Sunday morning in de Panne and we ate a delicious continental breakfast of soft crusty bread, cured meats, cheese and pastries, all washed down with ample amounts of orange juice black coffee (I can recommend Hotel Cecil for excellent value, clean, basic rooms). Out of the dining room window we could see a good number of mtb’ers, with bold fonted numbers, riding around the market square, one was even on rollers, and mused what they were doing. A sportive perhaps?
Suitably caffeinated and fueled we decided to explore the town for a chocolate shop (out of consideration for wives and daughters, of course). This didn’t take long; de Panne isn’t such a big town. We still had well over an hour to spare, and, as if we hadn’t had enough sand at Saturday’s cyclocross racing at Koksijde, we decided to find the beach. Hopefully the boys would burn off some energy before the long drive home.
We followed the main shopping street down to the promenade, but once there we were presented with a bit of a puzzle. The promenade was split into pedestrian and cycle halves and the cycle half was barricaded off. Signs were cable tied to the temporary railings with directions to a large mound of sand, covered with wooden boards. It looked like a race circuit, but a race circuit leading on to the beach? That the bikes we’d seen earlier were here to race on the beach hadn’t occurred to us, but now we were here, that was only clear conclusion to draw. And why not, we’d seen racing on sand dunes yesterday, a cold North Sea beach under heavy skies should seem a most natural place for a bike race!
We walked along the expansive beach front (imagine Brighton with Skegness’ beach) and event paraphernalia became apparent in the distance. While the boys kicked a ball around a mass of people detached themselves from the beach and started walking towards the sand ramp. On the assumption that they knew what was going on, we followed, joined them and waited. Away down the promenade five leading riders were racing ahead of a chasing group. They powered down the ramp, skillfully launching off the wooden boards and onto the soft sand, their momentum largely intact.
Twenty minutes later and riders were still coming through. There were hundreds, but now the race had evolved into a comedy crash fest. At Koksijde crashes were greeted by the crowd with pained oohs and aahs. On the beach front of de Panne it was pointing and laughter. The leading riders demonstrated great skill in their trade, attacking the sand with aggression and speed, they made the transition from firm to soft look so easy. Now it was caution, brakes and embarrassing mistakes.
Riders approached the end of the wooden boards. Some slammed on their brakes leaving riders behind free to ride into the back of them. Others went fast, but didn’t compensate for the radical surface change, so their front wheel dug into the sand, catapulting them onto the beach. Others just ground to a standstill and collapsed onto the beach. My favourite was the tandem with the front rider spinning his legs furiously and to little effect, while his mate stumbled along side pushing the bike along and into the crowd. It was an entertaining way to spend our last hour in Belgium.
In the distance we could see the race leaders, framed by a rainbow over the sea, flying with a tail wind along the firmer wet sand.
The hour soon passed, but with the racing still on we had to leave for Calais. Once home I was straight on to google to find out just what this bizarre spectacle we had seen was. Well, it turns out it was the 18th de Panne Beach Endurance Race. It’s a 52km long race up and down the Belgian coast. The date for the 19th edition is already set for the 30th November 2014 and it seems anyone can enter too…