part of the performance and can affect the outcome. Intimidation and psyching out the competition are all part of the fun on the border between the Netherlands and Beligium where cycling rivalries run very, very deep.
Canada’s Wendy Simms started the race with a hard charging effort in the women’s elite event. On the first and second lap, Simms was riding in third and aggressively pursuing the wheels of the break that contained the eventual medallists. It was a gutsy ride that laid everything on the line. Wendy simply wasn’t content to take her chances getting behind in the group of chasers. In cyclocross it’s all about the start and in all of the other races, moves that went on the first lap easily stayed away. It was a smart risk. Natasha Elliot went over the handlebars in a crash within 200m of the start. She recovered to ride aggressively but it was already too late to get back to the front of the race. Natasha’s lap times were the same as riders who placed nearly 10 spots higher. She was holding ground with the best in the World. With a better start Natasha will be a very strong contender for Canada next year. Pepper Harleton, in her first World Championships, rode hard and was in the mix with the top half of the field. She faded slightly near the end – suffering a hard crash. At age 23, Pepper has many World Championships ahead of her and she certainly showed that she has the drive and talent to be more competitive by next year’s race.
In the men’s race Derrick St. John was consistent and strong. He was charging hard from the beginning and was on course to easily finish on the same lap as men’s winner Neils Albert of Beligium. In the second to last lap Derrick broke his chain and was forced to run to the pit for a bike change – relegating him to being lapped by the leaders with just one lap to go (6 minutes/lap). Aaron Schooler rode steady throughout the event to finish without incident. Although he was content with the ride, I know Aaron will be gunning for a much better result next year.
After the race we celebrated with a team dinner in the hotel. The project went smoothly and we had a strong team atmosphere and positive energy throughout our time in Hoogerheide. I think riders and staff went away with many things to work on for next year. We have a good team with strong ambitions to return to Worlds with a much higher level of performance.
It’s important to mention that Wendy Simms and Norm Thibault have been integral to the Canadian presence at Worlds for the past few years. Wendy has shown that Canadians can ride in the top ten at Worlds with a solid European preparation program. Norm has been at the last five Cyclocross World Championships and has been Wendy’s support but also manager, mechanic, driver and support for everyone on the Canadian team. It’s fair to say that the pioneering work that Norm and Wendy have done has lead the way for Canadian success on the world cyclocross stage in recent years. All of the riders and staff at Worlds owe a lot to Norm and Wendy. They have paved the way for many young Canadians who you will see in the top 10 over the next four years at Worlds. They have truly been leaders in the revival of ‘cross for Canadians.
Special thanks goes to the entire volunteer staff who helped the team out in Hoogerheide. In addition to Norm, we also had Paul Brend of Victoria and Andre Sutton who both worked hard to assist the team in its preparations. Paul in particular was working very hard to help in any way possible with the team. From washing bikes to making bike changes in the pits, Paul was truly a big part of the team. Paul took the remainder of his vacation days for the year to work for us at Worlds.
Of all the cycling disciplines, cross is perhaps the most marketable. As you can see from the pictures, the sport is extremely popular in Europe. In North America, the discipline is growing at an exponential rate. For companies hoping to get exposure for their brand, cyclocross offers one of the best returns on investment. For a major event, every banner on the sidelines is repeatedly televised on each and every lap. Riders are close to fans. Advertising on jerseys and bikes is highly visible. Team areas are open to the public and seen as part of the spectacle for fans. Announcers are able to call the entire event with close action always in view. Cross offers the best opportunity for corporate exposure and sponsorship. The sport is a bonafied religion in Europe and has been soaring in North America for some time. My advice to potential sponsors is to get involved now. The entire scene is set to explode into one of the most popular and thrilling of the cycling disciplines.