Words by Andrew Juiliano. Photos by Ethan Glading
For the linguistically ignorant, like yours truly, the name NoordzeeCross seems like just another jumble of confusing Flemish sounds. The venue is about as far west as it gets in Flanders, in the town of Middelkerke, a place where even the native dialect is an earful for their fellow Flemings.
Middelkerke is renowned across Belgium, which has a mere 65 kilometers of coastline for its 11.3 million people. Yes, when the sun shines, the masses flock to towns like Middelkerke to bask in the Vitamin D along the North Sea. North Sea…Noordzee…NoordzeeCross! Holy frites and mayo, looks like we now spreek little more Flemish!
Now, the Superprestige finale occurs in the seaside city, but not at the beach. No, you must mosey away from the sand, across the brick boardwalk, beneath the 10 story apartment buildings, along a cobbled street and into the grassy fields. On a normal day, one field stands out from the rest thanks to its several grassy lumps, which at about 20 feet high tower over the other crepe-flat expanses of West Flanders.
On one particular day, each year in mid February, these rather unremarkable bumps host one of the most extraordinary cycling events of the year, and one of the most challenging on the Superprestige circuit. Tape winds across the slopes in the most diabolical of wends. Transitions are abrupt and steep. Off cambers slide across the lumps. And that one particular day this year happened to also be the first sunny, “warm” (55-degree) Saturday of the spring, drawing 15,000 fans to the cyclocross by the sea.
For the first half a lap, those spectators got a display of a pure speed. Half the track had dried during the preceding week of sunshine, and it was ripping fast. Blisteringly fast, in fact, until it wasn’t. A music festival earlier in the year trashed the second part of the field. The restoration used sandy soil that soaked up the past 4 months of winter rains and retained the moisture. No single week of sunshine would ring out this nasty sponge. No it held all the water until the first races of the day started churning through the mire.
Recon laps saw a few riders like Gianni Vermeersch float through the muck with enviable ease. Heck, even his fellow Belgian, Wietse Bosmans, lined up at the start with a rear mud tire, harboring an ill-fated sense of optimism that it would let him grind through the stew. But lugged tread or not, there was no riding this mixture of half-sunbaked cement.
The re-sodded sand field was a brutal slog, through muck that not even, Mathieu Van Der Poel, would ride. But a little extra footwork did not deter the World Champion, who claimed the day’s victory along with the overall Superprestiege title on a glorious day of pain and suffering at NoordzeeCross-By-The-Sea.
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