(photo by Graham Watson)
Today I am watching the surf break along the beach in Santa Barbara, CA. It’s calm and serene. The white sand is smooth and glistening as the water does its little dance on top of it. Two weeks ago the sand I experienced was quite different. Two weeks ago I was trying to pedal my bike through sand that was ankle deep and sometimes deeper. Two weeks ago I was racing as part of the US National Team at the Cyclocross World Championships in Koksijde, Belgium.
There is no other course in the world quite like the one in Koksijde. Week in and week out I race in mud, dust, snow, ice, and sand but only once have I ever raced in sand that wants to consume me.
I had watched enough video coverage and talked to enough people who’d been on the course before to know that this course was ‘special’. It takes a certain kind of skill to be able to pedal your bike through the sand – you have to float across it. You have to let your bike go where it wants to go and trust that it will take you where you want to go. And at the exact moment when you start to lose speed, you have to dismount, run while pushing or shouldering your bike, remount and get back up to speed all in one fluid motion. If you try to take one pedal stroke too many, your bike abruptly stops and you lose precious time as you clumsily dismount and start running. Your timing has to be precise. Once you’re out of the sand, you ride to the next dune and do it all over again and again and again.
When you think you’ve finally got the right line dialed, the person in front of you puts a foot down and you lose your momentum, dismount and start running…and so on for each person behind you. The game isn’t always orchestrated by you but by the people around you. Keeping your head up is key to knowing what lies ahead.
Sometimes the course goes up, sometimes it goes down. Riding down a steep, deep section of sand requires no less confidence and skill than it does on the flat sections. If your wheel digs just a little too deep or turns the slightest bit, you end up eating a face full of sand after you embarrassingly flip right over your handlebars. The crowd loves it (all 60,000 of them!), of course, but all the bits and pieces of your bike that are now packed with sand are less functional and your confidence wanes. Next time you get to that section, you might opt to run right away instead of repeating said humiliating acrobatics.
The Belgians make riding in the sand look effortless. They ride with precision and confidence. They are ‘sand specialists’. It’s no surprise they went 1-7 in the men’s elite race. I, on the other hand, did less riding and more running because I don’t have the precision and confidence yet to ride my bike in deep sand.
Some of the courses here in the US incorporate sand pits, but they are typically no longer than a sand volleyball court. Riders hit the sand once a lap. The sand pit is one small section of the course, not the majority. Needless to say, I have little experience riding in sand like Koksijde. On race day I checked my expectations at the door and told myself that no matter what, as long as I raced with everything I had, I wouldn’t be too hard on myself if my result was less than stellar. On the other hand, I’d be ecstatic if my result was unexpectedly stellar.
I finished 20th, not stellar but not disappointingly awful. When I crossed the line, all I could say was that was the hardest race I have ever done and I gave it my all.
Check out race footage for a real sideline view of the Worlds.
Originally written for Light and Motion