I’ve been seeing a lot of Tom Meeusen lately. It almost makes me feel bad for him. The 29-year-old Belgian is one of the top riders in the World, and he has been for some time. The Belgian has bike handling skills that even exceed the exceptional standard set by his European cross peers (Mathieu Van Der Poel not withstanding). He jumps barriers that no one else can. He rails the corners faster than the rest. Meeusen was at his finest at Sint Niklaas in 2016, riding to a convincing victory through the sand pits with a mix of finesse, power, and smooth bunny hopping style. Twenty-seventeen, has not been so kind to Meeusen. As I mentioned, I’ve been seeing a lot of him lately, and it’s not because we’ve coincidentally stayed at the same hotel or parked near each other at venues. I’m talking about during the races.

Words: Andrew Juiliano/Photos by Annick Lamb / Grit World Racing

You see, as the 13th ranked rider in the World, Tom generally starts on the first or second row of almost every race. He’s earned that spot through top results from the Superprestige Series to the World Championships. As the 219th ranked rider in the World, I start at least four rows behind him. I have earned that spot through mediocrity and stubborn persistence. On paper, I should only catch a glimpse of the Gregoor logo on the back of his skinsuit for about 30 seconds at the start of every race.

But Tom has come down in nearly every start line crash in recent races. During the massive pileup on the Namur World Cup start, Meeusen crawled off the ground as the front of the field sprinted up the hill. The next weekend, at Waasland Cross in Sint Niklaas, Meeusen again wound up at the bottom of the start line scrum. After a 300-meter full-gas sprint, the bottleneck chicanes into the woods wreaked havoc on the field. Coming from 30 riders back, I barely squeaked between a tree, a bike and a flailing Belgian just as Meeusen hopped back on his bike. I heard the crunch of gears and Tom yelled something Flemish that I can only assume is not translatable in a family-friendly publication.

Mid-race, I had little time to dwell on his misfortune. In all honesty, I’ve had my own share of foul luck throughout season. I’ll take whatever gift I can get, empathy be damned. There were 53 other racers all smashing and bumping toward the first muddy run up. In the first lap chaos of a Belgian cross race, the only priority is attacking for position. If you’re not fighting forward, you’re getting spit backward.

Waaslandcross was a blistering fast parcours, punctuated by three steep runups (mud made all but one unrideable) and two powerful sand sections. For a rider like me, it takes every bit of power to hang with the groups on the straights, then every ounce of remaining focus to not muck up the technical lines and ruts. A lapse in either the handling or the power make the whole cyclocross race equation collapse real quick, especially, when Wout Van Aert turns laps in the five-and-a-half minute range.

Three laps into St. Nick, I’d engaged every bit of focus and strength to keep myself in the race. And here comes Tom, fresh off the ground, motoring up behind me. He says something again in Flemish, though it sounds much more polite this time. Let’s call it a breathless grunt, indicating that he’s on his way by. He spins on past, then floats over the step up onto the grass. I dig a little deeper and for a rare moment, I stay on his wheel. I’ve got the hook in my mouth, and his smooth pedaling cornering corner are dragging me along. It was reminiscent of Namur where the weekend before, he passed me, politely again, in a mud pit and then accelerated away through the rutted off camber. There, he’d gone from the ass end of the 61-rider field to 23rd and the lead lap.

I tried to hold his wheel until the start straight, thinking it would be a Belgian free ride and a bit of a rest. But nothing’s gratis in cyclocross. I couldn’t have worked hard enough through the sand to match his finesse and float. By the pavement, he was already long gone on his way back up to 12th place by the end of the race. No matter how many excuses I could come up with for my own 34th place performance, Tom’s rides kept popping back into my head.

I could look through my race and imagine all the places where something went wrong, where I’d muffed up remounts, barrier hops, blown corners or floundered in the sand. I could analyze the minutia that kept me from achieving my goals. But then I remember Tom, crashing at the starts, hopping back on his bike and riding through the field. I realize that there’s really not any reason to feel too bad for him. With enough class, power and determination, there’s not much need for sympathy or excuses.