"You cannot start the race," the UCI official tells Joachim Parbo sternly.
We have just arrived after a 160km, six-hour long trip from my flat in Herselt to Nommay, France for the 6th round of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup. The UCI official glares in my direction and I try to make myself small. Parbo has been my travel companion for the last three years and he has been late to more than a few World Cups.
You see, normally a national team will send a team manager who must attend the rider's registration at 17:00 - 17:30 and the National team manager's meeting at 18:00. The smaller cyclo-cross nations (Denmark, Norway, Slovakia, etc.) don't generally have a full team present so, the individual riders are left to fend for themselves. And act as their own national team managers.
We arrived at 18:20, coyly crept into the manager's meeting, and took a seat as they are assigning boxes (boxes = pit lanes). The room went silent and I had a feeling we were in for it. After another 15 minutes of UCI meeting stuff I did not spot a US team manager and got a sinking feeling in my gut.
The Mafia here is thick. At any one time while registering for a 'cross race there will be two-to-three officials making themselves busy in front of laptops, another half dozen lighting cigarettes and staring blankly at you and the final half dozen standing around, staring at you and lighting cigarettes. They are, of course, mumbling to each other and if you don't understand French, Flemish, or the slurred versions of English words filtered through a throaty mix of nicotine and instant coffee you would feel a little self-conscious.
Luckily, I am well versed in the international languages of cyclo-cross.
Parbo is doing his thing. Being charming and graciously accepting his UCI fine of 50 Swiss francs while at the same time explaining that he gets no support from his federation (he IS the best cyclo-cross rider from Denmark) and that he has driven over 20 hours to get here.
"I don't have a mobile home like these Belgian guys, eh?" he says. "I don't receive ANY support from my federation, they don't send ME here to the World Cup! I come on my own to represent Denmark."
At first they are having none of it. Then they warm up to him (after he passes out dozens of supporters cards) and fine him, and then turn towards me. I've got to play dumb. There is another American rider who has not yet arrived and I'm taking the flak for the whole US national team.
"I don't know where he is. I know he lives in Brugge but, I don't know if he is here or not," I protest. "I'm sorry. I understand we are late but, we could not control the traffic! And I don't have his cell number!" They understand but want to impress upon me the hassle we have put them through. "You MUST respect the rules! Next time, you cannot be late. At least you could call to us and let us know you coming." I did. I tried.
There was no US team representative to confirm my start and get my numbers so, I've put the UCI in a position where they have to re-order the start list now that I have arrived and checked in.
The air is thick with tension. My legs are fried from cramming three people into a two-seat van for six hours. I want to eat and sleep and not deal with stressed out officials. I want to drink some real coffee, get on my bike and spin my legs.
But I have to wade through this red tape and stand around waiting for the smoke to clear.
The essence of European "field riding"
The next morning I have the first decent cup of coffee I've ever had in Europe. Cheap truck stop coffee from the prison/dorm style hotel we slept in. Ryan Trebon and Georgia Gould are staying in the same hotel and we chat a little in the breakfast cafe before we all drive over to the course.
The cyclo-cross is a heavy one. A vintage, retro-cross. The essence of European "field riding". Muddy grass unlike anything you will ever see in the US. I laugh about it while warming up and scraping the 20 extra kilos of mud and grass off my bike. This will be a twice a lap bike exchange course and my mechanic will be busy.
Parbo and I intermingle with the Luxembourgers, Polish and German riders. I warm up a little with Klass Vantornout and he congratulates Trebon on winning the US championship.
I am envious that they have spent their entire adult lives training and racing on courses like this and the sandy races. There are decades of tradition in their legs. We spin around, most of us running the hilly off camber sections, watch Gerben de Knecht and Lars Boom attempting to ride them.
When you see the world's top riders struggling with a slight hill and opting to run a corner instead of ride it, you know the course is challenging and slow.
The 'cross was a good one for the top riders. The US women were amazing in their race. The final sprint between Lars Boom and Sven Nys was one for the storybooks. There was a rut just before the finish that we dropped into and whacked something hard under the mud with our wheels. Lars apparently punctured and was losing air down the entire long, 400-plus metre finishing straight.
The stuff of legends.
American cyclo-cross racer Molly Cameron, owner of VeloShop in Portland, Oregon, is on the World Cup team and has raced in Europe the last three years. He's living with Belgians in the town of Westerlo, speaks a little Flemish and French and is immersing himself in the culture and lifestyle versus taking a cyclo-cross "vacation". He grew up in Florennes, Belgium (near Charleroi) as a kid, and tends to run in the local circles and hang out with some pretty legit Euro 'cross folks.