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Cyclocross

Koksijde: A ‘cross race like no other

The sandy dunes of Koksijde, Belgium have been the site of the most epic races in cyclocross history. Racing returns there on Sunday.

On the coast of the North Sea lies a sand-swept town that’s home to about 21,000 inhabitants and a rarely used military air base. Sand dunes rise and fall and seem misplaced among the houses. On a November day each fall, though, the town’s population triples, beer flows, and a huge party takes place.

This is Koksijde, Belgium, one of the hallowed grounds in cyclocross.

Officially named Duinencross Koksijde, the race is like none other in the world. Extremely long sections of sand spatter the course, and the elevation changes of the dunes provide another element altogether. The contenders are separated from the pretenders here.

On a beautiful, crystal-clear day, only a select number of riders can scale the steep, rutted sand climbs, a feat that requires a unique pairing of power and finesse. When it rains, the number shrinks to an elite few.

“Koksijde is a little bit special,” Niels Albert said after winning the 2013 edition, the final time he would race Koksijde before his abrupt retirement in the spring of 2014 due to a heart arrhythmia.

“I was the world champion here in 2012 and it always feels like coming home. I have also a sand dune named after me here, so it’s a little bit special,” Albert said.

The who’s who of cyclocross crams the winners list. The race, which began in 1969, was bound for legendary status from the start. The De Vlaeminck brothers — Roger, who is known as “Mr. Paris Roubaix” for his four wins in the “Hell of the North,” and his brother Erik, a seven-time cyclocross world champion — dominated the first four editions of the race, each winning two.

Of the 45 men’s editions, Belgians have 38 victories. The “Cannibal from Baal,” Sven Nys, has claimed the most victories on the dunes with six, the first coming in 1999.

The women’s race, much younger with just nine editions, also includes a winners list that represents the names that have transcended cyclocross. Hanka Kufernagel, a four-time cyclocross world champion, won the inaugural edition in 2003.

After a three-year hiatus, the women’s race came back in 2007 with another world champion claiming victory, Daphny van den Brand. American Katie Compton holds the most women’s wins with four.

Koksijde has hosted the world championships on two occasions: the first in 1994, when Paul Herygers claimed victory, and again in 2012.

Over the years, Koksijde has produced incredible performances, amazing duels, and spectacles one can only dream of.

An unprecedented 60,000 fans attended the 2012 world championships in Koksijde. The Belgians put on a show, running the table and finishing one through seven. Albert rode away on the opening lap never to be seen again. Albert performed a quick dismount-remount on the finishing straight, paying tribute to Herygers — who did the same in 1994.

The next fall, an epic Nys-Albert duel ensued, in a torrential downpour no less. The two men found themselves together out front late in the race and on the “laatste ronde,” as the rain intensified, Nys put in a demoralizing acceleration, riding a dune that Albert was forced to run. Wearing the rainbow bands, Albert watched the Belgian champion disappear into the mist.

“This is a special race,” Nys said after the race. “With the sand, when you have good technique, it’s possible to do something. You can close a 10-second gap in one section of sand, that we saw today.”

The women’s race has also had its fair share of brilliance. Compton, an 11-time U.S. cyclocross champion, put on a display of dominance in 2010, dismantling the competition. Compton won by nearly two and a half minutes, an eternity in cyclocross. She left behind great champions van de Brand and seven-time cyclocross world champion Marianne Vos.

“It’s such a hard, heavy course that I had to get a good start, but I knew I just had to be patient,” Compton said after her victory in 2010. “So I just tried to relax and then around the end of the first lap I got to the front and just went for it.”

Young bloods

A changing of the guard occurred last November, when Wout van Aert and Mathieu van de Poel lined up in Koksijde, their first World Cup race in the elites. The two are no strangers to Koksijde — they battled on the sand in the junior race at the world championships, a classic Belgium/Netherlands duel. The Dutchman, van de Poel, won by merely eight seconds.

In 2014, the phenoms rode away early in the race, reminiscent of the duels seen between Nys and Albert. Van Aert prevailed to claim a solo victory. He performed a dismount-remount, a tribute to his sport director Albert. Van der Poel finished third, unable to repeat an elite victory which his father, Adrie, accomplished in 1996.

On Sunday, the world will once again descend upon Koksijde. Nys will attempt to further cement his name as one of the greatest the sport has ever seen with a seventh victory. Van der Poel, the current world champion, will race for the first time this season, returning to a course where he has never finished outside the top three.

Rain is expected and will make the race all the more interesting and exciting, and could even bring back memories of the duel in 2012.