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About halfway through the World Cup circuit on the citadel hill overlooking the city of Namur, Belgium, a sharp right-hander opens up into the course’s iconic feature. It’s 150 meters of rutted, off-camber cutting across the steep hillside. Three main race lines form–high, middle and low–though each little shelf has its own spider web of offshoots, ruts, roots and mire that cause even the best bike handlers in the world to stick out a foot, front wheels squirreling around as gravity pulls them faster toward the exit and the bottom fencing, not necessarily in that order. It’s at the junction of the woods, and the course tape that I find myself, face up like a muddy turtle, bike half under the netting. In this tangled state I realize that you can go high to low, but not the other way around. Fortunately, it was the course recon, the time to gather these invaluable nuggets of wisdom.
By Andrew Juiliano/Photos by Tomás Montes / Arrière du Peloton and Balint Hamvas / Cyclephotos
As I stand up and dislodge the bike, I turn to see a scruffy red beard poking above the collar of a lime green jacket. The American national champion, Stephen Hyde, has posted up at the bottom of the off camber, and watches the riders wobble and slide their way through the section. “Andrew,” he says. “Try the high line. If you can miss the posts it’s way better. The middle is faster, but there are too many places to slip down. Once you’re low, there’s no coming back up.” It reassures me to hear that the champ and I have both arrived at the same conclusion. Although, he’s managed to figure it out without smearing mud across his jacket.
We stand and watch the next round of riders descend through the ruts. Some go high. Some ride the middle. All look squirrely as they kick across the citadel slope. Well one rider doesn’t. He just walks slowly along the fencing, saving his luck for the race. “You can always do the Chaniel” Hyde says as the Frenchman Steve Chaniel, who will eventually finish 15th,walks off the camber and into the woods.
We turn and descend to the lowest point on the course. From there, the only way is back up. A right-hand rut swoops into the climb, which in today’s conditions is a multifaceted grunt. It’s a run up, followed by a slippery off-camber traverse, an awkward power corner, a tractor pull then one final foot slog to the parking lot. It’s warm ups, so we hike at a leisurely pace, saving the efforts for the race.
Today will be Hyde’s fourth World Cup race in Namur.
“You did this last year, right?” he asks.
“Nope, first time.” I respond.
“Ah,” he replies, “Well if I may: don’t overcook yourself at the beginning of the race. If you blow yourself on the climbs, you’ll have nothing left for the technical sections. If you lose time in the technical sections, you and I aren’t going to make them up pedaling. These guys are just so strong.”
I nod in acknowledgment and glance down at my watch. Heart rate is mid-170s just “casually” hiking up the hill. We crest the climb of the parking lot and hop back on the bikes. The course hooks left and dives back down the hill. Not much respite on a World Cup track, especially here in Namur. I brake hard but still accelerate down the muddy chute. The course is at least three meters wide, but my eyes lock on a right-hand rut, about four tire widths wide that wraps hard and close around the tree. The trunk is disconcertingly close given the speed that I’m carrying, but the line is well worn from thousands of passes during racing and training. I put my faith in the rut and physics as my tire locks in and it pulls me hard around the corner. There’s still a bit of slip and slide through the exit as I nearly brush against the shoulder-high inflatable barrier. It’s there to ensure the riders who botch their lines don’t go tumbling down the forested abyss below.
A final squirmy traverse leads to another ascent back to the parking lot. It’s a flat bit of recovery before the final climb to the top of the hill. As we pass the second pit Hyde says, “This is really the only recovery on the course. Guys are gonna go hard here and then nuke it up the hill. Be okay with letting a little go here. It’s the only small rest you’re gonna get.” We come to the final hill that steepens as it turns from cobbles, to dirt to a chundry mix of rocks and muck. Standing and grinding up the climb, Hyde explains. “You’ll be going up this at a pace you think is really good and some guy is going to race you to the top. Let him do it. Those are the guys that are going to pop at the end of the race. Don’t try and force anything here. ”
We roll back down the final descent which swoops through a rooted gully, drops through awkward ruts onto a gravel road then winds back along pavement to the finish line. Hyde rolls away toward his van. I head for mine, thinking about the impromptu and invaluable half lap we’d just ridden.
I wish I could say that his advice had an immediate effect. In a sense it did. I manage to avoid a massive crash at the start and go from a mid 50s call up to 27th place. It’s the easiest 25 places I’ve ever picked up at a cross race. But flat legs and a flat tire left me unable to capitalize on this gift from the cyclocross gods, and kept me from fully implementing the champ’s advice.
However, as I go backward, Hyde puts in the race of his career, finishing 11th on arguably the toughest European World Cup track, in proper muddy conditions. Just over three years ago, he finished a lap down and third from last during his maiden European race at the Spa-Francorchamps Superprestige. Hyde and his rise through the sport are proof that even an American, in Euro-dominated cyclocross, can grind to the fore with enough grit, determination and talent. And he’s not just pedaling there on some pedestal– he’s reaching down along the way, bringing other aspiring ‘cross racers along for the ride.