At the northern edge of Koksijde’s cyclocross course, the other side of a stretch of the N396, is a military barracks behind tall wire fencing. From the road you can see the low-roofed dormitories that house the squaddies, and just past them a uniform arrangement of taller administrative buildings, a gym with a corrugated-iron mansard roof, and the well-appointed houses of the officers. On a warm and still summer’s day the only people visible from the fence are those walking noiselessly from the doors of the dorms to the doors of the admin buildings. Nothing happens outside.
That the barracks have become a rallying point for cyclocross fans is due, in part, to a pair of decommissioned warplanes on its lawn: a Hawker Hunter F4 fighter jet, posed on a concrete plinth with its nose angled towards the grass; and a Sikorsky HSS-1 Seabat helicopter, 60ft long, with a cartoonish red nose cone and the phrases ‘the last one’ and ‘bye bye’ painted along its fuselage. Up close, the jet and helicopter look vaguely comic, stripped of their menace by their ungainly angles and flaking paint – it’s only when looked at from the crest of the course’s sand dunes that their original purpose can be appreciated. They look like they’re coming for you. This perspective would be the riders’ view if they weren’t temporarily distracted by the force of their effort and the pandemonium of the crowd.
For anyone walking to the course along the N396 – which is most people, because the road is closed to cars on the day of big races, and fans are encouraged to park in the town for their morning coffees and lagers – the aircraft conveniently signal the final left-hand turn onto the dunes. The walk from Koksijde on those days is a procession past professional cyclocross’s marks of authenticity – the beer and frites vans, the tarpaulin-covered merchandise stands, the bright and clean team buses and caravans that feature 15ft-vinyl portraits of the most marketable riders, and, perhaps most intriguingly, the banks of saloon-type cars of the emerging talents and waning former stars, stacked full of kit and equipment, driven by a bored but busy friend or relative.
At any other time of year this journey is far less spectacular, if slightly less crowded. The centre of Koksijde is hard to discern due to the sprawl of inelegantly arranged houses – there’s no main square to speak of, just a minor crossroads where the road to De Panne intersects the road to the road to the beachfront neighbourhood of Koksijde-Bad. There are a couple of indistinct cafés that share a decorative palette of faded maroons, a recently built police station opposite a drive-through beer store (both of which are massive), a haberdashery, and a sports bar with faded window stickers from Koksijde’s hosting of the world championship races, in 1996 and 2012.
Police stand outside the station, starting or finishing a patrol, smoking or fixing their garrison caps. If the cafés are closed, and for ostensibly profit-motivated ventures they are closed a disproportionately large amount of the day, you can ask the police where to get a coffee. Well, they say while drumming their fingers on holsters, you can be arrested, and we’ll make you a coffee to drink in the cell, or you can go three kilometres that way. ‘That way’ is the road to De Panne, the next town along the coast. The oddity of not being able to purchase a coffee at 9.30am on a weekday morning doesn’t strike the officers.
This, in the bluntest possible way, is the peculiarity of Koksijde. For one weekend a year, it is the centre of the cyclocross universe, orbited by galaxies of fans, racers and media. The race finishes shortly before sundown on a winter’s Sunday, tens of thousands of drunk fans make their way home, and that’s it. A few hours after nightfall and the town goes back to being a sleepy and rarely thought-of suburb of De Panne.
As Koksijde faces out to the North Sea, it feels as much a part of Scandinavia as it does mainland Europe – a feeling made strange by the thought that the EU parliament is just 130km southeast of here. That Belgium is host to the apparatus of the EU is widely noted as being one the Continent’s greater ironies – the country’s recent history is a litany of obdurate arguing and discord.
Belgium’s political unity, or rather the lack of it, is evidenced by the composition of its cyclocross teams. Of the nine men and two women sent by Belgium to the most recent world championship, in Hoogerheide, not one hailed from Brussels or Wallonia. Flanders also provided the whole squad in Kentucky the year previously, and the year before that, when Koksijde last hosted the championships. The much-mooted separation of Flanders and Wallonia – occasionally referred to, half-jokingly, as ‘Le Divorce’ in the Flemish press – might mean that in future cyclocross championships a French-speaking Belgian gets a look-in.
Koksijde’s course rewards riders who attack it with finesse. The sand, when dry, pulls and grips at the tyres in unpredictable and seemingly sadistic ways, throwing riders from their saddles at the smallest errors in technique. The race’s frontrunners appear to float up the slopes of the dunes, at peace with the parcours, while the stragglers stamp on their pedals, hoping to bludgeon their way to the finish.
When wet, the same sand becomes a cloying and hefty foe, seemingly sucking the bike and its rider deeper into the ground with each lap. The leaders might be able to stay on their bikes through the toughest sections, but anyone more than five wheels back will, undoubtedly, have to sling their bike over their shoulder and briskly run while watching the front of the race slip away.
If you watch close enough you can almost see the riders’ lips moving in silent prayer: please let the rider in front of me make it through unscathed, let me follow their wheel safely, preserve my chance of winning by preserving theirs. The sand of Koksijde inspires a self-interested altruism.