Our trip to Belgium for the weekend could easily have not happened at all. There were a few who asked how sensible it was to be travelling, and for a while it looked as though the Cyclocross might have to be postponed. Crossing the border into Belgium, there was no doubt the whole country was on edge.
On the morning of the race, news came through Twitter that it was still on. No bags were to be brought into the grounds, and we could expect airport style security on the way down to the course, but given the location for round three of the cyclocross world cup was an abandoned air force base, it didn’t seem too out of the ordinary.
We took the morning to drive from Ghent to Koksjide on the coast for the third round of the Cyclocross world cup. All across Belgium, football games were being cancelled and shops told to stay shut under the heightened security threat, but nothing was going to postpone the cyclocross. You might as well try and tell a Belgian they can’t eat fries and mayo; it’s just not going to happen.
The heavens opened, thunder broke the clouds and a downpour of hail beat on the already wet sand and mud, covering the track in a sheet of slippy ice. The beer tent became a refuge for some, but those who couldn’t take the endless Euro-pop braved the sand dunes instead, and watched the unfolding battle between the World Cup leader Wout Van Aert and the crowd’s favourite, Sven Nys.
Together, they had left the field behind. I’m sure there were some great efforts back in the pack of riders, but all eyes were on the two at the front.
Their wheels were touching at each corner. A slip on the pedals from one would allow the other to pass; a stumble in the sand and the lead would swap again. Van Aert was probably the quicker of the two in a straight line, but his young legs couldn’t pull a lead out from Sven Nys’ years of experience on a cross bike.
The roar of the crowd followed the riders around the slow, five minute course. The pain was written on the faces of the riders as they dragged their bikes through the deep, wet sand on the dunes. Taking the fastest line meant jumping on and off constantly, perhaps riding for as little as ten or fifteen meters between sections almost impassable by bicycle.
At the final corner, Sven took the lead. We could have been back at the velodrome for the Ghent six; the neck and neck race decided in sight of the finish line almost seemed scripted. Everywhere you looked there were flags and banners printed with Sven Nys’ photograph, the local hero. Even the armed guards who’d spent the day trying their best to look official and professional leaped into the air, machine guns and all, when they knew it would be a victory for Sven Nye.
But it wasn’t all about the Belgians on Sunday. They dominated the men’s race with only a little interference from the Dutch, but in the women’s elite race the Brits fared far better. Nikki Harris took second place against a tough field of riders, the best finish for a British rider so far this world cup. Cyclocross Legend and Matrix Pro Cycling rider Helen Wyman finished in sixth for her cross team Kona Factory, and 18 year old Amira Mellor gave a great performance finishing in 27th ahead of her move to Matrix Pro Cycling next year.
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