Retrospective: 1991 Cyclocross Worlds

You may call this a bit of shameless self-promotion, perhaps, but with the World Cyclocross Championships just a couple days away, and in light of pro cycling’s recent flood of doping confessions, I felt that a Paved ‘rebroadcast’ of the following excerpt might interest readers jonesin’ for a bit more ‘cross.

Republished from A Dog in a Hat with permission from VeloPress. Visit velopress.com/dog to download the first chapter free.

Chapter 10
Blue-Collar Racing

I wasn’t with my family in Denver for long before I had to get back to Belgium. After Patrice Bar’s death, Dr. Ryckaert had ordered a massive series of tests to be performed on each member of the Tulip team.

Armchair cycling cynics have often argued that the doctors gave us those tests only to make sure we didn’t die from too much EPO. Though our relationship was purely professional, I considered the doctor a friendly acquaintance and would argue that this round of testing was altruistic. I honestly believe he was scared to lose another patient, and that Patrice’s death might have been avoided had he stopped cycling.

The tests were conducted at the University of Gent. We were sent to the university in small groups and spent an entire day being poked, prodded, and tested. We were then sent home with a portable device to record our heart activity and blood pressure for the next twenty-four hours.

I was pleased with our team’s staff. I had known Dr. Ryckaert for some time. Dr. Eugene Janssen had been hired as the team’s hematologist. Fons van Heel, the longtime head soigneur for Jan Raas’s teams, had been hired as head soigneur. We also had a sports nutrition company, Born, as a sponsor. Along with drink mixes and bottles, they provided custom-made vitamins for each rider, based on each rider’s specific needs as determined by semimonthly blood tests, which were mandatory. Although I secretly boycotted the vitamins because they upset my stomach, I was comforted by the fact that my health was being well looked after.

I’d returned to Belgium earlier than usual because I had been invited to ride a few cyclocross races with Adrie van der Poel and his brother Jacques. If I did well, I had a shot at the world championships. Adrie and Jacques were to be two of my new teammates on the expanded Tulip team. Many years earlier, I had seen a photo of Adrie in a magazine before I had even bought my first racing bike; at that time he was a young pro, campaigning the classics with the DAF Trucks team. José de Cauwer was one of his directors. I would be racing cyclocross in France with the Van der Poel brothers within a couple of weeks of returning to Belgium.

It was a great setup. Adrie was one of the international superstars of cyclocross and road racing and could command big start money. In addition, he had no problem getting starts for his brother and, now, me. The races Adrie arranged for me were in the north of France, within five to eight hours’ drive from home. We would take three cars, two mechanics and one soigneur, which meant each of us would pay for the costs of one vehicle and one of the personnel. Jacques and I each brought two bikes; Adrie brought four or five. It was not an insignificant undertaking for just three guys to race for one hour, but the pay was good. After expenses, I was able to pocket roughly $250 per weekend. I wasn’t a great cyclocrosser, so I looked at the experience as a way to get better fitness and bike-handling skills. Most importantly, I was getting in with Adrie a bit, or I hoped I was. Cyclocross would never be my main focus, so I spent my energy training for my day job. But as an American, I had the opportunity to ride the Professional Cyclocross World Championship if I wanted to, so I called the U.S. Pro Cycling Federation (USPRO) and asked to be added to the list of entrants.

The Tulip team was already training for the upcoming season, with four- to six-hour sessions similar to what I had experienced with teams in the past—two columns of riders with each pair riding 10 minutes on the front before rotating to the back of the group. For the most part, this was a group of guys with much more talent than my previous teams had boasted, so the pace was high all day. Once in a while there would be a pair who wanted to test each other, and then the speed would soar.

I always tried to pair up with Allan Peiper. When the two of us were driving the pace on the front of the group, it was like a street fight. On more than one occasion we raised the already fast tempo by another 10 kph, grimly fighting with each other until we ended our stint on the mark. In most cases the pair that relieved us would sarcastically thank us for the exercise and then slow the pace to a more human level. The best part of training with Allan was that neither of us was trying to be the “training camp champ”; neither of us was trying to embarrass or harass the other. It was an honest struggle with a challenging opponent.

