EuroCrossCamp Diary: Max Palmer Soaks in the Surreal Belgian ‘Cross Vibe – Cyclocross Magazine

This Kerstperiode, nine U.S. Junior cyclocross racers are in Europe to race with the EuroCrossCamp program run by Geoff Proctor. During the next few weeks, the young athletes will be sharing their stories and experiences in rider diaries written while they are in Belgium.

by Max Palmer

Reflecting back on the last two races here in Europe and looking ahead to the next two, in Baal and Brussels, there is a definite sense of surrealism surrounding this whole experience.

We grow up racing, living, breathing cyclocross and watching these European pros race at these iconic venues and it is the dream for many of us to someday see this in person and get the opportunity to compete over here at this highest level of our sport. The entire experience of European racing and riding is something completely different from anything most of us have ever experienced before and is quite strange to a lot of people.

For most, including myself, this dream of traveling to this far away “holy land” of cyclocross to race seemed relatively far off or honestly pretty crazy until recently when Geoff Proctor contacted me about EuroCrossCamp.

Now that we’re over here, I am really beginning to feel the nearly inexplicable feeling of the racing in these hallowed events as well as seeing the huge differences in cycling culture between here and America in general.

Racing in Belgium has been a surreal experience for Max Palmer. © Balint Hamvas

Racing in Belgium has been a surreal experience for Max Palmer. © Balint Hamvas

As Americans, we idolize European racers and races. They seem to be untouchable or on a different level than anyone or anything we know.

Now, being here amongst all the locals, in the midst of all the action, it is truly a surreal feeling. Tomorrow, we head to Baal, the hometown and home race of the greatest cyclocross racer of all time. This is like nothing one could ever experience at home, in the U.S. Racing at Sven Nys’ race just has a feeling that is difficult to put into words; this man is the biggest legend of all time in our sport and a national celebrity in Belgium.

Just to be here, in Belgium, racing the best in the world, with the massive crowds roaring, sometimes exceeding 25,000-strong (for the pro races), really hits the emotions. It is a massive motivation boost every time you come around a corner and hear the sounds of the crowd cheering.

Even though I may not understand what any of them are saying, I pretend that they are all just cheering, “Go Max!” somehow giving a little mental boost. The feeling of all these thousands of people watching you, like an American might watch a football game, is insane; there is a realization that we are striving to be at the top level and this is what proper cyclocross is.

The crowds have made the Belgian races a memorable experience. © Balint Hamvas

The crowds have made the Belgian races a memorable experience. © Balint Hamvas

One of the first moments that made me realize this was on our first big skills ride. It was just a half an hour ride and suddenly we were at the legendary magical forest of Lichtaart. There it is, the Sven Hill that we’ve seen the likes of Tom Pidcock, Thibau Nys and Sven himself riding, and it all seems larger than life. In reality, it’s just a sandy hill and pit, but it is incredibly so much more.

This is the place where some of the legends of our sport have been made and refined.

Cyclocross, and cycling in general, is so incredibly ingrained into the culture of this country that the atmosphere at the races, as well as the public’s attitude towards cyclists, is so different that it takes you by surprise at first.

The whole experience at Diegem Superprestige, I feel, perfectly exemplified the pinnacle of European cyclocross for me. As the darkness rolled in, so did the masses of cyclocross supporters, eager to see their idols, and up-and-coming Junior racers, go into battle. Lining the start/finish straight, the fans bang on the boards and the racket is deafening on the start line. Throughout the entire evening of events, this vibe never dissipated.

Max Palmer got to experience the famed Diegem night race. © Balint Hamvas

Max Palmer got to experience the famed Diegem night race. © Balint Hamvas

If anything, it grew. Just the fact that the entire body of fans is so engaged and involved in the racing is amazing. I believe this is one of the main, non-racing differences between European and American cyclocross—the pure enjoyment of the fans and the love you feel from them for this amazing sport.