Houffalize, Belgium photo by Jonas Bruffaerts

“Bikes, beer and banter” was the theme at the Houffalize World Cup in Belgium held last Sunday.  As 211 male and 119 female riders battled arguably the most challenging course on the circuit, they were cheered on by over 20,000 animated cycling fanatics, many of whom were double-fisting it – a race guide in one hand and a pintje (small beer) in the other.  Every rider from first to last got a full dose of true Belgian enthusiasm, in the form of either a push up the hill or a few screaming words of encouragement like, “Kom op” (come on!), “Allez” (go!) or “Alles geven” (give it everything!) .  On a course like the one served to the riders this year, every bit of encouragement was needed just to finish.

The start was held in the center of town in front of a crowd four rows thick – under rainy skies.  From there, they headed up the long steep paved hill, passing a commemorative WWII American tanker on the way, before reaching the short but treacherous singletrack descent where dreams of a top placing for over fifty percent of the field traditionally comes to an abrupt end – literally.  While the lead riders glide through the descent, the rest are at a standstill when one racer inevitably slips in the mud. This year was no exception.  Instead of racing their bikes, many of the riders stood at the top of the descent, chatting with each other, making jokes, stretching and talking to the crowd as they inched their way to the entrance of the chute. And that’s only the start loop.

The actual course was basically an enlarged version of the start loop. If they weren’t hammering on their granny gears, they were off the back of the saddle holding on tight in hopes their bikes would take them down safely through the muddy roots, rocks, and impossibly steep switchbacks. Many were not so lucky. To make matters worse, the dry dusty course that the cyclists had been pre-riding all week was turned to a slick, muddy mess the morning of the race thanks to Belgium’s Aprilse Grillen (April’s everchanging weather).

Willow Koerber photo by Jonas Bruffaerts

On the women’s side, American Willow Koerber (Subaru-Gary Fisher) led most of the race to finish an impressive 2nd place, behind Italian National Champ Eva Lechner (Colnago Arreghini Sudtirol).  Lechner led on the start loop before suffering a flat tire, but was finally able to reconnect with Koerber on the last lap.  Rounding out the podium were Austrian Elisabeth Osl (Central Pro Team), Frenchwoman Julie Bresset (BH-Suntour), and Canadian Catharine Pendrel (Luna Pro Team).

Since Koerber also finished second last week in the first round of the World Cups in Dalby Forest, England she is currently the World Cup leader.   This is the first time since 2002 that a USA rider donned the coveted World Cup leader’s jersey. Her continued streak of impressive riding proved that she not only held onto her exceptional form that won her the bronze in last year’s World Championships but that she’s taken her game up a notch. Maybe it’s her new 29′er wheels she’s been riding since World’s last year…

The other Americans put in a good showing as well. The next one to cross the line was Georgia Gould (Luna) in 14th, Heather Irmiger (Subaru-Gary Fisher) in 18th,  Mary McConneloug (Kenda-Seven-No Tubes) in 23rd, and Monique Pua Sawicki (Okolestuff.com) in 31st.

After landing on the podium only one week ago at the World Cup season opener, Gould was not terribly enthusiastic. “My race was pretty lackluster.  I just couldn’t get out of my own way. I ride conservatively so it takes me a few laps to get into a rhythm – which is a little too long when the races are only a few laps long.  It was hard to make up too much time in the last laps”, Gould explained to Dirt Rag.  To make matters worse, her super aggressive tire choice was a drawback as the course dried up shortly after the start.  “Going through grassy sections, I was thinking – well at least I have great traction…”, joked Gould. Adding, “I know I am capable of riding up there; I just need to pull my head out of my ass – get out of my own way.”

What makes her season results thus far quite Impressive is that she had exactly one month of training under her belt before entering Sea Otter Stage Race a few weeks ago. One could never guess that she spent January and February completely off the bike due a diagnosis of Epstein-Barr virus last December, which cut her cross season short. Clearly her well-rested approach to the season worked in her favor as we witnessed her battle it out at the front last week and in Sea Otter.

Similar to Gould’s day out, Irmiger also had the feeling of being “all over the place” early in the race.  Once past the first lap, Irmiger said, “I only made up places so it was pretty good.”  Her future goals include top five in the World Cup and some solid domestic results working towards a strong World Championships.

McConneloug’s race started off with a shock that would haunt her the rest of the race.  “The start was pretty brutal. I think I got in 20th but on the descent the mud was like ice going down that first chute.  I slipped and my bike went in the lane. Some girl ran into it and cased it head first against a pole. I stopped and asked her if she was okay before riding away. It was difficult to regain composure.  The competition level is incredible so it’s difficult to move up – you have to fight for every little spot.  But I am stoked to be in one piece – a little bit muddy though.  It is amazing to see mtb thriving in Europe.” She usually races herself into shape so she is very motivated to hit the track again as soon as this weekend – in Poland perhaps.