Allan and I were similar in our cycling upbringing. Both of us had moved to Belgium from our native countries at an early age. Allan too had lived with a Belgian family early in his life in the country. We had both done our best to assimilate into our adopted culture—Allan had even married a Belgian woman. And although the teams Allan rode for and his results were much more impressive than mine, we were similar riders. Both of us could ride hard when called upon, but at the end of the day we had more desire than natural ability. I heard José call each of us “the most professional rider I have ever worked with” at different times during my tenure with the team. I loved having Allan as a teammate and would dare call him a friend. He was, without a doubt, one of the most spiritual people I have ever met but was always searching for a new and better meaning to life, so he was a bit tortured. He was like the habitual gambler who is able to convince himself that he has finally gotten the hot tip that will actually mean something, only to lose once more. At the time, it seemed to me that Allan was gambling with his entire being and getting kicked in the gut again and again.

I finally bought my very own car in 1990. It’s funny to think that, having grown up the son of a General Motors employee, I had not owned a car for six years. I got a deal on an Opel Corsa that had been owned by a house-call nurse. It was white and small and completely nondescript except for the “1.0” emblem on the trunk, which let everyone who could read know the dinky size of the engine I had to play with. When I left for Gieten, Holland, and the World Cyclocross Championships, my little car was still new to me, and I tried my best to figure out the fuel economy on the way. Unfortunately, I was unable to let go of my miles-per-gallon thinking for liters per 100 kilometers and gave up long before I made it to my destination.

I had never had to sign myself in to a major race before, especially not a world championship. When I found the race headquarters, I walked in and politely told the delegates that I was there for the race. I was already nervous for a race that would not take place for another two days. I was also nervous because I noticed I was late for the official sign-in. The guys had always been straight with me before, though, so I was hopeful they would give me my number and other information with no major hassles. No such luck. The American delegate looked up and told me I was too late; I would not be able to race. I was stunned. If I had been a French rider, signing in late with a French delegate, there would have been no problem, not even a raised eyebrow. I would have breezed through without delay. But the American attitude was causing a problem, like two magnets with opposite polarity that will not stick together even though we were supposedly logical beings, united under the same flag and passport. Part of me would have been fine being shut down by one of the other delegates; I was a little nervous about throwing myself in with the world’s best cyclocrossers anyway. But being shut down by my own dude was too much for me.

I looked past the American. “Am I too late?” I asked in my best Flemish-speaking American interpretation of Dutch. There were Dutch delegates present, and I thought I recognized a Belgian
too.

They shrugged. What was a problem for the American official was not a concern to the rest of them. I presented my racing license. The process was laughable because we mostly recognized each other—everyone except the American.

Now that I was signed in, the American official handed me a USPRO skin suit. It had short sleeves. I suppose I should haveknown better than to think I would receive anything different, but I was still disappointed. The forecast was for cold temperatures on race day.

I was able to ride some laps of the course with Adrie to figure out lines and entry speeds for the different turns and obstacles. There was one high-speed section on a road where I could not seem to get the timing right to dismount for the wooden barriers. I was also having some trouble with a huge drop-off onto a beach section—we literally had to ride off the end of a dock and drop about three feet into the sand. The fitness was willing, but I was running terribly low on the skills it would take to race cyclocross with the best riders in the world. I comforted myself with the fact that my spare bike, one of Adrie’s old Alan bikes, would be placed in the pit where he didn’t have one of his spares. There were five pits, and each rider was allowed four spares, so I was helping out simply by taking the start.

There were white boxes painted on the asphalt starting line, which convinced me that each country would be called to a box. They had done that when I was running high school cross-country; each team got to occupy one box, so you’d put your best guys in the front and worst guys in the back. I hoped I would be able to lead Adrie down the opening straightaway and into the first turn, like a sprint.

