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The calm before the storm

Worlds are back in Belgium

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KOKSIJDE, Belgium (VN) – A day ahead of what is likely to be the the biggest and best-attended weekend of cyclocross in perhaps decades, racers and fans alike are descending on this village of 20,000 people on the southwest corner of Belgium’s North Sea coast. When all is said and done, Sunday’s elite world championship race might briefly triple the population of Koksijde; as perhaps as many 60,000 people will turn out for a race that organizers discovered today was actually beyond sold out days ago.

They come, partly for a chance to see one of their favorites claim a rainbow jersey on home soil, but even more for the spectacle of a World Championships on one of the most technically challenging cyclocross courses in the world.

The difficultly of this course, which has a history stretching back to 1969 and a laundry list of cyclocross greats — both De Vlaeminck brothers, Liboton, Vervecken, and Belgian champion Sven Nys to name a few — on its roster of past winners, rests on a foundation of sand. The town of Koksijde is crisscrossed by swaths of sand dunes, and the track for this weekend’s races threads its way through a series of sandy ups and downs on the edge of a Belgian Air Force base.

The course traverses large areas of sand three times and crosses several smaller sections as well. The three hardest sand sections are each a couple of hundred meters long, and all feature relatively technical turns that very few riders were able to negotiate without trouble in training on Friday. The shorter sections of sand present their own challenges: each features steep and almost certainly unrideable climbs and loose, technical descents.

For racers in the hunt for a podium place, the biggest obstacle may be a narrow, sandy climb and descent just a few hundred meters after the race leaves the pavement. With little time for the group to string out before hitting the short section, there is a good possibility it will become a major bottleneck early in the race. If a rider should fall there, anyone caught behind them may see their chances evaporate less than a minute into the race.

During training on Friday the weather was relatively pleasant, a mix of sun and brief showers with temperatures in the mid-40s. However, a cold front expected over the weekend could spread snow showers for Saturday’s junior and under-23 categories. Sunday is expected to be sunny and cold, with temperatures topping out only a few degrees above freezing.

However, with no significant rainfall on the way, it is likely the sand conditions will not change much. Turns were loose and treacherous today, but the longer, straight sections were becoming packed this afternoon. Riding, at least in the narrow, packed grooves that were forming today, should be no problem for skilled bike handlers. However, with few good lines to follow, traffic will be a major factor. Making smart decisions about where to stay on the bike and where to run will be key.

Koksijde is a track that rewards skilled riders; in recent years the World Cups and other races held here have gone to renowned bike handlers like Belgians Nys and Erwin Vervecken, who both have five wins in Koksijde. The only time Koksijde hosted a world championships, in 1994, Paul Herygers—another Belgian—claimed victory. In fact, race history is dominated by Belgians, many of whom came up through the junior and under-23 ranks in races on nearly the same, sandy track that the weekend’s races will use, giving locals a major advantage.

But familiar or not, Belgians and other racers alike were out training in the sand this afternoon. Belgian elites Rob Peeters, Klaas Vantornout, and Tom Meeusen all rode multiple laps — during which Peeters had perhaps the most success navigating the tricky sand sections of anyone on the day. Many racers, including Belgian team leaders Nys and Niels Albert as well as Europe-based American Jonathan Page have been making periodic training trips to the site for weeks, but stayed away today to rest and avoid the growing media circus here.

American men’s champion Jeremy Powers, who was disappointed with his performance in the World Cup here in November, took laps today as well and said he was much more confident after a few days of training. Powers was one of a handful of riders to successfully clean the two longest sections of sand on what organizers have named Herygers Dune.

Among women who tested the course today were Czechs Katerina Nash and Pavla Havlikova, British champion Helen Wyman and countrywoman Annie Last. But all eyes were on women’s hopeful Sanne Cant. Cant’s strategy, at least in training, appeared to be to minimize risk and run as much of the sand as possible. Her rival from the north, Dutchwoman Sanne van Paassen, also took laps, taking time to joke with reporters as she evaluated the chances of a successful comeback on Sunday after weeks away from the bike due to illness.

Fans, already packing the sides of the course, found themselves restrained by a complex network of reinforced — and, in many places, double-layered — barriers. The organization apparently took seriously complaints of fan interference in the sand sections by several racers, including world champion Zdenek Stybar, following the 2010 World Cup here.

But with less than 24 hours to go before racing kicks off, Koksijde seemed to be experiencing the calm before the storm. In town, locals bought flowers from a street market, and walked lazily down the the beach on a comparatively warm, sunny January afternoon. Organizers made last minute adjustments to the venue, trimming back underbrush, deploying Porta Potties, and arranging a temporary bus terminal to shuttle fans from the railroad station a few kilometers from the course. In places, out of sight of the barriers and banners, it was still possible to imagine one was taking a quiet walk through the dunes, only interrupted by the distant hum of chainsaws in the brush and occasional thump of sledge hammers, pounding in a final few posts for course fencing. The sun sunk slowly down under the sandy hillsides, birds sung, and a few early revelers, clad in beer barrel costumes, stumbled down the steep-sided dunes.

But the quiet won’t last — not for long, not when the World Championships are coming home to Belgium in the morning.

Gallery: Cyclocross world championships course pre-ride Friday