Running in sand is tough. Running uphill in sand is even tougher. Running up a 35 per cent gradient in deep sand with a cyclo-cross bike on your back is tougher still. Riding down it is another matter altogether.
But professional cyclo-cross riders are among the toughest in a sport with no shortage of hardmen among their ranks.
The Zonhoven cyclo-cross track is, along with the infamous Koppenburgcross course, the toughest in Belgium. I’m here with Ridley Bikes, a Belgian brand synonymous with ‘cross, to ride it and then see how it’s meant to be done by the professionals in the second round of the Superprestige series.
The Zonhoven course centres around a circular sand quarry. It’s a natural amphitheatre and the toughest section of an immensely technically challenging course.
The quarry section comes early in the 1.5-mile course. The going turns from mud, into hard-packed sand and, after a 90-degree turn, the sand softens and deepens and the track plummets into the pit of the amphitheatre.
After dismounting, climbing out of the sand pit and riding along the quarry’s edge, the course then drops back inside it, via an even steeper, sandier descent, before a second climb out. It’s the steepest section of the course, touching 40 per cent, and like wading through treacle.
Each cycling journalist in the assembled press pack – eight of us from the UK, Belgium, Denmark, France, Spain and the Netherlands – is handed a Ridley X-Fire; a carbon fibre, disc-equipped machine which is second from top in Ridley’s four-strong ‘cross bike range.
Earlier in the morning we walked the course to give us an idea of what we’d let ourselves in for. It was fun bounding through knee-deep sand into the quarry – but now it was time to ride it.
The key, I’m told as we set off, is to keep your weight back as far as possible, don’t touch the front brake and let the bike find its own route through the sand.
And the trick, I learned, is to approach the first sandy stretch at an uncomfortably fast pace so the bike has enough momentum to break through the first few metres of thick sand without toppling you sideways or, more embarrassingly still, over the handlebars. Besides, standing at the top of the dune and peering into the abyss is no way to build confidence.
I ride in. The bike begins to squirm beneath me like an snake, darting from left to ride. I make minor adjustments to keep an central line and stay clear of the barriers which mark the course. The front wheels skids from side-to-side, the bike, gathering more and more pace, desperate to flip onto its side.
It’s both exhilarating and terrifying. I reach the bottom and let out a sigh of relief. In fact, I let out a sigh of relief at the end of each subsequent descent – of which some are more successful than others. There’s no shortage of crashes among our group but fortunately it’s a soft landing.
My first lap of the course is, ironically, the best. Beginner’s luck. The cruel irony of such a challenging course is that it gets harder with each passing lap. Every mistake – a crash into the barriers, a face-plant into the sand, a sideways topple into the dunes – is amplified, chipping away at my confidence as fatigue sets in.
Away from the quarry, the rest of the course is distinctly different but no less challenging. The track twists and turns through the dunes, with two hard-packed sand jumps, tight turns through deep sand with only a wafer-thin rut to aim the wheels at, and a long uphill drag through the soft stuff which has to be attacked in a big gear, much like the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, to maintain the momentum required to ride through without hastily unclipping, chucking the bike on your back and taking to foot.
It’s exhausting and I return to the hotel after one-and-a-half hour’s riding battered and bruised but buzzing having ridden one of the toughest cyclo-cross courses in the business. I watch half of the Zonhoven course disappear down the plug hole as I take a shower.
Fast forward 24 hours and the Zonhoven course is lined with more than 10,000 spectators. The Superprestige series, a season-long competition with ten rounds in Belgium and the Netherlands, is the sport’s equivalent of the Premier League.
There are five races through the day and the main event, the elite men’s race, is saved until last. Belgian hero, Sven Nys, goes into the race as favourite with world champion, Niels Albert, and Kevin Pauwels.
A muddy field next to the track is reserved for the riders’ campervans and it slowly fills up in the hours before the race. Most of the top riders have their own campervan – huge vehicles with the face of the rider and his sponsors plastered on the side – and fans gather outside as each team’s mechanics prepare the bikes.
Fans wonder from campervan to campervan, casting a critical eye over the bikes, and, as the race approaches, watching the riders warm-up on the rollers. The best riders, like Nys, have an additional vehicle in tow which converts into a mobile shop. Fans wearing Sven Nys jackets can be spotted all around the course.
Soon, however, it’s time to find a good spot on the track. As the flag drops, the 38-strong field sprints out of the starting blocks, jostling for position ahead of the sand pit, where I’ve chosen to watch the first lap.
In fact, most are watching the race from here. The quarry can holds thousands of spectators and we’re packed in like sardines, but the shape of the quarry means everyone has a good view, and there’s a huge video wall on which to watch the rest of the lap unfold.
A huge cheers erupts as the riders drop in for the first time, and it grows louder as the crowd, fuelled by frites and Belgian beer, watch a three-way battle develop between Nys, Albert and Pauwels.
Three becomes two as Pauwels hits a divot in the sand and goes over the handlebars in spectacular style and I afford myself a wry smile after my many meetings with the sand on the previous day.
Nys is the finest cyclo-cross rider of his generation and the 2005 world champion is aiming for a twelfth overall Superprestige title. Every fan in the crowd is vying for either Nys or Albert and the duo ride through a wall of noise throughout their race-long duel.
The pair are evenly matched but Nys is a wily, aggressive rider and, having neutralised a brave Albert attack on a sandy descent minutes earlier, attacks in the final few hundred metres to get a gap on his rival and claim victory. The Nys-Albert one-two is a repeat from the Koppenburgcross just days previous. Great Britain’s sole representative, Ian Field, finishes 21st, but only a minute off the top ten.
Having completed media duties – the race is broadcast live on terrestrial Belgian television – and taken to the podium, Nys returns to his campervan to warm down, shower and step out to sign autographs for the hundreds of fans – grown men and children alike – who are clambering for position to get a glimpse of their hero.
Nys’ face is on the back pages of all of Belgium’s national newspapers the following day, given pages of coverage that Bradley Wiggins was only afforded having won the Tour de France. Cycling is Belgium’s national sport and cyclo-cross the country’s winter sustenance.