Fons van Heel had arranged a room for me at the same hotel where the Dutch national team was staying. When I got there my Tulip gear had been delivered in a cheap, team-issue suitcase. There were seven or eight two-tone green bib shorts and jerseys, a “foam” jacket and vest, a cheesy tracksuit, two T-shirts, a polo shirt, and a pair of Carrera sunglasses. This was my starter kit forthe season. Compared to what’s available today, it was pure crap, but new clothing signifies the start of a new season and all of the hopes it embodies.

The amateurs raced on Saturday; we would race Sunday. Saturday brought rain and mud, and I watched the Swiss rider Thomas Frischknecht absolutely destroy the rest of the field. He was a true cyclocrosser: fluid on and off the bike. I started to feel self conscious. When it comes to the distinction between amateur and professional, the lines in cyclocross have always been blurred more than on the road, but this guy didn’t look like he was merely blurring lines. What he did looked masterful.

We woke on race day to miserable weather. It had changed from rainy and cool to absolute, bitter cold. For me, it might as well have been minus 400. I was frozen and could not get any warmth in my body. The skin suit did not fit very well, and my handful of safety pins didn’t do a good job of keeping my arm warmers tucked under the sleeves. Fons had smeared some nuclear-hot embrocation cream onto my legs, but most of it was absorbed into my leg warmers and ceased to be effective when I pulled the leg warmers off. The USA jersey I had worn in Ronse in the World Professional Road Race Championship had been something like the giant S that Superman wore, but this ill-fitting USA skin suit had no magic in it whatsoever. I could not have felt more out of place had I been dressed as Clarabelle the Clown.

The boxes painted on the road turned out to have absolutely no purpose whatsoever. Another American, Kent Johnston, had laid claim to being USPRO cyclocross champion, so he was called
up second to last, and I was the very last rider called to the line. I wasn’t nervous, but I was shaking almost uncontrollably from the cold. The start was like that of many criteriums I have ridden in the United States. I had a moment to get clipped into the pedals while the riders in front of me did the same, and then the whole contingent of world champion hopefuls raced for the first turn. It did not take me more than a half-dozen pedal strokes to figure out I’d be of no use to Adrie. I was already too far back in the long line of riders. But in a strange stroke of luck, about half of the peloton crashed and formed a big pile on the ground going through the 180-degree left-hand turn that took us into the sand for the first time. I was suddenly in the top fifteen. Now I had to really keep my position and calculate everything. Every dismount and remount of the bicycle had to be good, even though I was not good at the craft.

The ground was frozen hard, and the speeds were high. Conditions like these were usually to my benefit as a nonspecialist cyclocrosser. In this case, however, the high-speed dismounts suited the specialists very well—I was fighting for every inch with nothing but fitness. With about 12 minutes to go and still in the top fifteen, I started thinking about the big drop-off into the sand a little bit too soon and crashed transitioning from a steep downhill to the flat part of the course that preceded the drop-off. It was by far the most idiotic crash of my career. It was as if I had tipped over, and when I hit the ground it was as if I was paralyzed. My shoulder and face hit the ground at nearly the same instant, and my body went slack. My legs, still connected to the bike, followed it up and over my back, stopping all forward movement when my back refused to bend backward any further.

If I had been riding around in the woods by myself, I would surely have lain there for another five minutes, asking myself what the hell had just happened. Unfortunately for me, the Eurovision television cameras were capturing every last slow-motion jiggle of my cheeks and broadcasting them to every television set in Europe. I got up and looked at the bike. I had bent the chainring and handlebars. I fiddled around with the chain for a minute but couldn’t get it to stay on. At this point a mechanical forfeiture was a good-enough excuse. My pit was on the far side of the course. I slung the bike over my shoulder and walked back to the start/finish line to DNF. When I was on my way out of the hotel that evening, cyclocross great Hennie Stamsnijder, who had been calling the race for Dutch television, congratulated me on the nice crash.

The videos below are proof of just how masterful Thomas Frischknecht was in the amateur race that day.

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