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Belgian Beach Party
WORDS & PHOTOS: Phil Deeker
Although I’d been travelling for a few hours already, the day really began for me when I slid open the door of the train in Brussels. Belgian flags hung down from the luggage racks, on to a group of fans dressed in the same bold three colours, two of whom were wearing Santa Claus hats. I presume that they too had been travelling for a while, judging by the advanced state of the 20-pack of ‘Joops’ (or Jupiler to the rest of the world) they were having for breakfast. It was 8.45 am. The medicinal whiff of Red Bull soon followed, adding to their joyous state of mind.
Looking around me in the busy carriage, others were enjoying a more conventional breakfast. Foil-wrapped sandwiches were being devoured by the woolly-hatted, old and young who, like me, were also heading for Koksijde, the knitted hats highlighting those that were Supporters Kevin Pauwels or Supporters Nijs.
On the radio, at least on the French-speaking Belgian radio presumably broadcasting from Wallonia, the day had been declared as a “big day for sport”: Anderlecht, Belgium’s answer to Manchester United, were playing I-forget-who; at the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal was playing I-forget-who; and I-forget-who had qualified for the Olympics in the women’s high jump. No mention, however, was made of what was about to unfold in the coastal town of Koksijde (in Flanders).
On the sports round-up the previous night, there had been an interview with Philippe Gilbert at his training camp with BMC in Spain. But no reference to a pack of wonder whippets who were about to show the world how to cycle up sand dunes very fast. Belgium may be just one small country in Europe but the divide between Flemish and Walloons sometimes makes it feel like two even smaller ones. Best not to mix sport and politics.
I joined the shuffle of rubber wellies and woolly hats disembarking the train and climbed aboard the shuttle bus, riding with the flock until I was inside the Koksijde track. I noticed there appeared to be no fans who had cycled to the venue. Perhaps the sub-zero temperature had something to do with it but most looked as if they never cycled in any weather. I was just one among 62,000 people. It was 10.45 in the morning and almost all of them had a beer in hand. Many looked as if it wasn’t their first.
On the big screen, the Netherlands’ Marianne Vos seemed to be doing three victory laps after securing the women’s Elite title. It was the first time I had watched this multi-discipline legend ride; she was in a class of her own. Even before stepping up one of those dunes myself, I was in admiration at the strength, control and grace she was demonstrating here for everybody to watch. And most did – clearly the Belgian love of cyclocross is rooted in more than beer and frites.
I then had four hours to kill before the Men’s Elite Race, with plans to meet up with Slate Olson. Rapha’s US General Manager would give me the chance to get an insight into the world of elite cross riders, since he was hanging out with Jeremy Powers, Rapha-FOCUS recently-crowned US national cross champion. Alas, circumstances dictated otherwise, so I did what the other 61,999 attendees were doing. Frites and beer were followed by a waffle and coffee (which was, technically, cheating. Most Belgians opted for waffle and second beer, waffle and third beer and so on).
The DJ in the main beer tent was working the crowd, clambering up on to his decks to the tune of You Can Leave Your Hat On. Having removed three layers, his bare torso was then showered with beer from the packed crowd. Fortunately, he judged this as his moment to take a quick bow, climbed down and spun another sing-along. Still freezing, I started to follow the flow of those woolly hats around the parcours. After my third dune (punters follow their own sand track through the woods adjacent to the cross track), my legs were burning. The sand gave way underfoot and the gradient had to be up near 20%. How did the pros manage to pedal and run up this?
Ahead of the main event, the Men’s Elite race, the official practice session had begun. The stars began limbering up, jogging over the crests of the dunes before hopping on to the saddle and riding down, checking for the best lines. The rows of fans were by now two or three deep, shouting encouragement at their heroes as interest finally turned from the beer stalls to the racing.
I edged into my spot and tried not to think about my freezing feet – until the commentators began introducing all 60 of the riders. It was mentioned that six of the seven Belgian riders were in the front row. How nice of one of them to let a guest get a look-in. Not that it really mattered - after two turns and a dune, the seven boys in light blue took over proceedings and that was that.
The race was effectively the Belgian National champs part two. Revenge proved sweet as Sven Nys, crowned national champion just two weeks ago, came in last (i.e. seventh). It seemed as if the rest of the world had been invited merely to provide an international flavour. No disrespect intended. I mean, you’ve got to be pretty good to qualify for the worlds. And to be fair, the Dutch, Czechs – initially led by reigning champ Zdenek Stybar – and even the French clung on for a bit but they all seemed to be fighting just to complete the course. The Belgian boys, on the other hand, were simply astounding. Pure finesse, demonstrating those qualities that can only be achieved by matching hard work to natural talent.
Seven times I saluted the all-conquering Belgians, watching with the greatest respect as their guests did their best on those impossible dunes (surely Belgium isn't the only country in the world with sand dunes to practice on?). But I joined the shuttle-bus shuffle before the final lap bell had rung. A Belgian was going to win, another would be second, and another still would be third The rest of the field were headed by four more.
For such a small country, Belgium’s domination of this sport is remarkable. Pity that only half the country knows about it. But I said I wouldn't mention politics. At least down south, where I live, we have Philippe Gilbert and Maxime Montfort.
1. Niels Albert (Belgium) 1:06:07
2. Rob Peeters (Belgium) 0:00:24
3. Kevin Pauwels (Belgium) 0:00:30
4. Tom Meeusen (Belgium) 0:00:34
5. Bart Aernouts (Belgium) 0:00:35
6. Klaas Vantornout (Belgium) 0:01:09
7. Sven Nys (Belgium) 0:01:11
8. Radomir Simunek (Czech R.) 0:02:15
9. Philipp Walsleben (Germany) 0:02:25
10. Simon Zahner (Switzerland) 0:02:31
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