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In Flanders Field

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Photographs: Marthein Smit

If there is such a thing as motor home envy among the cyclo-cross fraternity, then Ian Field is guilty as charged.  Wandering the competitor’s parking area at this year’s Koppenbergcross near Oudenaarde in search of “Field de Brit”, as race commentators now refer to the slightly-built man from Kent, the pecking order becomes apparent.
The stars riding for major teams are ensconced in almighty wagons, keeping warm before stepping out to prepare for the race on rollers beneath retractable awnings. Sponsors’ names and truly awful, larger-than-life, gurning images of the riders adorn each mobile home. Local residents with the honour of hosting Sven Nys’s or Niels Albert’s vehicles in their driveway are privileged indeed.
Step outside the top 30 or so sponsored riders and the motor homes become slightly more compact: less storage space for bikes, little room to move around inside, but still perfectly serviceable. Step down again and you find guys like Ian Field, doing their damnedest to break into this world of luxury cruisers and the six-figure salaries that come with them.
Our photographer, Marthein, being Dutch and well versed in all things cyclo-cross, and having attended practically every big race on the calendar last season, asks if we’ll be meeting at our subject’s camper van. “Field de Brit”, I point out, drives a Citroën Berlingo, so we’d be meeting there.
Welcome to the glamorous life of a pro ’cross rider in Belgium. As branches of cycle sport go, cyclo-cross is about as ludicrous a way to make a living as they come – on a par, perhaps, with six-day racing in terms of hardship, but with added cold, mud and misery. Yet the likes of Zdenek Štybar, Bart Wellens, Nys and Albert earn very good money indeed. Thousands pay to watch their heroes in action, drinking copious quantities of Belgian beer from plastic cups in muddy fields. Millions more tune in on the TV at home every weekend throughout the winter. It is, in many respects, a hugely unlikely major sport, but the Belgians love it to bits. An hour of flat-out racing where anything can happen – and often does – is perfect Sunday lunchtime entertainment for the average Leffe-fuelled Flemish couch potato.
Bart Wellens has starred in his own reality TV show, Wellens en Wee, and the weekend before our arrival in Oudenaarde had appeared on The Last Show, “Belgium’s equivalent to Friday Night with Jonathan Ross,” according to Field. “It was a cyclo-cross special, with Nys, Alberts, Wellens and Štybar. And Wellens’ wife. That shows how big it is. A primetime TV show, dedicated to ’cross racing. They had mud from different places and the riders had to smell it and identify where it was from…”
Cyclo-cross is big business, and Field wants a share. On paper, he seems an unlikely bet. The former mountain biker plunged into the narrow-tyred discipline full-time last season after GB academy funding dried up, yet he readily admits to not being the best in Britain at the time. Living in Belgium and taking on the best in the world on a weekly basis had the potential to be disastrous. Serious improvement would be required to break through in a country obsessed with ’cross and awash with superb bike handlers.
“Last season I couldn’t take it all in. There was so much to take on board: training techniques, race tactics, the whole thing. It is an art form at the top.”
To be in the heartland of Belgian ’cross, Field has now moved to Oudenaarde, sharing a house with five-time British champion Helen Wyman and her husband Stefan. Both riders have raised their game correspondingly, Wyman recently recording her first win on Belgian soil and Field nudging into the all-important top-20 positions in major competitions, guaranteeing TV coverage – not that Field’s sponsor Hargroves Cycles, a chain of south coast shops, stands to benefit from the exposure. Backers of the UK branch of the sport tend towards the altruistic. The Belgian equivalents are in the game for hard-nosed business reasons.
Field is also learning to be hard-nosed and businesslike, analysing every aspect of an hour-long race that can be won or lost from the gun. A good start is crucial, and recent results have given Field a better position on the grid, but with 20 or more riders preceding him into the first corner, hold-ups and bottlenecks are inevitable.
The Koppenberg race provides the perfect illustration, as the tightly-packed bunch thrashes up the legendary cobbled climb, Field sitting pretty on Radomír Simunek’s wheel. A sharp, deliberate flick from the Czech and Field is in the ditch, losing countless places and 20 seconds by the time the top of the climb is reached. Simunek’s card is marked, with revenge to be exacted in a frozen field sometime in the near future, but for now, any hope of a high placing for Field is gone.
Learning how to gauge the effort and gain time over the remainder of the hour is Field’s mission this year: where to back off; where to push it; tricks of the trade. Living in Oudenaarde enables the Briton to train with the Sunweb-Revor squad, managed by former world champion Mario De Clercq, which is proving to be invaluable.
“Last year, I was maybe rolling into the steps, running up, jumping back on, without really pushing it, but now I am going hard as I can through the whole section. And taking corners tighter, taking more risks. Mario is getting that into me.”
