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Words: Ian Cleverly | Photos: Marthein Smit
Extract from Rouleur 22
If there is such a thing as motor home envy among the cyclo-cross fraternity, then Ian Field is guilty as charged. Wandering the competitor’s parking area at this year’s Koppenbergcross near Oudenaarde in search of “Field de Brit”, as race commentators now refer to the slightly-built man from Kent, the pecking order becomes apparent.
The stars riding for major teams are ensconced in almighty wagons, keeping warm before stepping out to prepare for the race on rollers beneath retractable awnings. Sponsor’s names and truly awful, larger-than-life, gurning images of the riders adorn each mobile home. Local residents with the honour of hosting Sven Nys’ or Niels Albert’s vehicles in their driveway are privileged indeed.
Step outside the top 30 or so sponsored riders and the motor homes become slightly more compact: less storage space for bikes, little room to move around inside, but still perfectly serviceable. Step down again and you find guys like Ian Field, doing their damnedest to break into this world of luxury cruisers and the six-figure salaries that come with them.
Our photographer, Marthein, being Dutch and well versed in all things cyclo-cross, and having attended practically every big race on the calendar last season, asks if we’ll be meeting at our subject’s camper van. “Field de Brit”, I point out, drives a Citroen Berlingo, so we’d be meeting there.
Welcome to the glamorous life of a pro ‘cross rider in Belgium. As branches of cycle sport go, cyclo-cross is about as ludicrous a way to make a living as they come – on a par, perhaps, with Six Day racing in hardship terms, but with added cold, mud and misery. Yet the likes of Stybar, Wellens, Nys and Albert earn very good money indeed. Thousands pay to watch their heroes in action, drinking copious quantities of Belgian beer from plastic cups in muddy fields. Millions more tune in on the TV at home every weekend throughout the winter. It is, in many respects, a hugely unlikely major sport, but the Belgians love it to bits. An hour of flat-out racing where anything can happen – and often does – is perfect Sunday lunchtime entertainment for the average Leffe-fuelled Flandrian couch potato.
Bart Wellens has starred in his own reality TV show, Wellens en Wee, and the weekend before our arrival in Oudenaarde had appeared on The Last Show, “Belgium’s equivalent to Friday Night with Jonathan Ross,” according to Field. “It was a cyclo-cross special, with Nys, Alberts, Wellens and Stybar. And Wellens’ wife. That shows how big it is. A primetime TV show, dedicated to ‘cross racing. They had mud from different places and the riders had to smell it and identify where it was from…”
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