Last Saturday morning I was in a mini-bus being driven by a guy called Phil, a Bourne Wheelers rider, and friend of my friend Rich, who was navigating us towards Koksijde (pronounced cock-cider) and round 3 of the UCI Cyclocross World Cup. With us were Rich and Phil’s boys and a third Richard. We had disembarked from the Channel Tunnel as the new day dawned and were speeding, as much as mini-buses can speed, along the A16, north across the uncontrolled border into Belgium. Soon enough we stumbled across the event parking on a crumbling runway at an old air base, currently home to Belgian Search and Rescue helicopters. The first face we met was another of Rich and Phil’s Bourne Wheelers, well cyclocross is quite popular in Lincolnshire. Having parked, wrapped up warm and changed into boots and wellies, we were scrambled by a Belgian army shuttle bus to the course.
We had arrived midway through the Junior’s race and our first sight was of skinny young lads racing along a narrow strip of mud. Belgians made up the lead riders, while further back, coming through in ones and twos, were other nationalities including four Brits. Once the riders had passed, we crossed the track to exchange our Euros for tokens and then for coffee, it was just a bit too early for beer, well for us at least.
The cold wind cutting across the airfield was joined by a squally shower. We buttoned our coats and pulled up our hoods to watch the young lads, mostly in skinsuits and bare legs, finish. But the rain was short lived and we saw the under 23 men off under clearing skies. The bunch sped along the tarmaced start/finish to the first bend where they rode off the hard stuff and on to the soft. It was a tight right hander and with the low pressure tyres, a crash was inevitable. A Belgian and German rider slipped and went down, though both got back up again to rejoin the race.
Having seen under 23’s off we wandered through the trees to get a better idea of the course. Koksijde has mud, not much but it’s there. What it does have in abundance is sand, lots of is sand, piles of the stuff heaped into steeply banked dunes. The course lies a kilometre from the sea, and the Marram grass has long since been encroached by trees and the airbase, but where the course runs, the vegetation has been stripped away to leave broad avenues of soft, churned and rutted sand.
Our first sight of dune racing was of riders running up a steep sand bank, carrying or dragging their bikes. That bit took strength. We climbed over the dune and watched them ride down the other side, that was the part that took skill and nerve as riders fought to keep their wheels aligned and the bike upright. We positioned ourselves on the dune where we had a good view of the riders as they came back toward us along a flat, fairly solid sector, running alongside the beer tent and it’s already wobbly patrons. The overall series leader, wearing a white jersey, had a commanding lead while the world champion’s rainbow jersey was a way down the line, with a bunch more Belgian and Dutch riders in between. As the race progressed the Rainbow Jersey moved forward, but not enough for the leading Dutchman, who took a convincing win.
Lunch was mayonnaise with chips and since we’d had enough coffee, between races we popped over to the main beer tent – there were stalls, conveniently scattered in every clearing around the circuit,selling Juilper, the local Flandrian factory brew, so getting a drink was never a problem! The tent pulsed with 90’s dance classics, Accordian hardcore, and if ever there was an appropriate place for a rousing sing along to DJ Otzi’s Hey Baby, all while dancing the conga, that was it…
The elite women’s race was a one-sided affair with Katie Compton establishing a solid lead on the first lap. So far the racing had been dominated by Belgian and to a lesser extent Dutch riders, not so the women’s race. With an American race leader, the low country riders in the chase group were joined by British and German riders. Compton stayed away and continued to build on her lead for massive win, over a minute ahead of the Belgian rider taking second. Britain’s Nikki Harris finished 3rd, 1.22 minutes down on the winner. Helen Wyman, another Brit, finished 6th.
The circuit, already busy, filled rapidly in anticipation of the men’s race, the dune sections thick with supporters. We walked over to the airfield for the start.
The pack surged around the first bend without incident, but they didn’t stay together for long as the dunes fractured the riders into several groups. Still, the race followed the format of earlier races with one rider establishing a dominant lead over the rest, in this case a Belgian rider, and judging from his merchandising stall, a local favourite, Neils Albert. He was clearly in his element and it seemed to me, from the evidence we had seen, that if you like racing across sand, you must really like racing on sand.
Behind Neils the race was more competitive. The Belgian’s were dominant among the chasers, but the national champions of Germany and France were there too, although the rainbow jersey of Sven Nys seemed to be out of contention. But cross, as I was fast learning, isn’t that simple. Riders fatigue across the relentless sand, they make mistakes or their legs weaken and so bit by bit Nys was riding himself back into the race, no doubt spurred on by the increasingly partisan crowd.
We moved to an area of the course where the dunes form a vast bowl a couple of hundred metres across. Here a large screen had been set up. The riders come off one of the dunes, fast, that is, if they pick the right line through the ruts, then race on firmer ground past the beer tent. After that brief stretch the circuit ramps up onto a wicked stretch of sand running along the edge of the bowl. You could follow their progress from the ripple of cheers, like a Mexican wave, as the riders slogged along the crucible’s rim, inches from the crowd. Coming off the sand bank the course firmed up, they rode by the big screen and over a relatively minor lump to a brief sector of pavement. At the end of this was a tight left bend ramping onto a stupidly steep and sandy climb. Incredibly most of the riders had sufficient combination of strength and momentum to crest onto the sandy plateau. Once there, some riders chose to dismount and run with their bikes, others gripped the railings holding the spectators back, and pedal-dragged themselves along. These were not cool faced riders speeding by in a flash of colour, this was intimate spectating, you could the gasps as riders sucked in air.
Onto the final laps and Albert’s lead was unassailable, but the fight for 2nd and 3rd was fierce. Each time the race footage cut back to the pursuers the ordering shuffled. Nys was back in contention for a podium place. One minute he had the lead, next the German champion, while the Frenchman fell back. Albert cornered on to the finishing straight lapping up the adulation, and with a time margin to play with, show boated with a dismount-remount to take the win. The camera cut back and a cheer went up nearby, the champion of France was leading. The German challenged but he held him off for 2nd. After riding himself back into the race Nys had nothing left, and so the World Champion had to settle for 4th.
After the race we headed to our hotel overlooking the quiet and pleasant market square of de Panne. Since we were in Belgium we went out for moules frites and supped on fine Belgian beer. Naturally, the evening ended in a karaoke bar.