The European cyclocross season is much shorter than it’s road racing counterpart. With such a short season comes a need to squeeze a similar amount of quality racing and entertainment into fewer weekends. The brief season coupled with a lack of cyclocross stage races (more on this in an upcoming blog) means that each and every weekend during the winter months the cyclocross circus visits a different town where it does a splendid job of tearing up fields, digging ruts in sand dunes and tattooing parks and woods with ‘the racing line’.
One of the most hotly anticipated races on the calendar is the Vlaamse Duinencross Koksijde, part of the Telenet Cyclocross Worldcup. Simply known as ‘Koksijde’. Keen to make the most of its proximity to Calais, Dan and myself were joined by friend of the team and photographer Ben Briffet who had come with us in search of sand, Belgian choc’s and an adventure. We booked the team car a slot in the tunnel and got stuck into the planning.
After months of anticipation we woke up for Breakaway’s final visit to the channel tunnel in 2019 only to be welcomed by drizzle and grey skies. Leaving the train at Calais the conditions hadn’t much improved but we sped across the horizontal plains of northern France, our destination a beach and food, en route to Koksijde.
The seaside is a strange place in the winter. Ghostly quiet for half of the year, void of any tourists instead home to dog walkers out making the most of the off-season permit to take their furry friends to the dunes. An early start, not enough coffee and too much time spent driving meant we were in need of some fresh air and a run around. The North sea breeze felt like a godsend after stale channel tunnel air con but it didn’t give our bellies the sustenance they so required.
Where are all the Patisseries?
Dan and I have nipped under the sea in the trusty breakaway team car a few times this year. Each has brought its own highs and lows. There was the night spent sleeping in the car near Compiègne for the start of Paris-Roubaix where heated seats saved our lives from the verging on freezing conditions. Then in August we whizzed up and down the narrow and fiercely steep mountain roads of the Pyrenees all the while soaking up the thrilling action that Further had to throw at us. Each time however there has been one overwhelming desire as we drive out of the train, change from left to right and apply those funny and absurdly expensive light reflectors that you need to drive on the continent. That desire being, of course, pastries. And lots of them!
Those first moments as you sink your teeth into the buttery crust of a perfectly made, perfectly cooked croissant are divine and so much better than those in Britain. However the one major issue faced by any keen pastry devotee is that as you roll out of the train at Calais and straight onto a lightning fast péage you are whisked past countless Patisserie. Marie-Antoinette’s ‘let them eat cake!’ proclamation doesn’t conjure up any of the good stuff and you are left wondering when you can feed your baked goods addiction.
Driving north up the A16 towards our seaside destination I had a spectacular idea for a dare I say ingenious invention. What we need is a small book providing a guide to the nearest patisserie from each port or border crossing into France. Thus providing any keen pain au chocolat hunter the keys to unbridled joy and prevent what happened to us.
It turns out that Google translate doesn’t translate Flemish. Which meant rather embarrassingly we were left completely stuck for words in the lovely patisserie we finally found. Floundering in some sort of gestural mess we eventually got what we came for. After 3 hours of searching we were 2 pain au chocolat each away from heaven. They were so good that in our haste to consume, most of them ended up all over our laps and to our eventual surprise the very helpful croissant seller had in fact grown up in America and spoke fluent English all along!
The saga continued as we entered the local Spar. Dan was straight to the beer aisle whereas Ben took a fancy to getting what we actually needed. The staples of any Breakaway supermarket raid were established. Porridge oats and jam, pasta and some sort of red sauce, tonnes of choco milk (this time a new variety) and plenty of ham and cheese for on the go nourishment.
Where were we?
Koksijde is a strange place, or rather places. It seems to sprawl vaguely along the dune covered coastline north of De Panne. A tangled web of different town centres including Koksijde-Bad, Oostduinkerke-Bad, Witte-Burg, and Zeepanne. The land is mostly flat and so was the light. As it got dark we went for a cheeky course reconnaissance before the big day. We walked most of the course and were staggered by the complexity of the turns, depth of the sand and gradient of the dunes.
Without all of the noise and fans we expected to turn up the following day, Saturday on the airfield of Koksijde felt very eerie. Perhaps because of the mist and cold grey weather conditions but also because of the tragic history tied up in the landscape. The Koksijde cemetery became one of the most important cemeteries behind the front line for allied troops during WW1 and subsequently in WW2 the airbase became home to the German Luftwaffe as a stop off base for aircraft en route to the UK. Interestingly, when the allied troops seized the airfield in 1944 they found 320 bomb craters in the area. These craters still remain and play their part in today’s history as the riders negotiate a few of them them just to the west of the airfield. The topography reminds us to this day of the terrible effects of war. So in a sense the cyclocross world cup, through such an international celebration of sport, highlights the unifying power sport can have across the world and why we should celebrate its strengths and merits.
With a few key shooting spots scoped out, it was back to our airbnb by the sea to dive into some Belgian beers and scoff some beautifully cooked pasta courtesy of Bens culinary excellence. Exhausted by the early start, fresh seaside air and several bottles of Kwak I ended the day fast asleep on the sofa, dreaming of frites and waffles and a day at the races.
Find out what happened on race day in the second part of Breakaway’s Koksijde experience.