It all started with the genius idea of cycling to the Belgian seaside in November to watch the World Cup Cyclocross Series in Koksijde (for the British: Cockside?). Sure, it would be nearing the middle of winter, but if you’re a tad lucky the weather will be fine. “So let’s just book it” – we thought back in May over drinks in a sun-setting pub garden.
Enthusiasm and excitement managed to capture 9 keen cyclists to commit on the day itself, not a bad turn out. I will guide you through the story with some of our typical Flemish sayings.
So with all the prep in place, we went up to London to make sure we were ready for the 5am departure on Saturday – turns out you’re never ready for that alarm. Freshly brewed coffee to the rescue!
All bikes were packed and once everyone had arrived, we’re pushing the whole convoy out the door, ready to engage those pedals. Oh wait, we already have our 1st flat.
This false start had everyone all layered up and well toasted indoors before leaving sheltered walls behind for the next 18hrs. Heading out on the streets of London in the early hours was a very satisfying kick off. Leaving the City behind us, we headed up a few hills and the eagerness to start this adventure got us hitting a good pace. The chilly breeze was truly refreshing and I could already loose a few layers. Weather reports that had taunted us the day before had so far been a storm in a tea cup.
Two and a half hours later we already had a 3rd of the way to the ferry behind us with light snowfall accompanying our climb out of Sevenoaks. Despite the wet conditions, it was good fun cycling through the back roads in group. Traffic had still not picked up yet and the rolling hills seemed to just push us along. Unless that was the tail wind picking up?
"...the GPM (gags per minute) had also gone down to zero."
We were aiming to reach a café 90kms along the route to indulge in more caffeine and a steaming hot breakfast. Weather conditions had now evolved from “flurry and dainty” to “blizzard-like” on the snow scale. As a result the GPM (gags per minute) had also gone down to zero.
Our second puncture stopped the group, and as the shivering kicked in we began to reflect on our appetite to continue down the path of hypothermia. But the break in sight would relieve some of the numbness in our hands and heat up our core.
Gloves filled with water, layers soaked all the way through, socks getting soggier each time you stood up on the pedals and definitely a few of us risking permanent frost bite - time to pause as we finally reached the cafe. Coffee could only be slurped because the shivering caused us to spill it everywhere.
With some bravery half of us decided not to get on the bikes again and train it to Dover. Others braver than us - or completely delusional - decided to continue on two wheels. One of our cyclists returned to London at this point for earlier commitments.
"Gail force winds head on meant that we were travelling 13km/h instead of the lovely 30 I had mentally prepared myself for."
Sunrays started to break through the cloud cover and eventually the team of 8 reached Dover in time for the ferry crossing, where we were warmly welcomed on board with staff offering to put all our wet gear in the dryer; a life-saving offer.
A two-hour break and plenty of sea sickness later, we were ready to embrace the beautiful flats of Flanders. Weather looking dry when coming off the boat it seemed that the Continent was holding up its end of our deal; fantastic! Quickly enough we discovered the ride wasn’t quite the smooth evening cruising we’d imagined. Gail force winds head on meant that we were travelling 13km/h instead of the lovely 30 I had mentally prepared myself for.
And then it got a bit more surreal. Hail showers hit us head on, like tiny little cuts on your face. We had to seek shelter against people’s houses as this continued on and off until we reached our destination. Yes, people in restaurants did gaze at us from their cosy indoor seats – you know, it’s called living on the edge!
It is fair to say everyone was relieved when we finally entered our accommodation. With the fire on, we could see the steam evaporating from our legs through our wet kit. Shower, followed by a beer run was the perfect ending to a challenging ride and day. Cheers / Schol!
Belgium style, we started Sunday with a visit to the beach and a tasty pastry breakfast followed by stocking up on extra gloves and hats. After a short walk to the event site, I felt it was time to introduce the others to a proper Stella Artois brewed on its home ground - as it is meant to be drunk.
Still slightly panicked about the lack of cover and the promise of more wintery storms, we were ecstatic to be rescued by a free branded poncho. With a Lars in the group, there was no discussion as to which rider to support. “Allez Allez Lars Lars Lars Lars Lars Lars!”
Throughout the afternoon, we witnessed some phenomenal efforts on the sand. This kind of event was a perfect opportunity to check out a different cycling discipline. It was proper hard work for the riders, grinding through the loose stretches of sand, balancing their way down the hills and having to run carrying their bikes.
The highlight was without a doubt the tantalising rally between Sven Nijs – an old skool favourite – and Wout Van Aert – last year’s winner, with the lead constantly switching between the two as their laps counted down. The crowd pulled in toward the screen near the finish and cheered favouring Sven Nijs, who eventually pulled himself over the line as the winner. Big congratulations – a 39 year old athlete we can all look up to.
The early Monday morning departure to get back to Duinkerke was challenged with some mechanical problems of an inner tube pushing through the tyre on one of the bikes – it all ended with a bang, followed by some impromptu taping up.
"...plenty of surreal scenery, a sense of survival, a few unhappy and desperate moments, eventually followed by laughter and an immense feeling of achievement."
With 40 mins left, we still faced 17kms so we had to give it a final push. A beautiful sunrise welcomed us near the port and surprisingly we managed to make it in time with all 8 of us intact.
It was a sensational trip that included plenty of surreal scenery, a sense of survival, a few unhappy and desperate moments, eventually followed by laughter and an immense feeling of achievement. All the ingredients an adventure requires.
The biggest motivation was the positive atmosphere that each cyclist brought to the ride which made it a big group effort and very satisfying to arrive together. Big thanks go out to Giacomo and Fran who organised everything and put this crazy idea forward (you bastards) – you’re the bee’s knees.
Who’s in for next year? Can’t promise it will be this epic.
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