I first heard about Lichtaart in 2015, when I was asked by a client to shoot a video of the Telenet-Fidea team. The shoot took place during and after a training session and that’s when I first visited Lichtaart. I was puzzled and amazed to equal measure of this place that attracted riders from all the major teams – and it all happened on the same day, on a Wednesday afternoon. I didn’t know much about it, so I asked someone to look into this, who knows about cyclocross a lot more than I do: Renaat Schotte. If you’ve seen a European cyclocross race, you have probably seen Renaat. A broadcasting pro, who is also a very nice chap and knows everything and everybody in the sport. Renaat was kind enough to go to Lichtaart and chat to a couple of people about it. Below, read an exclusive extract from the full feature in the 2018/2019 Cyclocross book, which you can still pre-order!
The Magical Forest of Lichtaart
A Wednesday morning deep into the cyclocross season. The rendezvous point is in a Belgian region, called the Kempen, the epicenter of the cyclocross world. Far beyond the Belgian borders, the forest in Lichtaart has taken on a special aura. Top riders like Bart Wellens, Zdeněk Stybar in his time with the Fidea team, Kevin Pauwels, Sven Vanthourenhout, and Sven Nys used to train there and nowadays world champion Mathieu Van der Poel is regularly spotted there, too.
I have an appointment with sports director Kris Wouters from the Telenet Fidea Lions. Wouters is a six times world cyclocross champion in the military. Today he will drill eight pro riders in the woods of Lichtaart.
“Together, the team train every fortnight in the Lichtaart Forest. Sometimes it is so crowded that we need to make arrangements with other teams. In that case, together with Bart Wellens or Marc Janssens, we divide the forest into areas. During the training, we’ll regularly change sectors so we stay out of each other’s way and everyone can enjoy a complete training session. But even so, it remains a public forest where you can’t do your own thing one hundred percent. There are not only cyclocross riders, but also mountain bikers and horseriders.”
The Telenet Fidea Lions are preparing their gear. Reigning Belgian cyclocross champion Toon Aerts zips up his beautiful tricolored jumper while talking about his love for the forest; “I always connect Lichtaart with a good old bit of suffering. Everything a cyclocross rider could wish for is here: sand, tracks, beautiful paths, steep climbs, difficult descents…everything! The fact that you can train in all weather conditions explains why there are always so many riders practicing.” Sports director Wouters agrees: “It never becomes an extreme mud pool.”
The place appeals to the imagination because of the fact that just about every famous crossrider once trained in the forest. Aerts knows that; “You have the regular lap of Erwin Vervecken and all those guys at the time. But the new generation have also made their own routes. Everyone knows the place. Simply put in a registration desk and you could have an official race every Wednesday.”
The team leave for the forest. Sports director Wouters orders his men: “Make sure you are there in twenty minutes!”
I get a ride in the sports director’s car. On the way, we chat about the history of the forest. It is impossible to find out who first discovered that the forest was the ideal training spot, but we do know that Ludo De Busser as one of the early enthusiasts. “At the time Leo was one of the better Belgian amateur cyclocross riders,” explains Kris Wouters,“he was very concerned about the young people in the region here”. Wouters continues, “under Leo’s guidance Ellen van Loy reached a higher level. Up until the generation before Wout van Aert, about every cyclocross rider from the Kempen once trained under his leadership. Each year he still organizes a race (The Courageous Cyclocross Rider) in ‘De Moedige Veldrijder’ series. On that day he transforms the place into a beautiful cross course for the youth. Well organized with a challenging route, the super fine work of Leo has evolved with modern cyclocross.”
We have arrived in Lichtaart forest near the Floreal campsite . It is truly an idyllic place, the ‘Walhalla’ of training for top cyclocross riders. The weather is cool but nice for the time of year. The sky is blue with a few soft wandering clouds. A pleasant late winter sun drifts through the trees.
Kris Wouters maps out a lap for the training session: “You stay there, then you come from there and here you ride all the way up the hill. Then you take a left-hand turn.” Wouters explains the exercise, after which the men storm up the hill in a small train of eight under his approving eye.
The big boss himself is usually around, but not today. Team manager Sven Nys sits at home with the flu. He gets lyrical when you talk to him about the forest.
“Ha, Lichtaart! Winter and summer you will find a good rideable surface there. All year round you can develop your technique, practice starts, ride technical descents… It’s training at full speed without having to be careful of traffic, it’s amazing! I always worked on explosiveness there in the so-called ‘Pit’. Lichtaart is also the home base of my coach, Paul Van Den Bosch. So I had both a very nice course and good accommodation.”
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