American resident, Czech Katerina Nash (Luna) finished 9th.  “I had two top tens which is exciting but unexpected after such a long cyclo-cross season,” said Nash.  Instead of focusing on the World Cup overall like most of her compatriots, Nash is focusing on only World Championships and individual races.
Another gal who frequents the USA races is Canadian Mical Dyck (Trek Toronto) who placed 34th, a result she never thought possible after spending two of the last three weeks either on the toilet or in bed after her bout with stomach illness following the Pan-American Games in Guatemala where she placed fifth.  Her fitness level in Houffalize should guarantee her a nice result in the Trans-Alps team competition later this year as well as a spot on the World’s team.

Geoff Kabush photo by Jonas Bruffaerts

On the men’s side, German Manuel Fumic (Cannondale) took the early lead and built it up to almost a minute on the field.  But going into the last lap, Spaniard Jose Antonio Hermida (Multivan Merida) came out of seemingly nowhere to steal the lead.  When Hermida charged by Fumic, he tried to stay on his wheel but didn’t have the juice left to pull it off. This former U-23 World Champion may have missed out the win, but that didn’t change his usual easy-going, light-hearted attitude that wins him fans worldwide.  “I didn’t want to be at the start in the beginning, but then I saw myself in the front so I said, ok, let’s continue.  I got a gap, for ten, then twenty and thirty seconds, so I tried to go for it.   When Hermida passed, I tried to follow but at the end I was a little bit weak. So once he passed me, I said okay. I got second place. My team manager told me I was 45 seconds in front of the next guy so I just relaxed and enjoyed second place. It’s not a shame to be behind Hermida,” exclaimed Fumic.  As for racing in Houffalize, he added, “For me Belgium is a classic one. The spectators were cheering so much it was awesome.  Like racing in America – where the fans are crazy! It was like, “COME ON- YOU CAN DO IT!” And the beers in Belgium…I tried them.  I was drunk on Thursday. I didn’t know that there is so much alcohol.  I went for a small beer at dinner and I was a little bit drunk, but I liked it! I also got a big bottle of La Chouffe beer on the podium so we will finish that tonight.”

This is the first year that Fumic is part of a fully supported factory race team, which is a relief for him. “I no longer have to care about the other things. Now I can focus just on racing and you see the outcome of that. We did everything by ourselves. My brother had some health problems so he just quit this year. He may have a comeback but I don’t know. But I am in good shape, I am 28, so I figured I’d talk to Cannondale – after watching all the teams.  It is really cool here. The guys are really professional – and also like a big family.”

Rounding out the podium were German Wolfram Kurschat (Topeak Ergon Racing Team),  Czech Jaroslav Kulhavy (Rubena Birell Specialized) and Swiss Ralph Naef (Multivan Merida).

A few top guns who missed out on the podium included Swiss Christoph Sauser (Specialized).  Just after he crossed the line, he explained, “It was really bad the first lap.  Kulhavy .”

Even though Belgian Roel Paulissen (Cannondale) didn’t make it on the podium, he clearly was the race favorite. “It is always an extra motivation here – so many people screaming. Maybe if I were somewhere else, I’d say, “I am tired so I shift down”,  but here I give it one extra gear and try extra hard to give a big show to the people and to give everything I have.  I was good because I was in a crash in the beginning and I had the motivation to come back in front, so at the end I am happy with my performance,” said Paulissen. With almost every pair of eyes in Belgium focusing on him for a result, he takes the attention in stride.  “Pressure is always there but after fifteen years of professional racing you get used to that.  It’s the kind of pressure you need to do well in races – if you can handle it,” explained Paulissen. As for his thoughts moving forward, Paulissen added, “The season overall is very good. I did top five in a lot of races. I am sixth or seventh in the UCI. I am also getting older – together with Sauser. I just turned 34 last week. It doesn’t make it easier. But I am still motivated. My big goal is to reach the London Olympics. I will be the only mountain biker to ever do the five Olympics so that’s very special.”

The top placed USA rider at Houffalize was Todd Wells (Specialized), coming in at 26th .  He too was held up by the same crash at the start line as Paulissen and Sauser. Shortly afterwards, he was again stopped in his tracks by a second crash. Immediately reflecting on his race, Wells said, “I feel like the fitness is there for a top ten – I just need some good luck.” His secret to keeping his motivation high during the race may be explained by his team’s mantra of the day, which was, “Whatever happens at the race, at least we’re going to La Chouffe Brewery tonight.” Lastly he added, “If you’re a mountain bike fan and have never been to the Houffalize race, this is a must-see – the crowd, atmosphere right in town – it’s cool to be a part of it.”

