news, advice and reviews
by Anna Marie Hughes
Beer taps flowing, bobble hats bouncing and bikers battling…. let the Cyclocross party in Belgium begin!!
The Sand Dunes of an air military base in the Flanders, bear the crucially technical element of the UCI World Cup Cyclocross event in Koksijde which took place on Sunday 25th November. A course where the ratio of running and cycling is closely matched!
The Cyclocross scene in Belgium is insane, with spectators galore! You'll get to see Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel duel on the sandy slopes; plus they'll be within arm’s reach, which really adds to intimate atmosphere you will experience here. Within moments the Belgians’ infectious love for the sport (and beer) will rub off (or soak) you.
45 minute and 1-hour length races for the Elite Women and Men respectively, make for fast, exciting racing. Yet long enough to explore how they tackle different sections of the course; you may decide to position yourself at the downhill sandy sections in anticipation for the thrill of near -crashes, or perhaps you find it more intriguing how they fling themselves of their bikes elegantly, so you chose to stand at the start of the un-rideable sections. Wthout doubt it seems to be the only event where the start- finish line area appears to be the least densely packed! What’s so interesting about a flat, tarmac road anyway?!
Certainly the variation at Cyclocross events makes for an interesting collection of snaps; whether you are an aspiring photographer or if your DSLR needs to start capturing something other than dust, be sure to bring it with you.. The racing immediately splits up, which for you means a contrast stream of cyclists throughout to keep you trigger happy.
And when Wout Van Aert looks right down your lens, inevitably it’s the one you mess up. BUT. Remember… arty, blurred photos are a thing. This was deliberate, right??!
The Elite Women's and Men's races run back to back, but with adequate time in-between to wander off to one of the many hot food stands. "Frits en saus" is a must have. Try it with the Belgian speciality, sauce "Andalouse" and you're immediately a fully cultured Brit abroad.
Don’t forget to check out what’s going down - or apparently up the poles - in the beer party tent! With classic Euro-pop hits blasting down the speakers it’s hard to miss (or avoid…! If this is your thoughts you need more alcohol in you to fully appreciate the atmosphere).
Apparently some people also just hid in here to escape the Belgium biting breeze. Dressing for this occasion is one where you should not prioritise style over ugly fleeces (don’t deny it, we all have one). You WILL spend the whole day reminiscing of its warmth! Also if you don’t own a bobble hat you will look like a rookie. Don’t be that Brit.
Let's talk logistics...
The Koksijde course is located only a 30km drive away from the port of Dunkirk. You can hop on the 8am ferry at Dover and back on the 8pm, making a full day of it (whilst avoiding the extra cost of overnight accommodation).
If you are based in East Kent the whole journey is even manageable by bike; for instance riding from Canterbury would total less than 150km. Albeit, you’ll have to be a fan of cycling in the dark, own a decent set of lights, and be okay with leaving at 6:00 am… but no need to fret, there’s always the opportunity for a nap on the 2 hour ferry crossing!
The simple pleasure of witnessing drunk enthusiasts falling over as they struggle walking up and down the sand dunes. Or maybe that’s just sober me, being naturally clumsy as ever.
And let's not forget the cyclist who decides to entertain the crowd whilst waiting for the pro's to reappear; proving that cycling down sand dunes really isn't as easy as it looks...
Ps. Don’t forget to stack up on packs of 10 waffles for 99 cents at a Carrefour. Coming individually wrapped they make the perfect back pocket jersey snack! What’s the point of non-edible souvenirs?! If that’s your motto then these will hit the spot nicely. Until you return, for more!
The prospect of getting dropped when riding with others can be daunting and, understandably, could put you off joining a club organised group ride. However, if you tag along and persevere, you’ll find it can be very rewarding: socially, physically and skills-wise.
Always remember, even if you do lose touch with a group, clubs often have a “no drop policy”. They will wait for you at the next junction or the top of the climb, wherever the next safe place to do so. Don’t worry about holding others up, they would have been in your position when they started and soon you’ll be taking turns on the front with the rest of the group.
If your bike mechanical skills are lacking, being in the company of experienced riders could be very useful in saving you a taxi fare home when you inevitably get your first puncture. Often riders are very helpful and will fix it completely for you; or, at the very least, they will give you tips as you struggle on through.
Route planning can be a lot trickier than you might expect; attempting to avoid busy narrow main roads, pothole ridden stretches, roundabouts after roundabouts, the sharpest climbs and descents,… the list can go on. Riders in clubs will know the roads a lot better than you will initially; therefore, riding with them, on their routes, will definitely help you learn what roads are the most suitable to cycle on in the area.
Follow the leader!
Navigation can cause a headache of problems; even more so if you haven’t invested in a cycling computer of sorts, most popularly Garmin or Wahoo. These devices provide step by step directions to follow your pre-planned route around the countryside. Signalling and shouting so those following know where to go, paying attention to the small screen down on your handlebars whilst you’re trying to concentrate on keeping the speed constant, and paying attention to traffic when turning, totals an awful lot to concentrate on when leading a ride. Therefore it can be a far more enjoyable ride leaving that responsibility to someone with a lot more experience. It’s much simpler being able to follow the crowd, especially as you are still trying to get to drips with all the other new aspects of riding in a group.
Shelter from headwinds
When you ride in a group you will exert a lot less energy to go at the same pace; you are able to escape the headwind by drafting behind other riders. It can feel a lot more satisfying completing a 50 kilometre route with a group, than struggling to complete 30 by yourself.
Riding in a group enables you to pick up some important bike handling skills; this includes how to corner and descend safely, how to ride in close proximity to other riders to gain the benefits of drafting and observing other riders to understand gear choices.
Don’t get too disheartened if you struggle with the pace on your first few rides with a group. Look at it more as an opportunity to test your capability and measure how far you progress. It’s much easier to push beyond your limits when you have a visible target beginning to inch away from you. Don’t let them and eventually you may well be the goal to keep up with on the next climb.
Who chooses to nibble on half crushed flapjack bars when the other option is to stop at a café? A chair, to slouch into: Some coffee, for that caffeine kick to get you through the never-ending final kilometres: A slice of cake, for that pat on the back for actually getting out and doing some exercise. Having a group of newly found cycling friends to have a mid-ride sit down with can be the highlight of a tough ride!
Learn about anything and everything cycling related! Everyone loves a good chat to distract themselves from the pain swelling up in their legs.
Whether you want to find out what’s the best cycling equipment to invest in and where to purchase it, or how to get better and struggle less on rides, existing club member’s love having a good natter to help fill in your knowledge gap. Soon you’ll be an expert yourself!
Although going solo can be a much needed peaceful escape from the chaos of daily life, it is certainly worth your while also finding some time to ride with a group to enjoy all of the benefits listed above; without doubt you will find your cycling will improve at a greater rate, whilst having more fun with other like-minded riders.