Saturday, January 28, 2012

Sand Hockey

Koksijde 3

The contrasts here are remarkable. Let me give me you some of the amazing numbers about this event:
• They have sold out 45,000 tickets for Sunday. They have an additional 10,000 VIPs. (Which makes us question how "important" one is if there are 10,000 of you.) And this venue is smaller than Roger Williams Park in Providence.
• They have used 18 km of hard fencing. Every piece of hard fencing in Belgium is deployed here. They had to go to the Netherlands to complete the job.
• There are 22 camera positions.
• There are three massive VIP tents. With flooring, tables, silverware and china. And I stopped counting beer tents – each one large enough to swallow all of the tents of the Madison nationals - at seven.
• There are 24 countries represented.
The scope of it is hard to comprehend. And yet, the event has a quaint – almost na├»ve – element. The Cross Worlds have not yet achieved the multi-media, pyrotechnical sophistication of the NFL in terms of production. I have been stunned by the lack of overall production value. They just don’t realize how much more we could do.
And despite the raucous nature of the beer tents after the races, and the festive nature of costumes, the flags, the bells, and the horns, I must concur with Meredith Miller’s assessment that these crowds are … well….tame. They don’t make that much noise.
Perhaps tomorrow will change this opinion. Or maybe that’s my job….
Yesterday we had 15,000. I awoke to a rather somber breakfast in the dark, where I sat studying alone in the restaurant with just the Korean member of the UCI management committee, awkwardly formal in a three-piece suit. I drove to the venue with Beat Wabel, a former junior world champion and several time Swiss national champion, and Peter Van Den Abeele, the UCI cross boss who was also Belgian national champion, and his daughter.
They all could recall stories of racing at Koksijde. In 1994, Van Den Abeele had won the national championships and received the honor of getting the front row slot. In those days every country got one slot per row. He gave up his spot to Paul Herygers, out of respect for his prowess in the sand. To this day, the largest dune on the course is named Herygers Dune, named so after Paul Herygers passed Richard Groenendal here in 1994 on the final lap, patting his Dutch rival on the back as he blew by to score the world title.
Even by Belgian standards, that day set new heights. That dune is a natural amphitheater which is used for countless photos showing thousands of spectators. Van Den Abeele recalls that day in 1994 because the entire Belgian team – stunned by the sheer size of the crowd – fired off the line and blew all their fuses and circuit breakers. Only Herygers could put himself back together to salvage the day.
We arrived on this air base as the sun scoured its way through the clouds. After some recon, I learned from the sound guy that they had a separate microphone for me on the X Dune, where crowds were forming. I checked it out and felt I could do some pretty serious damage. That would indeed be the case.
So after some research and prep work, I braced for the juniors, which could be the toughest race of the weekend to call. We reviewed the protocol, which includes a really cool starting light system, and then started to prepare. There would only four races this weekend: Juniors and Under 23s are Saturday; Elite women and men Sunday.
The production is very precise. My colleague here is Mark Bollen, who has announced races in Belgium for 31 years. That seems daunting; it IS Belgium after all. That means Museew, Boonen, Aerts, Vervecken, Nys….He’s a delightful guy and we both have worked with the great Peter Graves.

I was surprised by how matter of factly he simply started the roll call without the fanfare I expected for the world championships. I stumbled through the Flemish, the Dutch, the Czech, the Spanish and the French names and we lined ‘em up. But it had all the grandeur of reading that days’ high school detention list.

The juniors fired off the line and I tramped up to the X Dune, found the microphone and what appeared to be about a 200 watt amp patched into the 70 volt system which fuels cones of speakers all around the venue. I hit the microphone hard, clipped out the amp, and the thing went dead: good idea gone bad.
I scrambled back to the finish line took my place in the box and called the front of the race well enough. But one only talks of the heroics of Goliath and never sees the epic battles of the Davids from 10th place back. That is what makes ‘cross great.
But hell, this is worlds and these Goliaths, even as 111-pound juniors. Mathieu Van Der Poel was the heavy favorite, having won every World Cup, the Dutch nationals, and of course having the genes of Adri Van Der Poel in his body. He was thumped hard on the first lap, got behind a pile of Belgians, and appeared downright human. He finally got control but had to fend off a surprisingly strong Wout Van Aert of Belgium and France’s Quentin Jauregui, who fought back to score third. The race was a race for four laps but finished in strands.
One race done. After awards I spotted Tom Simpson, my California friend. We tramped about getting frittes and Jupilers. We had three hours to kill between races. We got hats and posters and books and stickers…. And this was the slow day.
Then came the Under 23 race, which featured the Orange Crush: six Dutch riders, three of which would start on the first row, two of which would be on the second row; and David Van Der Poel who would be on the third row. Again we had a heavily favored Dutch rider in Lars Van Der Haar. Unlike the junior race, he fired off the line to grab control of the race. And unlike the other race, the Belgians fought back. Wietse Bosmans pounded up to Van Den Haar and actually applied pressure. Three times he dropped the Dutch hero; three times Van Der Haar fought back. Farther back a scramble between Arnaud Grand (Switzerland), Clement Venturini (France) and Michale Teunissen (Netherlands) fought for third. Then up came Michiel Van Heijden who rode brilliantly. These three went hammer and tong in the deep sand. Van Den Haar made mistakes. The final lap would be a game of sand hockey elbows and hips and hands deployed to either stay upright or defend positions. Brakes were checked, hooks were thrown, risks were taken …. All this was done while swinging the body about wildly like the boom on a ship to keep the keel set in a single groove in the sand. To come out of that groove risked all. During the last time through the Herygers Dune, Van Der Haar steered Bosmans off his line and his Dutch henchman passed. Bosmans responded in the deep sand, dove under Van Heijden and pinned him into the fences. All three separated and all three fought back together, just as France’s Arnaud Jouffroy made contact as the group hit the pavement for the sprint.
Van Der Haar repeats as world champ. Bosmans gets Belgium its second medal, a silver. Van Heijden gets Holland its third medal, a bronze.
After the awards I visited with Dan Ellmore, a great friend and supporter. Then I caught the shuttle to the hotel…Dinner there. Boring, eh?
Tomorrow it’s Fort Apache.
I did have an amazing meeting and will likely make another cool announcement in the very near future.
Thanks for reading

