Large lorries strung across the canal banks promoting sponsors, beer tents, RVs and millions of pounds worth of powerboats set the scene. Music was pumped into the air with engine fumes, anxiety and adrenalin to once again create that unique Diamond Race atmosphere.
Former world champion and eighties legend Danny Bertels was there promoting his balloon flights and faces new and old from throughout Europe merged here to get ready for Europe’s major event of 1998.
With four races on the cards, Sunday 31 May was about to be busy, providing ten thousand spectators with first class value for money. Around six thousand paid their £5 each while a further four thousand were blessed with free entry.
There was a degree of disappointment when Steve Robertson didn’t arrive after the earlier announcement that he’d be taking the 12,000 mile trip to race, but fellow countryman Jason Martin was there to fly the Aussie flag.
All eyes were on Kirkland and Cramphorn but Carlo Cassa and Devid Conti of Italy were quietly confident too. Then of course the Belgian contingent of Micha Robijn, Filip Vervecken and Peter Bertels were hot bets because of their recent standard of skiing and their particular expertise on canal water.
Kirkland’s No Mercy Hallett had begun the weekend by playing up and the mechanical misfortune which dogged this outfit in 1997 was once again trying to rear its head. But everything was running nicely for the start of the race.
The races kicked off with an Open category where Dan Cramphorn took the field by storm and dominated the race until he went in (no he didn’t fall -ok Dan-). It was Chris Cole who was there to pick up the pieces and record his 2nd successive win in the Open race here at Belgium.
The cocky piece of Belgian dynamite named Rick de Brabander took ownership of F3 while the British Pog team with skier Glenn Manchett suffered mechanical misfortune. Ashley Copper, Steve Bird and other Brits did a good job of finishing this gruelling event.
But the big surprise of the day was in the Junior race when Belgian Christoff Van Gaeveren put on a display of skiing which reminded me of Wayne Mawer’s debut performance here in 1996. This diminutive piece of dynamite delivered a gutsy performance on his home water and the youngster is set to go far. But a fall put him into second behind team mate Magdeleyn while Britain’s Kim Lumley took third after only recently recovering from a follow up fall since the Worlds last year.
The moment of the main race arrived. At 4pm the teams lined up in grids. At the five minute flag, tension on the canal and on the banks built up. The first flag dropped giving 19 drivers thirty seconds to pull out the short 190ft ski lines, and then they were off.
Screaming down the first flat straight, teams pushed their skiers to the limit on such short lines. Two major disappointments were the failing of Micha Robijn’s boat to start and a missed start by Filip Vervecken. But the rest had gone.
Carlo Cassa was first round behind a new Bernico Foxy twin with Devid Conti 100 yards behind with Martin McLaughlin’s Cyclone. Kirkland was trailing a further 100 yards back but he’s not usually a quick starter.
As the race progressed, it was clear that Carlo Cassa was back on form. It was also clear that the young Conti was further up the ladder to the top and he’s determined to follow in the footsteps of the Great Gregorio.
Meanwhile Britain’s 18 year old Jamie Cramphorn wasn’t far behind, with ambitions to follow in another former World Champion’s footsteps. Those of Steve Moore MBE – his uncle.
Kirkland’s boat broke after several laps, and although recognised as one of the world’s most gifted racers, he’s probably suffered more bad luck than any other too. It was just his third time on the water since the Worlds in October and his first race of the season. Competitors Cassa and Conti ski every day, backed by substantial funding via the Italian Federation. The reality is that Kirkland is constantly at a distinct disadvantage. A tragic situation to see for this world class British athlete.
Cassa dominated the event, ploughing through the tough conditions, but with Conti always within 30 seconds reach. And the race finished that way, with Belgium’s Peter Bertels coming in third and Cramphorn a good fourth.
As Cassa clambered ashore, he was met with champagne, flowers and a cheering crowd. Cassa was once again back. His year in 1997 was dogged with misfortune. First his ski snapped in an English race at 80mph. He injured his knee, his ankle and his head went for the worlds. After a traumatic time of being wrongly diagnosed by doctors, everything finally came right. Last year he was on the verge of quitting, as was Gregorio after the ’93 worlds. But with encouragement from his team he fought on.
Team mate Conti was praised by Cassa who told me how natural Conti is on a social ski. “With a little time and more strength, Devid will do well”, said Cassa. And as I asked Cassa about the race he cried. You couldn’t help but be pleased for this great Italian character.
Meanwhile the prize giving was about to begin. A very emotional event with memorial awards being given in remembrance of people from years gone by. It was an event when many felt close.
And then the party. The big top tent was set for a wild night of dancing on tables, singing, beer drinking, beer throwing with not a dry person in sight (I blame Tom Lumley). Cassa & Co. performed the Full Monty and the night went on. And on. And on.
Monday came and the Diamond Race was done. Viersel was already back into it’s mode of quiet country life. Teams had left and so had the atmosphere.
By Robbie Llewellyn