The year was 1989 and my days were built around the half an hour highlights package of the Tour De France shown on terrestrial TV. Stage 3 finished with a lap of circuit, and a win for Raul Alcala over Jesper Skibby and with it the first definitive memory of being a fan of the art of road racing.
Move forwards 25 years and I’m walking down the start finish straight staggered by the scale of the circuit, both in its breadth, but more so in its elevation change, this whole region creates a new level of appreciation for the likes of Amstel Gold, La Fléche Wallonne, and Liége-Bastogne-Liége.
However today is not about F1, today is about cyclocross, more specifically the Superprestige series, a collection of 8 races spread throughout the season. The paddock, normally home to the palatial luxury of F1 motor-homes has been turned in to a campsite more reminiscent of the West Coast of Sweden in the height of summer. Sunweb and Fidea dominate the available real estate with the smaller privateers forced to the outside, only Sven Nys can break the mould and stretch to the expense of a small ProTour style bus.
We arrive with perfect timing to witness the women’s race call up, no more than 2 dozen and thus it would have been possible to start them side by side in one line given the width of the track. The new UCI rules of having to have the elite women’s race directly before the men’s, (UCI 5.1.048), doesn’t seem to have been heard, as its midday and the U23 men are due off afterwards.
The start is basically a two hundred meter sprint down a 10% hill before the famous Raidillon climb, did I mention it was 17%! Swing left off the track, but still on perfect hand crafted tarmac, and then eventually the grass and mud comes in the form of sharp corner and a steep drop into another sharp corner, long sweeping grass corners tempt the brave to pedal past competitors, before the next section of tarmac takes them under the circuit through a concrete walkway, close to, if not under the regulated, (UCI 5.1.018), 3 meter width. Some more corners, a lot more tarmac, are we spotting a pattern here? Then finally the Wall, a run up to define run ups. As said by CXHairs, “it’s not a steep run up unless you’re climbing with your free arm touching earth”
After this obstacle more suited to the 3 Peaks challenge, there followed three 25 meter switchbacks, so muddy that they were barely rideable downhill and certainly not uphill, so more carrying was required. Some chose to remount before another very steep drop into a tight corner, whilst other choose to run this section too. Short sections of tarmac, gravel and grass/mud offered climbing, more corners, a bridge built especially to cross a small river, and then back on to the start finish straight.
Seeing athletes totally spent at the finish line after zig zaging and honking their way up the final climb was worth the 12 euro entrance fee alone. The voyeuristic joy of knowing that even the best in the sport, usually so smooth whilst watching on Sporza, can manage to look mortal left me feeling better about my own coughing and spluttering after racing.
So what can we draw as a conclusion? The course designed by Erwin Vervecken offered a lot of variation, and this is the key to a good racing. Variation in surfaces, the level of difficulty of each section, the style of corners, in elevation, and the width of the course, all these elements allow for the strengths and weaknesses of each rider to be exposed each and every lap, and to be exploited by the eventual winner.
Courses should reward those with technical skills as much, if not more, than those with pure strength. Corners that force everyone to take them at the same speed offer nothing but opportunities for shoulder barging, corners which dare riders to test the limits of traction provide incentives to overtake and a spectacle for the watching crowd. Similarly with descents, sand, and mud, if straight these sections can be overcome by most, add a curve and suddenly any weakness can be costly. And as for run ups, well the steeper and longer the better……