Friday, January 27, 2012

Koksijde 2

Koksijde 2

After a numbingly bizarre transition in the hotel, I awoke at 10:17 a.m., grabbed coffee, and hit the shuttle to the venue. The sun had come out as Pierre drove the Nissan diesel van to the venue on wet road. He pointed out to me how poor the bike lane – which would blow away any such thing in America – was by design.

In warm sunshine punctuated by drizzle out of clouds passing off the North Sea, I hit the ground and started to walk the course. With some sleep, my mood had elevated dramatically along with the weather conditions. Within a minute of arrival, I spotted UCI staff I knew. I bumped into American fans, and the entire experience began to bloom wonderfully. Brook Watts, Theo Kindermans and his wife, Katherine Cagle, Matt Howie (sp?), Molly Cameron, and countless other Americans swarmed the press center and course. Photographer Will Matthews and I stumbled about the course infatuated with the riders able to master this course.

The sand of Koksijde defies description. This course is laid out on a military base atop dunes. The only thing the base is used for now is rescuing beachgoers and sinking fishing boats.

The numbers in Koksijde are astounding. Organizers announced the event had sold out at 42,000…..Let me say that again….SOLD OUT.

Here are some more:

These guys have the entire venue hard fenced. That means 18 km of fencing. They ran out of fencing in all of Belgium and had to get more from the Netherlands!

Much of the fencing has been braced by secured side panels set at 90 degrees. They are concerned about crowd control and the fencing actually collapsing.

There are as many tents near the finish line as they had at Tabor and Sankt Wendel…The only difference is that this is just in the finish area. By the pits and the dunes there are four more massive tents such as those.

So with all that, today’s pre-ride was fabulous. There were probably 2,000 people here today just watching that.

For you folks handicapping at home, here’s the rub:

• Sven Nys has not been here for a few days, choosing to forego the public pre-ride
• Klaas Vanternout has been here for five weeks.
• Zdenek Stybar railed the course yesterday doing 15 hot laps.
• Caroline Mani rode today, but was obviously in pain.
• Katerina Nash rode the course for the first time this week…as in, she has never raced here before.
• Japanese riders are wildly popular. And even their fans get dragged into photo shoots and beer parties.
• Jeremy Powers and Zach MacDonald looked fine.
• Tom Meeusen will surprise people.

The pre-ride ended and I went to the rehearsal for the awards ceremony. I’m working with Mark Bollard (sp???). This guy speaks five languages and has announced for 31 years! I feel like a French guy going in to Yankee Stadium to talk a little baseball.

This guy seems nice.

The Louisville folks had their presentation for 2013. They did a nice job. Better, in my opinion, than the prior two I witnessed. I wish them luck.

More to come tomorrow. Thanks for reading.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Koksijde 1

Koksijde 1

Air France Hangover on the TGV
Me and Bruce
Out Go the Lights….Twice

So I’m re-opening my blog to give you all my recounts of the 2012 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships.

So the departure from Boston via Air France to Paris would be uneventful. I had the unusual departure of 5.30 from Logan. This means an arrival in France of 12:30 in my body but 6:30 a.m. in France.

Having given my liver a break, I could not turn down Air France wine while I read countless European ‘cross results to prepare for announcing my third UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships.

I plowed through results and action movies on the flight and touched down in what seemed like no time.

We arrived on a dark and damp tarmac and began the confusing parade of Charles De Gaulle Airport, a massive tube of humanity with countless ports of entry. Paris is a fascinating hub with massive columns of Asian people flooding up against colorfully dressed African women and heavily made up French women. How can French women get away with so much make up and pull it off?

The entire arrival heightens my senses. Every cylinder, every synapse is firing as I bathe in the French language with just enough mastery to convince everybody I actually speak French….which I don’t. So all their directions are in French which means I stupidly do things like walk right off the train platform!

