Sitting out a storm on a cycle tour tends to lead to two things – in no particular order – demolishing whatever Scotch supplies you have, and hatching new plans. Our trip to Kielder back in November was no different: a couple of the group shook on riding a 600km Audax; Jordan’s Glengoyne supply didn’t last long; and we agreed to ride over to Belgium to spend the weekend at the Cyclo-cross World Championships in Heusden-Zolder.
I (Stefan) had never been to a pro Cyclo-cross event before, so was stoked at the idea of a World Championship weekend in Belgium. We blocked off the Thursday to the Monday, booked a ferry over and Eurostar back, and soon enough we were meeting at B1866 in Central London for the 140km-ish ride to Harwich and the 11.00pm overnight ferry across the North Sea…
1. A fast-paced, spectator friendly form of bike racing; a sport for the off-season (late Autumn and Winter) although more and more races are happening throughout the year, at local level.
2. Races last around one hour, and are held on technical and hilly circuits of 2.5-3.5 km (UCI), over tracks, mud, sand, grass, and man-made ramps, flyovers, obstacles and barriers.
3. Riders require accomplished bike handling skills and unfailing physical fitness, having to carry their bikes over some sections.
4. For 20 things to know about Cyclo-cross Events, see below.
We’d made it to Zolder. The U23 Womens’ race was in full swing, and the CX was everything I’d imagined it to be. Whilst using the time between the 3.2km laps to move along the course and restock our beers & frites-mayo, out-of-time baselines from the Party Tents and massively-over-exaggerated commentary resounded amongst the trees around us. Each lap, we neared the Party Tent and no sooner had British rider Evie Richards crossed the line to win the Womens’ U23 race, than “Sweet Caroline…” was blaring from the speakers.
The rain continued to fall (as it had since riding off the ferry the day before) which meant the course was churning up nicely and the Party Tents were full – packed with folk from all over Europe dressed up, supporting their countries and individual riders, enjoying the racing, and the time between the racing even-more-so. This was only the Saturday, the quieter day. Tomorrow for the Elite Mens’ race there would be triple the crowds, triple the party, and no doubt triple the play-count of Sweet Caroline.
In and amongst the chaos and offers of schnapps, as we wandered to find a good first spot to watch the Elite Women’s race, Jordan and I had all-but pushed yesterday’s ride to Mol (our base for the weekend, 20km-ish north of Zolder) to the back of our minds…
The Outward Hop
The ride to catch the ferry from Harwich is the only part of the journey that needs some logistical thinking – the overnight ferry leaves at 23.00 and darkness sets in before 17.00 during the winter months. So, if riding a healthy distance (London is 140km away) do you ride as much in the light as possible and get to Harwich super early? Or ride the majority in the dark? Jordan and I went for the earlier, of course, knowing our reputable 10mph average.
Or, you can just get the train.
So, we left B1866 in Covent Garden on Thursday lunchtime, giving ourselves 10 hours to ride the 140kms, with 4 hours of daylight. Easy. Once out through north London, the riding through the Essex countryside on fairly quiet roads was decent. We stopped in the village of Blackmore, a staple for cyclists, all too tempted by coffee and teacakes in Megarrys – a quirky little antique shop and tearoom tucked off the green on Blacksmiths Alley that Jordan knew well from Audax circles. Wanting to tick off as much of the distance as possible in the daylight, we didn’t wait for our coffee to go cold and were soon crossing the bridge over the A12 as the sun began to set, catching the last of the light at the Maldon Estuary. Pausing at the estuary wall, looking across the water at the darkening sky, felt like the final hurdle for escaping the hustle and bustle. We were on our way to the Cyclo-cross good and proper…
Our perception of distance disappeared as we rode in the dark for the last 65km, so were only content once we could make out the city (port) lights of Harwich on the horizon – we’d arrive there soon, roll onto the ferry, make ourselves at home in our cabin, look forward to a big ol’ dinner, and prep for the long ride south along the coast of Holland on the North Sea Cycle Route. With the exception of flying obviously, the overnight ferry is time travel at its finest. Falling asleep and waking up somewhere different and ready to ride is the ideal way to travel distance without any unsociable hours, if a little boat-lagged from late dinner and beers.
"...the elevation profile of a crepe does little to forge interesting landscapes and cycle touring territory."
