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Cyclo-cross feature: September 13, 2007

Easypay team rides on Empella

On Thursday, September 6, Belgian team Easypay presented its team for the upcoming cyclo-cross season at the building of the Oost Vlaanderen TV station AVS, just ahead of the first races the team will tackle. Its title sponsor, Easypay, is a software company specialising in payroll and other business management services. Cyclingnews' Bjorn Haake was at the team launch to learn what the team is expecting from the 2007-2008 season.

The bikes that Easypay intends to use
Photo ©: Bjorn Haake
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The Easypay team is one of the Belgian cyclo-cross dark horses for the year. An up-and-coming squad of five riders will head into the muddy part of the season - four of them in the 'elite without contract' category and one elite junior racer. Led by team manager Dirk Vanopbroeke, the team was formed out of a love for the sport of cyclo-cross by long-time 'cross fan and bike sponsor Ad van Empel.

Vanopbroeke, who manages the team on the side as a hobby, has quite a different career as a full time job. "Normally he drives Belgian ministers around in a limousine," explained van Empel. Vanopbroeke shows his enthusiasm for the team from start to finish, and has ambitious plans to start a Continental team next year, along the lines of well-known outfits like Chocolade Jacques, Fidea or Landbouwkrediet-Tönissteiner. To do so, he would have to double his rider headcount, as ten is the minimum required to even apply, but his riders definitely like the idea. Rider Dieter Vanthourenhout felt that "it would be good for us. It would provide us with more opportunities."

The Easypayers, who ride the same Empella bikes that have guided more than one rider to a World Championships title, will line up in the 2007-08 season with Kamiel Ausbuher, Dieter Vanthourenhout, Gert-Jan Opsomer, Tim Van Nuffel and Jerry Kallenfels.

"In 1994 we had our first World champion with Dutch junior Gretenius Gommers."

-Ad Van Empel explains the tipping point for his successful bicycle company, Empella

Ausbuher, who hails from the Czech Republic, was World Champion in the junior ranks in 1993. Undoubtedly the most experienced on the team the young ones will look up to him and learn as much as they can throughout the season.

However, the team's most recent successes have been courtesy of young Dieter Vanthourenhout and Tim Van Nuffel. Vanthourenhout, the younger cousin to Sunweb ProJob's Sven Vanthourenhout, won five races last season, and Van Nuffel's last win was in July, which was during his preparation time. While doing road racing to get in shape, he managed to win an event here and there and showed he is dedicated throughout the year. Gert-Jan Opsomer, who also has already had some good results, and Jerry Kallenfels, the junior on the team, complete the team.

The main targets of the team will be the Superprestige and GvA races, but the Belgian national championships will be on everyone's mind even though they realize there is tough competition ahead. "Niels Albert will be hard to beat," said Vanthourenhout.

The team's bicycle sponsor, Empella, had the company's founder, Ad van Empel, on hand for the launch. Van Empel started the line of Empella bikes 25 years ago, and while he doesn't ride himself, he always enjoyed watching bike races and noticed that he could help racers become faster by improving positioning, material and other things he had an eye for.

Ad Van Empel is the founder of Empella bicycles
Photo ©: Bjorn Haake
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With that in mind, the company was born, but Van Empel chose the more Italian sounding Empella name rather than his own to grace the frames. The breakthrough for Empella came in the mid-90's. "In 1994 we had our first World champion with Dutch junior Gretenius Gommers. Then others wanted to ride Empella bikes and we started a team with two professionals in 1995." Initially cyclo-cross was facing stiff competition from the up-and-coming sport of mountain biking, which was somewhat puzzling to van Empel. He chuckled that "we don't really have mountains here. It's all flat." Around 2000, things turned around again and cyclo-cross became as popular as ever.

"There can be 50,000 people at a race," said the Empella founder, and he praised the atmosphere. "It's very spectator-friendly. Short courses and a little slower than on the road. And there is music, food and beer, of course. The races are an hour long. They are also broadcast live on TV, on Sporza [Belgian sports TV channel -ed.]"

