‘Cross Tracks: The Sand People

There’s the race, and there there is what gives the race its personality. The UCI World Cup in Koksijde, Belgium, is a classic and one to look forward to. With ‘cross season just kicking off, and this race a little over a month away, we revisit last year’s race to whet our appetite for the sand-soaked good times ahead.

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Photography by: Russ Ellis

“ I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth.”

- Anakin Skywalker, famous sand hater.

There’s a lot of sand at Koksijde, and while soft to land on, it is by no means a smooth encounter. Like a heckler at a comedy show, it’s rough, coarse, and tauntingly unreasonable. It expresses its opinion of your ride ability by repeatedly attempting to grab your front wheel and hurl you unceremoniously into the earth — or at least force you to dismount and slog through it in bike-shouldering shame. There are dunes and dunes of sand populating this small, seaside town. Like bubbles roiling on the surface of a thick soup, these dunes roll across the landscape and into the grounds of a rarely used military airbase, about a kilometer away from the sighing ocean.

Koksijde is a basically a cyclocross race held in a sand pit. Young Darth Vader would absolutely abhor it.

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Collared by the wind, the guttural sounds of a Belgian announcer are dragged across the dunes. The words drift in and out, flapping through national flags, puffy coats, and the ears of an eager crowd. Beanie-headed and red-cheeked, fans cluster near barriers, waiting. A yellow hessian fence, edges tattered and worn, waves beside a section of deep and ravenously hungry sand. Here they come, a fleet of human dune buggies, tractoring through the camel-colored grit. There’s a sort of controlled desperation to their actions. They must keep the momentum steady and moving forward, ever forward, in the wet, churning mess. Sand splashes up like suds from a sink of angrily washed dishes, and is hurled and shunted sideways by crazed wheels. Riders fishtail in the pit.

It’s a Belgian full-palette sky today — with all the shades of grey, and the occasional hint of sun — but the gloom you would normally associate with this kind of day is missing. They say love conquers all, and so it is with cyclocross in this country. It digs exuberance and joy from any able body, like teasing out a splinter from a foot. As riders pedal-stomp their way by, the herculean efforts of these heroes are rewarded with cheers and oddly polite clapping. Riders are enormously respected, revered, and worshipped here, particularly — no, especially — if they happen to be Belgian.

Of course, it’s not all sand. There are stretches of solid track through the green grass, and some paved sections near the finish, but sand is what Koksijde is famous for. It’s what makes this place hallowed, cyclocross ground. There are long stretches of it flanked by exuberant fans, three or four-deep in places. It is a delicious spectacle for them, but a scene of urgent frenzy for the racers. They grip their bars and torture their bodies as the course dips up and down through the dunes. Some riders hug barriers as they storm through, while others veer wildly from one line to another, carving ruts deep and unforgiving as they navigate the stuff.

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Lungs suck down the frigid Belgian air in giant gulps, lap after exhausting lap. Legs burn, their fuel cells nearly depleted. And while much of this course relies on brutish leg strength to simply power through the traps, the run up — a crowd favorite on the side of a dune — takes a different strategy. It is dainty. Footsteps become short staccato beats of action, and it’s as though these riders have spikes in the toes of their shoes as they peck them into the side of the dune. Left, right, left, right, peck, peck, peck, peck — up they go, shouldering bikes and sand-crabbing to the top before remounting and thundering on. Much like the women’s race earlier, a lone rider dominates and crosses the line. He is alone.

Later, in a post-race interview, he says that he enjoys riding in sand. He is obviously not Anakin Skywalker — more a lone Tusken Raider. Sand people know how to dominate it, but they also must have a little bit of future Darth in them. Because to dominate the sand is the use the Force. To feel it flow from the heart straight to the legs and there, spin those legs in a triumphant mix of constant churn, burn, and yearn. They trust this instinct. They put away their doubts and choose the right lines, keep their speed constant, and pilot their bikes to their destiny.

They love the sand.

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Story originally published at specialized.com

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