All over the US people are dealing with the uncomfortable fact that it’s Halloween. For parents, it’s the day you and your dental bills fear more than any other. For adults generally, it’s the day when you try to gauge exactly what the “wear a costume” climate is in your life, and make the right decision. (Government law shop? Ah, no.) For kids over 12, it’s the “I’m cool” versus “I want candy” showdown. Only for the bottom 15% of the population is it purely a day of celebration.
Tomorrow it’s all over. And replaced by something far better. It’s KoppenbergCross Day.
Did You Know?
November 1 is All Saints Day in Belgium and in a lot of countries with a heavy Catholic influence. Technically it’s All Saints Day everywhere, but it’s just the Catholics who choose to celebrate the fact, and in the U.S. all but the most devout Catholics are too burnt out from Halloween to do very much. Were that not the case, people like me wouldn’t have to look up what it even is. But alas... according to Catholic.org it’s the holiday where they celebrate all the saints who have made it into Heaven. God sends the Pope an updated startlist of heavenly-ascended saints on October 31 each year, and on November 1 people celebrate them. Also on November 2 it’s All Souls Day, which is sort of the sportive version of All Saints Day, meaning that it’s for everyone who doesn’t have a professional saints license.
There is some interesting history, in that the holiday came from the seventh century and seems to maybe be a replacement for the Roman holiday of the Feast of the Lemures, where the S.P.Q.R.s would offer beans and salted bread to the gods to chase away the spectres of the restless dead. Rome had a lot of great ideas, like the aqueducts, but you can see why Catholicism won out over the old Roman religion. Who wants to manage the comings and goings of the “restless dead” when you could just send them all off to a place called heaven? It’s the spiritual equivalent of boarding school.
Anyway, apparently in Belgium All Saints Day is a big deal. It’s a national holiday, and I think maybe people go to church but whatever, by the afternoon they are free to settle in and watch one of the most important Crosses of the year: the KoppenbergCross.
The race is iconic for its use of the ... “iconic” just scratches the surface — Koppenberg, which needs no introduction but if you want one it’s on pages 1-436 of my book. That’s cool, but it would also be kind of gimmicky if the ‘Cross version weren’t also one of the competitive highlights of the entire CX season.
Technically speaking the race is the DVV Trofee series event in Oudenaarde, even though Melden is the village at the bottom of the course. “Koppenbergcross” is just a nickname, but then so is “Babe” the nickname of George Herman Ruth. Even with just a cameo, the Koppenberg’s presence in the race is the memorable feature for this course. Check the map:
The Koppenberg is noted on the map by the finish line, and its official name of “Steengat” which translates to Stone Gap or Opening, a fairly evocative description of what you see riding up the thing before you go blind with pain. It is climbed at the start/end of each lap before the race wanders off into the more familiar field environment that defines the sport.
Last year the course got something of a makeover, which was described in badly translated Dutch as curing “childhood diseases,” by which I think they meant that the 25-year-old race was growing and requiring more infrastructure and a route that reflected that. Previously the course went up the Koppenberg, turned right into the field, wound its way counterclockwise, back and forth and up, then crossed the road into the adjacent field to the north, and descended down to Melden.
Now as you can see, it’s a race that goes in a clockwise direction and consists of the space between and including the Koppenberg and the Rotelenberg.* The new feature this year is that the finish line is at the top of the portion of the Kopp that’s in the race, which I think is the really nasty part of the climb that we know from road racing.
[*The Rotelenberg is an alternate route up the same geological feature, which is a good opportunity for me to geek out on the Flemish Ardennes that we know and love and remind or inform people that these “bergs” aren’t individual hills so much as multiple, separate ascents up a small number of actual hills. The Koppenberg, Rotelenberg and Korte Keer are all climbs up the same side of the same hunk of rock, parallel routes with different surfaces and gradients. The Rotelenberg shows up in some races, but is maybe best known as “where the cars go when the riders head up the Koppenberg” or maybe “where the Ronde van Vlaanderen will go if it snows.” Did I mention that I wrote a book about this stuff? Would you like me to write another? Say the word...]
It’s notable that the race gains a lot of elevation on the road. The old version just went up for a few pedal turns and gained the rest of its elevation in the field. It was wicked hard going up, then fast and furious going down, and that long uphill portion made for a great, heavy cross. Now it consists of several punchy ups and quick little downs, a different rhythm, but still a very hard day in the saddle.
And it apparently still favors Wout Van Aert, since he’s won the last three times on both versions of the route. Here’s how it looked last year:
This year’s version should look about the same, in terms of conditions, with just a few showers in the area today and a pleasant forecast for race day. It won’t be the hardest day of racing in the vertical fields of Melden, but they’re all pretty hard even on the best days.
The DVV Trofee series means that everyone is here: men, women, and children. It’s days away from any other event, so they’re all here to go hard, which they would have anyway because it’s just a bloody excellent race and the holiday environment and lovely fall setting makes it all as good as it gets.
On the women’s side, the usual suspects are Katie Compton, Maud Kaptheins, Sanne Cant, Ellen Van Loy, Sophie de Boer, Nikki Brammeier, Helen Wyman and the mercurial Jolien Verscheuren, the Kortrijk native who has made a habit of winning here and nowhere else (a trade I would make 11 times out of 10). Wyman and de Boer are the other former winners on the line.
On the men’s side the last 16 rounds have seen six winners: Groenendaal, Wellens, Kevin Pauwels and Tom Meeusen once each; three for Wout Van Aert; and all the rest for Sven Nys. That leaves three former winners at the start, but also tells you that if Nys won it so much (nine times) then it has to be a pretty serious event.
The U23 race will be a fabulous showdown between Eli Iserbyt and Tom Pidcock, with Iserbyt the defending winner but Pidcock the story of the season so far (which I have been meaning to get around to talking about — soon!). Enjoy!
And here’s the official website, with full startlists to peruse.