Looking over maps to determine our route south from the Hook of Holland into Belgium, I was both determined to avoid the mundane inland route which I’d ridden before, and focused on riding the coastline of Zeeland (sea-land) – following the North Sea Cycle Route. I had visions of riding through nature reserves, alongside sweeping beaches and across the awesome manmade infrastructure that wound along the coast and across the estuaries; built to keep Holland (a quarter of whose land is below sea level) afloat. In reality, the journey wasn’t quite as romantic. Especially in winter, in 20mph south-westerly (head) winds and rain. I think it was just the flatness that did it for us – at times, we were thankful for the easier riding, but the elevation profile of a crepe does little to forge interesting landscapes and cycle touring territory.
After negotiating our exit from the disorientating concrete Europort jungle, we were soon riding the exposed coast route, and both the brutal winds and infrastructure built to preserve the large polder areas were in our faces: huge pumping stations, sluice gates that spanned vast estuaries, and the complex network of canals and dikes that provided the drainage. Given that Zeeland is a large river delta combining the mouths of the Rivers Maas, Rhine, and Schelde, we pretty much rode across reclaimed land all the way into Belgium – around 17% of Holland’s land is reclaimed, apparently. From
muddy estuary landscapes, people began to build small hills above the flood line and then, over time, this network expanded by building dikes between the hills creating swathes of land rife for agriculture.
Following serious flooding in 1953, the majority of these engineering projects are part of the ‘Delta Works’ program which began in 1958 to reduce the risk of said flooding in South Holland by raising dikes and closing off the sea estuaries. These sluice gates and dams then also form impressive transport routes across the water between peninsulas and also, handily, double-up as ideal wind breaks to shelter behind…
In the end, given the conditions, we decided to skip the last hop onto the Middelburg Peninsula and headed inland early to make a beeline for Antwerp. In one of the small towns we passed through we were stopped by two Dutch policemen, who pulled over Harry Enfield & Chums ‘Dutch Copper’ style (minus the marijuana and truncheons). After thinking that we were in trouble for being insane enough to ride though this part of Holland, they just fancied a chat; both keen cyclists themselves. One of them had “recently toured from Hull to Cornwall, and back to London”. It turned out “recently” meant 1983. They were the only people we met all day.
Needless to say, the scale of the engineering projects, agricultural land, wetland nature reserves and coastline is impressive, but this is definitely a touring route reserved for warmer climes – when you can really savour things like the popular beaches, which we barely noticed. For us, this ride was a means to an end – getting to the Cyclo-cross – but the best thing about travelling by bike as a means of transport is the amount you learn on the way. It might only be a thin slice of the landscape, but it is an immersive experience. Here is Jordan’s take on South Holland in winter. Some cynicism, mixed with some genuine advice:
South Holland is pretty drab
Even the speed cameras are painted beige to blend in.
This could be Rotterdam, or anywhere
Everyone builds a variation on the house from The Jetsons. This means that whilst individual houses vary, every single town looks the same – you could be anywhere; definitely not Liverpool or Rome.
The only thing rarer than interesting scenery is salad, which is odd because all they seem to grow is sprouts.
During our entire trip the wind speed never dropped below 20mph. My personal wind-based low-point came when we took shelter behind a wall on one of the main sluice gates and swigged from the hip-flask.
Everything is closed, all the time
With perhaps the exception of Sunday morning, nothing is ever open – especially on Monday. Outside of the big towns, everything seems to be a ghost town. Due to a lack of planning on our part, we were unable to leave the ferry with any food. Due to Holland, we couldn’t buy any for kilometres either. Be prepared.
Bakeries do not serve coffee
Pastry? Without coffee? Despicable.
The cycling infrastructure
While cyclists are treated as first-class road users and the cycling infrastructure in Holland is plentiful, mopeds are allowed on cycle paths, which can be terrifying.
The mullet is alive and well
For some reason, you still see men in Holland with mullets. Why does it affect a cycle touring trip? Because the chap who mans the ferry required to cross 500m of water at the Hook of Holland has a mullet, and when he rubs his greasy fingers together demanding €2 for the crossing it makes you wish you’d just swam it.
