It happened during my first visit to Essen in my first season, in 2011. In 2011 and 2012, the race was called GP Rouwmoer and was held at a different venue from the current one. It was a similar course to the current one, mainly flat and very, very muddy. When I arrived in the morning, it was all sunny and friendly, so I parked the car on the designated field without any reservations.
It was a memorable day, as it was Bart Wellens’ last professional victory. A bit of a surprise win, as he was riding in second place, a fair bit behind Sven Nys for most of the race, not really in contention for the win. But you never know in cross. With two laps to go, Nys had some chain troubles and had to abandon. He he had a good gap on his chasers, so all Wellens had to do was to finish the race – which he did. Check the full gallery here. Weirdly, half of the photos from that day have gone missing, so the photos you see in the post are the only copies I have. The other interesting bit is that one of the photos ended up being the cover shot of the 2011/2012 Cyclocross Album (buy here).
After the race, I was fiddling with the photos, and given that the winter solstice was just a few days away, it got dark almost straight after the elite men’s finish. It meant that I had no idea it started to rain really hard. As I stepped outside, it was chucking it down. I ran through the dark fields to the car park, threw all my kit in the back and started the engine. I the car in reverse and tried to let the clutch engage as gingerly as I could. The wheels started spinning. As luck would have it, the car was sitting on a soggy field, that was being soaked by heavy rain for about two hours by that point.
I tried all the tricks I had up my sleeves to get the car moving, but after ten minutes I concluded that I needed some help. Easier said than done. It was almost 8pm by then, every other journalist and photographer was gone by that point, so I tried my luck with the race organisers. After many tries, I managed flag down a small ATV. The guy was sympathetic but he couldn’t help. The only thing he knew was that there was a party for the locals somewhere on the premises, so I might be able to find some help there.
After a bit of wandering around in the dark, rainy night, I finally found a big barn that was converted into the venue of the afterparty. A few hundred locals were enjoying a beer or two after a fun day. Let’s find someone who has a tractor. But how do you say in Flemish: ‘Do you have a tractor, and if yes, would you mind pulling my car out of the middle of a muddy field’? I needed a translator. I started to ask random people if they spoke English. Everybody found that hilarious, but nobody seemed to speak any English. Finally, a small group of friends took me under their wings, they not only spoke English but also knew someone, who was present at the party AND had a tractor. While one of them went to fetch the man with the machine, the others fired countless questions about me, they were thoroughly amused not only by my ordeal but also by the fact I came all the way from London to photograph the race.
Finally, they found him and he was willing to help me. Given how drunk most people were in the hall, I was pleasantly surprised that my man was sober – a good start. We walked outside and jumped on his tractor. In the dark, I guided him back to my car. It was still raining heavily, so I really appreciated his patience and help. We hooked up the rear of the car to the tractor. He told me that I should just sit in the car, release the brakes and do nothing. I did as I was instructed. I was sitting in the dark car, the windows were slowly fogging up, coupled with the rain, it almost completely obscured my view. Suddenly, the car jolted and he started to pull me. It was weird feeling, being pulled in the mud, without any control to what was happening to me or seeing where I was going. There was a moment, when I thought he was going to pull the car into a ditch, but he knew exactly what he was doing and the car ended up on sweet, solid tarmac, the front of the car was even looking in the right direction.
I thanked him, I offered him, but he wouldn’t accept money. I sent him later a copy of my book. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one, who got stuck – apparently, many VIPs ended up having the same problem as I did. From what I heard, this was one of the reasons that they moved the race venue a few hundred meters north.