It sounds like he is a hair’s breadth away from landing a major contract, but there are old prejudices to overcome first, according to Field. “Belgians seem to have this idea that British riders are stuck in their ways and don’t have open minds. If a team were to take me on, I would listen to everything they said. I would love to have a coach. I would love to be able to get a programme from Mario. He is three-time world champion – of course I would listen! But I am getting my foot in the door, getting on TV, so hopefully I am getting my point across.”
The opening GvA Trophy round in Namur saw Field finish an excellent 13th position, ahead of many bigger names with pro contracts. “I outsprinted Sven Vanthourenhout and I didn’t get start money that day. He probably got two or three grand, just for turning up. He’s got his camper van and his five bikes… but I’ll get there.”
There is an alternative method of gaining attention favoured by the same handful of first lap specialists every week: the kamikaze opening attack, getting the sponsor’s jersey on TV before, inevitably, fading badly.
“If I had led at Namur for half a lap and finshed 25th, the Belgians would have preferred that to not leading it and finishing 13th,” Field maintains. “I still think that if I carry on getting the good results, I won’t have to resort to the do-or-die tactics, but I might have to do it at the end of the season. 
“Some days last year I would wake up and if it was raining, maybe take a day off. Now there is no way I won’t go out and do my recovery ride, and no way I won’t get up at seven tomorrow to go for a run. As you get better, you get hungrier. I am that close. It just needs someone to take the chance.”
It is hard to think of a British rider who has made a mark on the continental ’cross scene, excepting Roger Hammond’s remarkable junior world championship title before he switched his focus to the road, and Steve Douce – seven-time British champion over a ten-year period starting in the early ’80s. Douce raced during a period when Grandstand, the BBC’s Saturday sports programme, padded out its winter schedule by broadcasting ’cross to a rather perplexed viewing public. He would load up the Lada estate with his brothers and nip from Surrey across the Channel to Belgium and France. “In those days, there were a lot of drugs around,” he says. “You’d get some old boy with a walking stick and he’d get up and beat you, know what I mean? But that’s the way it was, especially down in Brittany.”
A brief sojourn in the then thriving Swiss ’cross scene ended quickly, Douce having followed in the footsteps of previous British champion Chris Wreghitt, hoping to earn a living abroad. “It was a bit naïve, in retrospect. I should have gone to Belgium, which was closer to home and where more people speak English. In Switzerland, I felt there was a closed shop hierarchy. I cracked, to tell you the truth, and only lasted two months over there. I was so unprepared, thinking everything would fall into place.”
Foreign visits in subsequent seasons, however, yielded some decent results without the aid of either walking sticks or artificial stimulants. “I got fourth in a couple of races against [Roland] Liboton and those kind of guys: there were some big hitters around. Those were my best performances, along with a couple of tenth places in world cups.”
Four-time world champion Liboton was so far ahead of the opposition in his prime that Douce recalls the Belgian waving to the crowd after the opening climb on one occasion, just minutes into the race. Modern course designs have generally led to closer, faster racing, reducing the likelihood of a modern-day Liboton romping home unchallenged, or the kind of Saturday afternoon slog with shouldered bikes that memories of the BBC’s coverage in the ’80s evoke, but occasionally a combination of preceding rain and a particularly brutal parcours results in one man – usually Sven Nys – running away with it, as we witnessed at the Koppenberg.
For Douce, there were no offers forthcoming from Belgian teams despite his obvious talent, but he was based in England, racing all year round in all disciplines, until an horrific crash in 1995 left him in a coma for five days and ended his cycling career, aged 31. Whether Douce would ever have made that leap across the Channel again is debatable. For a family man with responsibilities, it was too much of a gamble to even contemplate.
Field, meanwhile, is young, free and single, and still knocking hard on that Belgian door. Advice from Mario De Clercq has helped narrow the gap. Douce sees speed as being the key to giving Field that final push into the realms of Nys et al.
“In the future, he needs to look at his build up. My best days, when I was with Raleigh and Saracen, I was riding the road a lot – money in the bank. I had miles in the legs. Mountain biking blunts your speed, and ’cross is a speed sport. You have got to be doing crits and interval training behind a motorbike. That’s what I did and that’s what I would say is the answer. The Belgian ’cross riders ride the kermesses from June on, two or three a week. I raced 12 months a year – I never stopped. Nowadays, that would probably be advised against, but I got results  from it.”
As the ’cross season draws to a close, Field keeps plugging away, driving his Berlingo round Belgium in search of higher placings, plus occasional forays home to pick up UCI points in National Trophy events – useful for boosting his grid position abroad. It’s a lonely existence, but life as a solo operator seems to suit him better than most.
“It takes a special kind of person to be a full-time bike rider – a lot of people get bored. You do have a lot of time on your hands. But living here almost makes that easier. I’m not surrounded by temptation. I wouldn’t change it for the world – apart from maybe the six-figure salary and the camper van…”

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