The second USA rider to cross the line in 38th was Koerber’s teammate Sam Schultz (Subaru-Gary Fisher).  Next was their teammate Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski in 63rd. The US National Champion was yet another victim of start lap crashes. “I felt terrible today. I ended up running some really aggressive tires and felt like I was riding on ice. I was passing people on all those steep climbs but flailing on the descents. When it all doesn’t come together it’s a hard day at the office,” said Horgan-Kobelski.  As for his thoughts on the experience, he added, “Today was the quintessential Belgian race – muddy, nasty, hard-fought and with tons of spectators.” In true Belgian style, his team celebrated Koerber’s podium result with waffles and beer that night.  Horgan-Kobelski’s plans for the rest of the season include defending his national title in Colorado and winning Ledville 100.

Another familiar US face on the circuit was Michael Broderick (Kenda-Seven-No Tubes) who came in 109th.  He was nailed by just about every cluster on the start lap, losing a full 5 ½ minutes before the first lap started.  His racing approach from there was, “To find my rhythm, battle whoever was around me and try to make the most of it.”  Broderick added, “I was happy to finish up on the same lap as the leaders, which is always a goal.”

In addition to the usual USA faces, the crowds got to see the U-23 National Development Program riders mix it up with the big guys.   Of the six riders, twenty-year-old Rob Squire (Team Jamis) placed highest with a splendid 99th place.  “The first two laps were rough. I didn’t get a good warm-up in – it was really cold. After that I got into a groove and rode steady from there – even got a little faster on the last two laps – a little too late. I like the climbing and the mud, but if I could have ridden like I did on the last laps it would have made a big difference.” Squire added, “This my second time in Houffalize and it’s my favorite race – the fans are great! It’s just a lot of fun being here – good race or not.”

Tad Elliott was the next U-23 guy from the Development team to cross the line in 120th, followed by Ethan Gilmour (146th), Travis Livermon (161st ), Tristan Cowie (162nd ), and Stephen Ettinger (DNF).

According to Gilmour, “It was probably my best World Cup to date. This is my third year at Houffalize.  The rain today was good for me. I was excited when I woke up!”
Livermon said, “I was a little flat from all the travel. And it was my first time in Houffalize.”  Last year was his first year taking mountain biking seriously so this 22 year old may be one to watch for the future.

Ettinger was off to a good start before luck turned against him. “This was my first European World Cup and it was terrible. The start went okay, but after my rear tire lost its air. I had to pump it up – then just got unmotivated after that. You watch so many people pass and you try to chase for a while and get stuck behind people who are slower than you – really frustrating. And on the second lap, I shredded my front tire so I was done.   My fitness is good. I have been top three U-23 at every race in The States so far. It’s just a matter of putting it together when fighting with the Euros. My goal for the next world cup is top 100. I think it’s possible – with help and thanks to USA Cycling for helping me get out here and Mafia Racing in The States.”

National Development Program Director Marc Gullickson was very pleased with the outcome of his riders’ first race of the program – especially considering they had to duke it out with the elites at a World Cup nonetheless.  “It’s always a shocker for these guys – first World Cup of the season and starting in the back.  I am very satisfied with Rob for making it through to the final lap,” said Gullickson.

The National Development Program, sponsored by USA Cycling, has been going on for years and Gullickson has been a part of it for the last three.  This is their second year expanding their program to include an extended period of European travel. According to Gullickson, “The main reason for this program is growth and long term for these guys. I am hoping that the changes I’m making to get these guys racing in Europe will pay off.  After a few years, we hope we could get some guys to contend for the top five in U-23.” After his current group of kids depart following their four-week stay, three more waves of riders will arrive – each staying for two weeks in the team house based in Germany.  One of the groups includes some women. In July, the last group departs.

With a shortage of funding, Gullickson has made it work so that the riders gain the valuable experience needed for future stars to emerge. But even so, with more money, he could reach out to more riders and better support the current ones in the program.

“If our program had additional sponsors, we could support more riders over here – have a better setup. We could run the program all summer with different groups.  And I’d love it if all the riders who are coming over this season could be fully supported.  The current guys are but the following groups are only partially funded. I’d also like to do a winter camp with these guys, send them to more road races throughout the year. Eventually I’d like to add more funding to the World Championship for these guys,” explained Gullickson.

The third stop on the World Cup Circuit is Offenburg, Germany where most of the same faces will battle it out once more.  The course may be slightly less challenging, and the crowds a bit more subdued but you can be sure that if nothing else, there will be beer – albeit maybe not as good as those in Belgium.

Christine “Peanut” Vardaros is a Belgium-Based professional cyclist who spends her free time writing about health, fitness, and nutrition. In addition she is a spokesperson for In Defense of Animals, Organic Athlete, and Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine. Kasteel Beer and Speculoos make her happy.