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Most of the Americans and most other riders in the field were out-gunned on the specialist course in the elite men’s ace at the Cyclocross World Championships in Koksijde, Belgium. Only one rider, Ryan Trebon, finished in the top 20. Surprising outcome after better results this year at World Cups, or were they?
“That’s not unexpected.” veteran Tim Johnson said of the American results. “This course is so specialized is really having a skill or not, it’s not like we all kind share the same level of ability and then it’s a question of fitness and tactics. It’s a whole different ballgame.”
Or like golf. “This is San Andrews, not every golfer can play San Andrews to their potential. This is beyond belief when you’re out there.” added Johnson.
The course is all about mastering the sand. And not the beach sand that can be found in some US races. We’re talking long stretches of deep sand, never flat, either uphill, downhill, almost always off-camber and with turns. (check out this video from Sporza of the Herygers Dune)
“We don’t have anything like this in the US, playgrounds, a few volleyball courts or something like that but nothing where it’s all the way around the course. It’s one thing to be able to ride the sand, it’s another to be able to go down it and then know how to dismount and keep your momentum, there’s so much to it.” said Meredith Miller.
It is definitely a sand specialist’s course and therefore a course suited to the Belgians. Not only did a Belgian win, but the seven-rider Belgian National team claimed the first seven places – complete and total domination.
Johnson is okay with a worlds course being a specialist course. “We don’t do this every year. I’ve been racing elites since 2000, and we’ve done this race once. It’s alright, it’s one time out of 12.” he said. The course was used this year for a World Cup back in November
“If we have a race like this once in my career, that’s fine, totally fine. The thing is, you can’t have the same races all the time, this is totally to an extreme, awesome. This is a spectacle and absolute success to every level of the sport. It’s just not my kind of race, oh well. I’m willing to deal with that. It’s like if you’re a sprinter and do Road Worlds every year, every six years you’re going to get a course that favors a sprinter. So this is like that kind of race for cross.”
Is such a specialist course and Belgian domination good for the sport? That question was posed to World Champion Niels Albert following his victory.
“First of all, this is a course and a Championships on Belgian soil so it’s a bit of a home match. Secondly from when we started racing, we were taught to race in sand. So when this trail comes with sand, it’s something that we’ve been doing since when we were small. Third, there were seven Belgians in the first seven places, that’s not our fault that’s the competition’s fault.” Albert replied.
So how can the competition get better at racing in the sand? “Racing more and treating it as something that can be addressed.” replied Johnson.
“You saw the whole Dutch team out there, the whole Belgian team out here as a group doing the training. The US team is split up, there’s nothing centralized that says let’s get all these riders better, it’s let’s go over there and try and fight our way to the start line and then we’ll race. That’s definitely not the way to do it.”
So what is the way to do it? “There’s something to be said for doing it a lot which is experience, then there’s just the coaching side of it.” continued Johnson who gave the Dutch team as an example.
“(Richard) Groenendaal had their entire U23 team, the entire junior team and some of the women out there doing drills, they were doing the sand section over and over again and learning it. Lars van der Haar on Wednesday was treating it like a problem that needed to be figured out and he was trying to get better and you saw in the race that the guy had confidence like no one else. You check with anyone of us, the last couple of days as Americans, save for Katie (Compton) who’s had success here, we’re all in a little bit over our head and it’s like how do we make up for that?”
While many of the Americans were nervous before the race, Johnson was not.
“Sometimes I’m nervous because I expect myself to do really well and then, maybe my own problem was that I wasn’t that nervous, I knew that I was out-gunned and out-classed on this sand. Where does that leave me with?” Johnson mused.
But Louisville 2013 is different ballgame. “But next year, we’re on a course that we know like the back of our hands, it’s a course that we can do. fuck I’m going to be nervous because I want to push it, I want to race, I want to go fast.”
And it’s not just the Americans that are thinking of the 2013 Cyclocross World Championships in Louisville, Kentucky. The press asked second place Rob Peeters‘ impressions of the Eva Bandman course. Peeters, along with Bart Wellens, raced in the USA at the beginning of the season and made an extra visit to go see the venue.
“It’s a very, very heavy track.” Peeters said. “If it would rain two times in the week before the World Championships, it would just be one big mud pile. I trained there and we did about ten laps over the track and the 11th time, the water came nearly out of the ground. It’s going to be really very, very tough.”
Maybe the homecourt advantage will continue next year.