World Cup mountain bike champ trains in Breck
BRECKENRIDGE – As the droves of people lining the streets in the Tour de France indicate, cycling is a big deal in Europe.
Professional mountain biking, while typically drawing much bigger crowds in Europe than in the U.S., is still establishing a niche in many countries. And Belgium has Filip Meirhaeghe to thank for opening its eyes to the sport.
Meirhaeghe, who won the cross country silver medal in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sidney, Australia, as well as the 2002 World Cup circuit, has been doing some high-altitude training in Breckenridge the past three weeks to prepare for the World Championships in Lugano, Switzerland, in September.
The 32-year-old Belgian, of Team Specialized, was in Summit County for three days before competing in the 2003 Firecracker 50 race July 4. He finished 16th while struggling with the altitude and went on to take fourth the following weekend in the World Cup race in Vancouver, Canada.
While in the county, his training has consisted primarily of three-hour road rides twice a day, but he said the mountain bike offerings in Breckenridge are unlike anything he has had access to in his 16 years of riding.
“We don’t have anything like this in Belgium,” he said. “When I do these trails, I think about friends in Belgium and how they would react and how they would love it because it’s unimaginable that you could go on a singletrack for two hours. It’s so special. I’m so amazed that it is possible. At home, if we go out on a mountain bike and find a trail where we can go 20 minutes without having to cross a street, we’re very happy.”
Meirhaeghe said the lack of lengthy singletrack in Europe is due to the proximity of towns. He also suggested this might be why European World Cup races yield so many more spectators than those in North America.
“The crowds are a lot bigger at the World Cups in Europe,” he said. “Everything is so remote in America. At the World Cup in Houffalize (Belgium), there were 20,000 to 25,000 spectators. Houffalize is 45 minutes from France and just next to Luxembourg and Germany. Everything is so close together. There’s always a crowd.”
In the beginning …
Mountain biking was virtually non-existent in Belgium when Meirhaeghe began riding in 1987. His father is a former motocross racer, and much of Meirhaeghe’s technical savvy stems from dabbling in motorcycles and trial riding.
Although he has done his fair share of road cycling and has raced with all the Belgians competing in the Tour de France, his real passion lies in mountain biking.
“A lot of people in Belgium have asked me, “Why don’t you go on the road? You can make a lot more money on the road,'” Meirhaeghe said. “When you’re young and you choose your sport, you don’t think, “maybe I’ll earn a lot of money.’ You do it because you like it. I like road racing, but mountain biking is in my heart. Roel Paulissen (fellow Belgian pro mountain biker who won the Vancouver World Cup) is the same. We’ve talked about it together. We’ve put mountain biking on the map.”
After Meirhaeghe took silver in the Sidney Olympics, he made several celebrity visits to schools around Belgium. Although he receives lots of fan mail and letters from young people whom he’s inspired, one of the most memorable pieces of postage he’s received was from one of the schools he visited.
After he became the World Cup champion last year, every child in the school designed a piece of artwork as a tribute and mailed it to him.
“That was really nice,” he said. “It meant they followed my results. I keep all that. It was in our living room hanging on the wall for a long time.”
Meirhaeghe leaves Summit County today and will stop in Spokane, Wash., to compete in a National Off-Road Bicycling Association (NORBA) race this weekend before returning to Belgium. Although he will also wrap up the World Cup circuit in September in Kaprun, Austria, his only goal this season is to win the World Championships. He’s landed two bronze medals in the Worlds and one silver, but wants the gold.
Although he realizes many in his home country expect him to uphold the sport of mountain biking for Belgium, the quest for more international wins is one of personal interest.
“I guess people recognize me because of the Olympic silver medal, not because I’m a mountain biker,” he said. “But if you ask 10 people in Belgium what mountain biking is, nine and a half will know exactly what it is. Before they didn’t. I think every athlete wants to give his sport attention. This is a very good feeling. I might be a pioneer of the sport, but I don’t feel pressure to keep racing because of that. I want to continue for myself.”
For more information about Meirhaeghe, visit http://www.filipmeirhaeghe.com.
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