My shoes are covered in mud that is roughly the consistency of crunchy peanut butter. The mud is slowly starting to make it's way into my socks and my feet start to feel wet. I try to clean off my shoes against a truck tire, only to realize that they are also covered in smashed up, rotten apples, making me smell like a bottle of cheap salad dressing. I'm in Gavere, Belgium, in the team parking lot of the Superprestige cyclocross race that is held in this town of only 13,000. Attendance for the race is expected to surpass 50,000, and is being held in a military base, that is adjacent to an apple orchard (hence the mud and stench on my shoes). But I'm not here to learn about cyclocross. I'm here to learn about the inner workings of post-Tour criteriums. Jurgen Mettepenningen, owner and general manager of the Marlux-Napoleon Games team owned one of these criteriums until recently [along with a Superprestige cyclocross race and a huge outdoor music festival] so I've asked to speak with him on the matter. So while I'm here to learn about these weird pseudo-races that are more WWE than UCI, I've lear something else already instead. At cyclocross races, all interviews are done pre-race in campers and RVs. The insides of those vehicles are pristine, and I'm about to foul one of them up with my muddy shoes. The press officer for another team sees me struggling with the caked on mud and applesauce on my shoes. He points to a perfectly clean white towel by the door of he RV, and tells me to take my shoes off before I go in, rather than worry about cleaning them. He does this in a gentle tone that he most likely reserves for stubborn farm animals or humans who sustained severe brain injuries. Lesson learned.
I step into the team's RV and am amazed by how clean and tidy it is. The smell of embrocation and cologne in the vehicle is beyond anything I could have anticipated. My nose hairs are promptly scorched. We sit down and begin to talk about these criteriums, a subject that until recently, few fans outside of Europe knew much about. These events/races/whatever you want to call them are perhaps more like fast bicycle parades that allow locals to see cycling stars in their home town. Continental pros rub elbows with Tour de France jersey and stage winners, as they all pretend to race one another. It's hardly racing, it's a spectacle, and one that can be profitable. As Robbie Mcewen once told Cycling Weekly, "A good Tour gives you glory and satisfaction, crits give you the money. You could make a quarter of a million euros in a month." I would soon learn that it's also profitable for those who run these events.
You own a cyclocross team, you've owned and operated criteriums and cyclocross races. Did you grow up in the world of cycling?
Not at all. I grew up as a football [soccer] player. I played until I was 26. I played in the third division, always as captain. But I had problems with my knee, and then I would sometimes go out and drink with my friends too....not good for a football player.
Were you interested in cycling when you played football?
Not at all. The first race I ever saw was in 2002. It was a cyclocross race, the world championships. I was injured, so I could only stay home and watch TV. I ended up watching a lot of cycling, and I saw how many people were at these cyclocross races. This was early in the year, the end of the cyclocross season. By that November, I started my own cyclocross race. That was Bolleke Cross. But eventually I had to make a choice: run races or run a team. I chose to run a team.
You also owned and ran the post-Tour criterium in St Niklaas. I've always been curious about those races.
Yes, but it....look, it's not a criterium. It's not a race. It's a show. There's no prize money or anything.
Right, but those events are still interesting to me for that very reason. That they look like races, but aren't. How did you go about running them and getting the riders? Did you speak and deal directly with teams? Or do you contact riders and their agents?
No, it all goes through a single person in Holland who oversees the whole thing. He contacts the riders, and he has them at his disposal. So I would call him and say: hey, I want the yellow jersey, I want this guy and this other guy..I want the green jersey...whatever. Heworks with the riders and their agents. Sometimes you can make a deal, sometimes you can't with some riders. But it all goes through him, the name of the company is Cycling Service, and he makes all of those criteriums posible.
Did you pay the riders directly?
No, payments go through that company as well.
How much did it cost you to have the yellow jersey at your event?
I don't want to say the exact amount...but I'll say that it was more than €50,000 for the yellow jersey.
How is the outcome decided? Does this person who secures all the riders for all the races weigh in? Do the riders ever voice an opinion?
No. I always picked, based on what would be best for the event. But of course, you don't just pick the yellow jersey to have him come in tenth. No, you have him in the top three in a sprint or something. Because it's a festival, and you want to make people happy. You have to put on a good show for them.
What does the day consist of for the riders?
The stars are in a parade, they ride through town in a convertible to wave at fans, and then there's the event itself. The criterium. They ride for maybe 60 kilometers. It's not really fast, at least not for them. There are some breaks, and the last five laps are close to real cycling. But yes, before the race I was the one that decided who was going to be one through five in the end.
These events are very popular, more like town festivals. But the audience doesn't pay to get in, right?
They don't, it's free for them.
So how did you make money?
The city where you have the event pays you, and you have sponsors as well, which can pay a lot of money for a good event. And mine was the best in Belgium. We had the yellow jerseys, we had Cancellara, Vino, Froome...we had the best riders. But I sold the race to focus on my team, and the new owner is doing a great job...so he's happy and I'm happy. And the fans still get a great show, which is what it's all about.