After arriving at our base in Mol late on the Friday night, we excitedly made the 40km-ish round journey to Zolder for the Cyclo-cross on both the Saturday and Sunday. Saturday was the turn of the Junior Mens, U23 Womens and Elite Womens, and Sunday was the U23 Mens and Elite Mens. Over the weekend the exciting racing, out-of-time baselines and party atmosphere continued, the mayo kept pumping, drink kept flowing, the motor scandal unravelled, and yes, Sweet Caroline and You’ll Never Walk Alone both felt like they were on repeat.
On the Sunday, everyone was out to see Sven Nys – the Belgian peoples’ champion – for whom it was his last World Championships after 18 years at the top. This no doubt added to the atmosphere, especially as he held on in a fighting position for most of the race, finishing in 4th behind Van Aert, van der Haar, and Pauwels – all Belgian and Dutch riders, to no surprise.
CX is a great sport, and hopefully the photos sum up the experience. I’m already thinking about editing the CrossCheck this Winter to give it a go…
20 Things to know about Cyclo-Cross Events:
1. Like any sport, the format starts with Local Clubs (anyone can ride CX, and you probably should give it a go) > Local/National Leagues > Superprestige (riders race for Trade teams) > World Cup (riders race for National teams) > World Championships (a one-off race for National teams, for the Rainbow Jersey).
2. Cyclo-cross is the national sport of Belgium. At least, you’d think so from spending a weekend at an event, in Belgium.
3. Races should involve some dismounting and bikes-on-shoulders action to be really entertaining.
4. No matter how steep the terrain looks, most of the top guys are so powerful they can ride it. Although some riders, like Sven Nys, seem to be quicker running up the really steep stuff. CX is all about technique, basically.
5. Races are typically 1 hour + 1 lap. Often, there is a broom wagon for the guys at the back, as it can be hard to pass slower riders when the top guys start to lap, which they do over an hour-long race.
6. Don’t put your foot through other rider’s wheels.
7. Don’t even contemplate thinking you can ride a bike with a motor and expect people not to notice.
8. Make sure your phone is charged to watch the rest of the laps’ racing (the big races are on National TV), or park yourself next to someone whose phone is…
9. The only acceptable food is frites, meat and mayo.
10. The only acceptable drinks are beer, schnapps, and hot chocolate.
11. It gets real muddy, cold, and wet so take appropriate clothing (you’ll have it anyway if you are travelling cyclists). However, see point 13 below.
12. If you are English, politely find a good vantage point for the race early on. If you aren’t, just turn up whenever and push to the front.
13. Fancy dress goes down well. Keep it to a country stereotype, Asterix for example.
14. Know who the top 5 favourites are because everyone will ask you who you think will win; the fans love it.
15. Know who Sven Nys is.
16. Know what a tubular (‘tub’ in the UK) tyre is, and know who/what Andre Dugast is.
17. Go to the pit areas / team camps and watch how to wash your bike après tour. Although, you’ll need a bike stand, jet washer and jet dryer to copy them so watching probably won’t help to improve your bike-in-the-bath cleaning technique.
18. CX Bikes typically have: clearance for wider, knobby tubular tyres; lower gearing for off-road riding and inclines; features to help the demounting, remounting and carrying of bikes (cable routing on top of the top-tube, if not internal etc); and geometries to provide stability while enough clearance at bottom bracket level for varying ground conditions.
19. Take cash. Get loads of food and drink vouchers. It’s fine, because you’ve ridden there and back.
20. Oh, and if going to big CX events in Europe, remind yourself of the lyrics to Sweet Caroline and You’ll never Walk Alone. In the UK, you won’t have to worry.
The Return Hop
The 90km ride from Mol to the Eurostar terminal in Brussels (for the train back to London) was the last leg of the trip and, apart from the few forest track sections, the highlight was probably Leuven – the town famous for brewing Stella Artois since 1926. Riding in alongside the canal past the enormous new brewing facilities, it seemed we had visited just in time to see all the impressive old derelict brick Artois buildings around the port area which were in the process of being demolished. Shame. Although one of the smaller brewery buildings looked like it was set to survive, complete with “De Lantaarn” – a weathered bar at street level. No more beer for us though, we had a train to catch…
No sooner had the bikes been dropped off at the Eurostar desk than Jordan and I were discussing our next trip over to Belgium, in anticipation of another cracking spectator weekend – likely be to Ghent for the 6 day + Superprestige long weekend in November. If you are interested, or going already – let us know. We’ll definitely be riding across again, more than likely from Dunkirk this time…