From a sunburnt country to Flanders fields

Belgium has a way of slowing you down; of making you pause to reflect. It could be because the days are shorter: right now, the sun doesn’t rise until 8.45am and the evenings draw in at 4pm, which leaves a lot of time for tea and reflection. Or it could be the weather: sitting around, waiting for the rain to clear. Probably, though, it’s because when I’m in Belgium I’m not at work [Lisa works as a lawyer when not racing], and the change of pace shocks me into introspection. When all you have to do all day is an ergo [indoor training session] and massage, it leaves a lot of time to think.

Cyclocross in Belgium is a different beast. On any given weekend, races here have 5,000 spectators and national TV coverage. Belgian superfans wear embroidered supporters’ jackets and carry flags for their favourite rider. It’s not unusual for a team to have 20 campervans at a race, each adorned with giant photos of the rider promised within. Fans gather outside the campers, seeking photos – ‘fan cards’ – for their collection. Belgians love their cyclocross. Here, you are either a cyclocross professional, aspiring professional, or a spectator. There is no in-between.

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Image: Gem Atkinson

It’s a stark contrast from cyclocross in USA, where the kids’ races at the start of the day are just as popular as the elite races at the end. In Folsom, California, the weekly Rodeo Cross brings a community together to race bikes at night by the light of lanterns. Riders pass through Heckle Hollow, where music pumps, a DJ spins, and cheering spectators hold out beers for riders to take as hand-ups. Here, a good wolf whistle is just as important as a fast finish. At the West Sacramento Grand Prix, the weather gets so hot that the race organisers line up kiddie pools on the finish line, and riders jump off their bikes into the pools, kit and all, and cool down while listening to the local bands and eating burritos from a food truck.

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Japan, in comparison, has the cold weather of Europe, with the warmth of Japanese hospitality. My World Anti-Doping Agency chaperone agreeably posed for selfies and promised to take me out in Toyko on my next visit. My mechanic spoke little English, and I little Japanese, but we communicated with high-fives and broad smiles. Spectators cheered wildly for all riders, but especially those in the fancy dress event, while stalls in the race village served piping hot ramen and craft beer.

Racing in Australia, where I’m from, you appreciate the grassroots appeal of the sport, because everyone is welcome. Bringing a spare bike for the pits is almost unheard of: the racing is (mostly) dry and so fast that a mechanical would spell the end of your race anyway. The pits are there, as in all ‘cross races, but they are desolate places, a few spare wheels begging not to be used. In Europe, the pits are as much a hub of activity as the race track. Mechanics jostle for position, straining to see their riders on the big TV screens around the course, running to and from the water blasters between bike changes.

Watching cyclocross racing in Belgium, you’d swear everyone was born a pro. There are no fancy dress races here. Supporting development riders is not not pervasive to the Belgian ‘cross culture as it is in the US or Australia. The JAM Fund, co-founded by Jeremy Powers in New England, exists to support up and coming ‘cross riders with coaching and mentoring. Fields of Joy CX, in Melbourne, Australia, specialises in running women-specific skills clinics. These countries celebrate riders who are giving it a go; the Europeans celebrate those already at the top. It’s not a bad thing, just different, and reflective of the way Belgians seem to live and breathe cycling like oxygen. Everyone in Belgium has an opinion on who will win the World Championships – it’s in their blood.

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Image: Gem Atkinson

In Flanders Fields lies the remains of my great-great uncle, who like many other Australians went to fight an unwinnable war in the depths of a Belgian winter. Forever I will be bound to the Belgian mud. That same mud would have clogged his boots and stuck to everything that he owned. Sitting over my second coffee of the morning, looking at the rain beating the windows outside, I feel soft. Time for reflection; Belgium has a way of doing that to you.

Rapha athlete Lisa Jacobs will be racing the women’s elite Cyclocross World Championships in Heusden-Zolder in Belgium, this Saturday 30th January. The race will be screened live on the UCI’s YouTube channel.