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 naïve – 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

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic insight to the bizarre and awesome nature of 'cross at the top; thanks for taking me there Richard - and thanks for being a staple in so much greatness in cycling.