I’ve discovered I’m booked on the TGV from Paris to Brussels! Fantastic adventure! Stay tuned. Next stop is Brussels and then north on a regional train to Koksijde


January in Northern France and Belgium is not all that cold…With a damp mist and gray sky it penetrates every building, every coat, and every soul. I disembarked from the TGV, snared my bag, and then dragged about the Brussels Midi Station to sort out the next leg of the trip, a train to the North Sea.

Given the multitude of languages and cultures and immigrants tumbling about Europe, one would expect to see some comprehensive signage. Nah....One simply must be polite and brave and willing to ask what the hell to do. Frankly, I like it because I have those skills. But this experience would rattle the average American suburbanite.

I bumbled from the info booth to the wrong ticket booth to the correct ticket booth and got myself ticketed for 18 Euros. With 40 minutes to kill I dragged my bags across the trolley tracks, walked a block or two, got a bottle of water to offset the TransAtlantic wine on Air France, and then dug into Cruz Verde for a box of ibuprofen to offset the TransAtlantic wine on Air France.

After a lot of beer drinking over the holidays, I sent my liver to the cleaners for a few weeks to prepare for the Tim Johnson Ride on Washington. Despite a few trip ups after cross nationals, I did really well and felt great. I like not drinking.

But there was no way in hell I was going to Belgium for Cross Worlds without drinking some beer! So this is a beer drinking vacation.

So with this airline hangover, I tramped up the stairs to the train platform for the 11:14 train to Koksijde. I found one person on the platform: Bruce Fina.

Bruce and I are funeral friends. We go a long way back and will undoubtedly go a long way forward. I thoroughly enjoy his personality and passion for promotions. I could tell by the gray hairs that that the strain of pulling off the masters world championships and the 2013 elite worlds had taken its toll.

Our recent division over the calendar, when he wanted me to move Providence to accommodate the USGP moving its calendar date but I refused, has been settled going into 2013.

So we boarded the train and spent the 90 minutes talking about American ‘cross, his life in Austria, World War I battlefields, the NFL, and particularly our appreciation of the New England Patriots. I gazed across the lowland landscape with its modest, brick homes, its fabulous modern windmills, and studied the Fietsnetwerk of bike paths and lanes. We arrived and parted ways; my driver, Wilfred, greeted me and off I went to the UCI host hotel.

Wind spattered rain on the Nissan van as we splashed through Koksijde. The landscape reminded me of Cape Cod or the Outer Banks in off-season. I saw the venue and could not fathom how 50,000 people would cram into such a small area. This venue is one half the size of Stage Fort Park and they would be hosting the world.

There is one key element to Koksijde: sand. I’ll describe this more tomorrow after I walk the course.

After rolling through Koksijde, we rolled eastward to the host hotel. I arrived and checked into a simple, neat four-story hotel with a foggy view of the dunes. I had a gift bag with a bottle of brandy, a deck of cards, and some With that I plugged in my electrical adaptor purchased last year in Germany. And into that I plugged my power strip, intent on charging EVERYTHING I had.


The thing shut off and the strip went dead. And I could not get a charge at all. Dead. With a dead laptop and dying phone, I got a snack in the bar and attempted to sleep….With my body protesting the nap at what it perceived to be 9 a.m. But I conked out lightly. I woke up refreshed, asked for help with the electricity thing, and waited in my room….And waited…..Finally the desk clerk arrived with a new adaptor which did not fit. Frustrated, I grabbed a pile of World Cup results and went to the restaurant.

These trips are wonderful…but also wonderfully lonely. And with a dead computer they are that much lonelier with no e-mail and no Skype. But I drank a double-double Belgian beers, ate small shrimp with the shells on, and ordered the Cassolet de Poisson…which was fantastic.

I pored over results of the Under 23 and Junior World Cups. Here goes my rant on announcing: nobody gets paid to announce the elites. The elites each spend nearly a decade on the trophy shelf of the sport. We all develop a solid sense of who they are, how they race, where they live, what they won, what they lost, etc. We announcers all brush up on the facts before we work a big event but we’re smearing more icing on the cake than most of us can eat.

At the worlds, I put a lot of effort into the Junior and the Under-23 categories. I doubt any of you have ever heard of Vojtech Nipl, but he’s an amazing young rider. These guys don’t have trading cards, look like their 12 years old, and only emerged on the scene in the last few years. I spent four hours tonight analyzing lap times of World Cups this season in these categories. I love that you recognize old names such as Van Der Poel and Frischknect in these ranks. These kids race their brains out. And announcing here fills up my library for future announcing at the elite level.

After dinner I returned to the room, saw the staff had fixed my power outage in one sector of the room. Then I decided to plug in my power strip in another outlet just to try it…..


Only this time, I blew out the entire third floor! Totally in the dark, I groped my way to the desk only to realize they had closed for the night. I wandered into the kitchen and with pigeon French explained the predicament. The bad news is that Belgian circuit breakers are touchy; but they go right back on! And I’m in business!

Thanks for reading. I’ll give you my course report and handicap the Saturday races tomorrow!