Van Empel showed all the enthusiasm and attention to detail as he pointed out the special parts on his bikes, like V-brakes necessary in muddy conditions - called Frogglegs - or the handmade, knobby Dugast tyres of the finest quality. The material must be top quality or the racers wouldn't choose Empella so frequently. The company has continued its reputation of supporting' World Champions, with the Belgian Erwin Vervecken, who won in 2001, and Hanka Kupfernagel, the first-ever women's winner in the event in the year 2000.

With the Empella sponsorship, the team's members will have three bikes to their disposal: one for training and two for the races. "We don't have snow in the races in Belgian too often, but the mud can be even worse," explained van Empel. Staff, or even friends and family, will wash one bike while the racers are on the course, then as that one gets muddy, they pick up the clean bike in the pit. And in a country famous for its muddy 'cross courses, the riders will be swapping between bikes often.

Dieter Vanthourenhout is targeting the national championships.
Photo ©: Bjorn Haake
(Click for larger image)

Dieter Vanthourenhout, who is starting his second year on the bikes, really enjoys the ride of his Empella. "I am on the top model of Empella and I really like it. It's a great bike." The line of bikes the racers use is called Bonfire. "The name was inspired by the horse that won a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics," recalled van Empel. His daughter's interest in horses influenced the decision.

The last Empella world champion produced was Joeri Adams, who won at home in Belgium, just last year. Now he is off to Rabobank, and while van Empel is sad to lose such a good rider, Van Empel is also proud of what Adams accomplished in his programme.

Altitude training for lowland Belgians

Vanthourenhout and Van Nuffel decided to spice up their training and head to St. Moritz, Switzerland, for some workouts at elevation last month. For Vanthourenhout, it was his second time doing that. "I had done that with the Belgian national team before," he explained. But the idea was hardly unique as the two young cyclo-cross racers saw one famous rider after the other on the road. "It was pretty cool," said Van Nuffel. "There were the Liquigas guys, Pozzato and Pellizotti. Then we a saw a Caisse d'Epargne guy ride up. It turned out to be [Vladimir] Karpets."

The training for Van Nuffel and Vanthourenhout was very structured and the latter explained that "We ran in the morning, then did workouts on the bike. Four hours one day, then four the next, then five. After that we had a rest day." One of the tough things in the two weeks that they spend there was not having a professional support crew. Washing bikes and doing laundry are necessary, but can shorten a rider's free time, which is better spent resting.

With the cyclo-cross season hitting the main targets early in the year, the season is structured differently. The off-season is from March through the end of May. Then there are road races as a preparation. "They can do three-day races, but it's no problem if they don't finish them," explained van Empel. The riders have to deal with the fact that the road racers will have better form at that time of the year. But come September when the first cyclo-cross races start, the tides will have turned.

Vanthourenhout explained that right now he does everything for cycling. No school or work interferes with his passion. "I live at home," he explained how it helps not to have to worry about rent. His family is supportive of his career to the extent that his parents drive to the races with a camper and help out in every way they can. Not surprisingly, Vanthourenhout would appreciate it if team manager Dirk Vanopbroeke would succeed with his plans in getting his team registered as a Continental team, as it would undoubtedly lift the team to another level.

Van Nuffel with his souvenir
Photo ©: Bjorn Haake
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Both riders also emphasized that they are targeting the national championships. "But cyclo-cross is pretty competitive here in Belgium, it's almost like racing the Worlds," joked Van Nuffel, who finally could smile again, following injuries near his right eye. A training accident shortly after he came back from St. Moritz had somewhat impacted his preparation for the first race of the season.

Despite frequent crashes during cyclo-cross races, the injury rate is significantly lower than on the road, where Van Nuffel's crash happened. "I came back from St Moritz on Friday and then earlier this week I was out on a road training ride. It was raining and I wanted to get back quickly." The Belgian described the circumstances that saw him crash into a pedestrian at about 30 to 35 km/h. "The man crossed the street right in front of me without looking." Van Nuffel said both were brought to the hospital, but Van Nuffel returned home with a few stitches above his right eye, while the pedestrian had to stay overnight.

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Images by Bjorn Haake/Cyclingnews.com

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