War of the Worlds

Words: Erik Speakman | Photography: Emily Maye | Date:

The UCI Cyclocross World Championship 2014

The course sits on a wooded hillside at the edge of the village of Hoogerheide in the Netherlands close to the Belgian border. The broad, flat expanse below stretches out toward smokestacks and the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant. Steam rises up into grey clouds that roll through the sky. Gulls wheel and pivot on a stiff ocean breeze that chills the air and billows through the legions of National flags in the crowd.

Many choose to escape the cold in the beer tents, where the crowd stomp their muddy boots over plastic cups in a haze of cigarette smoke. A DJ plays a mix of Euro-pop, techno and Neil Diamond… At the top of our lungs we sing along, in languages we do not speak, arms over the shoulders of jovial people we do not know. As each race queues up, the throng pours out into the mud in front of the massive TV screens showing the racing. An enormous sea of fans in the bright colors of costumes and supporter clubs press against the course edges, everyone hoping to view that critical move where the race will be decided.

Some have been posted up next to key spots since the early morning, bracing against the cold for hours as they watch their favorite riders warm up. The rising excitement is palpable, the minutes before each start holds an intensity that turns to frenzy once the gun goes off. As the leaders come into view, we explode in a cacophony of screams and shouts.

The roar approaches again in the distance like a lit fuse through the audience. We run back to the fencing, pushing into the melee in time to see current World Champion Sven Nys (Trek-AA Drink) charge by, with Zdenek Stybar (Omega-Pharma-Quickstep) hot on his heels. The crowd is wild with the moment; voices, bells and horns explode from all around us, and a deafening wave of energy crashes through us and continues down the line. After they pass we sprint back to the big screen to watch the battle continue. Nys is steadily digging at Stybar, repeatedly opening small gaps as he seemingly floats through each technical section.

Our Belgian screenmates approve with the occasional clap and yell of encouragement, but Stybar battles back again and again – an amazing display of power and guts. Nys drives through the deeply rutted mud and seeing that he has opened a more substantial gap, attacks, driving the screws deeper. Our Belgian friends are jumping up and down and hugging each other, their excitement rising as the damage to Stybar builds. Even without the use of a translator the sentiment is understood – Stybar will not be coming back from this one.

And then it happens. Time stands still as Nys grabs a fixed pole with his right hand, pivoting around the turn. He over-steers, bars twisting from his hand and instantly he is on the ground. We yell involuntarily – a collective gasp. One of the Belgians turns and grabs my arm then claps his palms to his face as he wails in disbelief. It is enough to allow Stybar back on his wheel. Suddenly, this is a race once again.

The thunderous sound of the crowd travels away with the two riders – igniting with shouts and waving flags as they climb into the woods. Stybar is leading. As he comes off his bike at the top of the hill, Nys loses momentum and dismounts as well. Stybar attacks, Nys bobbles and he is off the bike again. Along with our new friends, we howl at the screen as Stybar opens the gap. The fuse burns toward us a final time, crackling and coursing through the crowd as we run to our familiar spot at the fence. This time, as our voices join the rising din, a change that will be echoed at the finish – Stybar is in the lead, the rear end of his bike skating back and forth as he powers by.

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