Koksijde: Reliving 42 Years of Cyclocross in the Sand Dunes

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Koksijde, Belgium, is about to set new records for attendance at a UCI Cyclocross World Championship. What’s the story with this little town and its sandy course? We take a look back at the history and racing in Koksijde today, and will have an in-depth feature on the event and venue in our upcoming Issue 16.

by Robbie Carver

It was a long slog up the sand hill. ©Bart Hazen

Old-school cyclocross. You hear that term come up often when the big races look more like grass criteriums than the boggy, treacherous, every-racer-for-himself courses of legend. Sure, there’s a lot to be said for many of the new course designs, of the crowd-pleasing cat-and-mouse games and tight racing that result, and a bit of rain can turn even the most benign course into a slog-fest. But sometimes we want a course that reminds us of the crazy roots of cyclocross, when the mentality was I bet I can ride that, and you can’t. Sometimes we want a course that requires the Holy Trinity of Cross: Incredible Power, Insane Skill and Inspired Luck.

Koksijde, home of this year’s World Championships, is just such a course. Set on a military base hugging the North Sea coast, the course boasts long stretches of deep, beach-quality sand dunes spread across climbs, descents, endless off-cambers and 180 degree turns. When the weather is dry, the sand is loose and deep, causing ruts that change without notice, stopping wheels cold and bucking riders – as happened to Katie Compton in 2009. When it’s wet, the sand clumps together, sucking energy out of your legs. Regardless, Koksijde provides racers with one of the most technically difficult courses on the world circuit. And the fans know it: Organizers are reporting as many as 60,000 spectators have descended onto the small town to watch the world’s best battle it out, making this one of the largest attendances in cyclocross history. Needless to say, it’s already sold out.

For over 40 years Koksijde has been a flagship of Belgium cyclocross – and the Belgians have proved it by winning 35 of the 42 men’s races there. The list of winners shows that Koksijde has been the backyard playground sandbox of Belgium’s greatest champions, beginning with the De Vlaeminck brothers, through Roland Liboton and Dannie de Bie, and to today with Sven Nys, Kevin Pauwels and Niels Albert. The only time Koksijde previously hosted the World Championships, in 1994, Belgian Paul Herijgers took the title. The Belgians have been so dominant, in fact, that defending world champion Zdenek Stybar is the only non-Belgian Elite male to have taken the highest step of the podium in the past 10 years. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that the Quick Step rider is the only name being thrown around as a rival to the likes of Nys and Pauwels.

How will history repeat itself? Stybar wants to take the title for his third consecutive year – a feat not seen since Liboton’s win in 1984. Yet the Belgians believe that Koksijde belongs to the Belgians, and Sven Nys certainly has laid his claim to this course on numerous occasions.

On the women’s side, the three women who top the UCI rankings won at Koksijde, with the powerful and technically-skilled American Katie Compton particularly suited to the deep sand, but saddled with the monumental task of attempting to dislodge a Marianne Vos who has shown the best form of her life. Compton destroyed the field in 2010, and told Cyclocross Magazine in an interview earlier this month that she hopes to have similar luck in her second attempt on the course this season.

With all that in mind, we here at Cyclocross Magazine wanted to take you back through a few years of Koksijde’s history, offering select photos of the battles that have defined the Word Cup race as it set its eyes on determining the 2012-13 World Champion.

2011 – Nys Returns To The Top, Vos Proves Beatable

Pauwels makes his frustration clear as Nys crosses the line for the win. © Bart Hazen
The most recent battle at Koskijde once again proved that this is a course for the Belgians. Sven Nys and Kevin Pauwels, who battled back and forth all season for the World Cup title, used their skill in the sand to distance themselves from Bart Aernouts and Zdenek Stybar. Noticeably missing from the race was 2010 winner Niels Albert, who had suffered a broken wrist after a car hit him on a training ride. At the sprint for the line, Nys swept across the length of the finishing straight, forcing Pauwels to brake. Pauwels’ raised hand here was his unofficial protest, though his official protest was denied. The display of dominance by both Belgians bodes well for their chances this weekend, but Pauwels has yet to win at Koksijde, a feat Nys has managed an incredible five times.
Daphny van den Brand. © Bart Hazen
Marianne Vos comes into the 2012 Worlds as the heavy favorite, having easily won four of the five World Cup races that she entered. The one she lost? Koskijde. Daphy van den Brand established an early lead in the sand, and road a technically clean race, with Vos and Katie Compton finishing out the podium. While Vos’ loss may not be as much an omen as it first appears – Vos was fresh into her ′cross season after a long, impressive season on the road – the psychological boost this no doubt gives to racers such as Compton and Van den Brand (who both have won here multiple times) is certainly a welcome buffer against Vos’ unbroken dominance since that race.
2010 – Albert Reigns Supreme, Compton Destroys Competition
Riders fought for the best lines in the rough conditions. © Bart Hazen

A rain-saturated course saw Niels Albert take the 2010 win ahead of Zdenek Stybar and Sven Nys. Despite a poor start, Albert moved up quickly and managed to reach the lead group of nine riders. Halfway through the race, a strong looking Nys attacked but was slowed by a dropped chain. Taking advantage of the situation, Albert countered the move ahead of the sand and managed to grow his solo lead to the finish. Albert’s lead grew as Nys and Stybar played tactics with each other, a game that nearly allowed Bart Wellens to grab the second spot on the podium when he attacked the pair a few laps before the finish. Stybar proved to have the stronger legs, but Nys still managed to scrape by Wellens for the final podium spot.

Katie Compton stomped to another World Cup victory in Koksijde. © Bart Hazen

Many people, upon hearing that Koksijde would host the 2012 Worlds, threw more than a few hard-earned dollars onto Katie Compton’s name. Her 2010 performance here shows why: She stormed to a 2:27 victory over runner-up Daphny van den Brand and Sanne van Paassen. It was her third win at Koksijde. As Compton surged forward, Van Paassen did her best to stay near, trailing her by only eight seconds. Twenty seconds further back, Van den Brand and Hanka Kupfernagel (Itera-Stevens) were chasing. But the chase kept losing time to Compton, who was posting lap times at least half a minute faster than her rivals.
2009 – Stybar Nips Nys, Vos Capitalizes on Compton

Koksijde Elite Men World Cup 11/28/2009 ©Bart Hazen
The 2009 Elite men’s race was possibly the most exciting Koksijde edition in recent history, with each of the favorites finding themselves at the head of the race, only to be pulled back in by their competitors. Stybar, ultimately victorious on the day, rode a nearly flawless technical race, while Nys showed a number of bobbles rare for the man renowned for his handling skills. Niels Albert, resplendent in his World Championship jersey, was on fine form as well – with three to go he and Stybar fought hard to hold off a quickly approaching Nys. As the racers reconnected with one to go, Bart Aernouts, Gerben De Knegt and Klaas Vantournout grabbed onto the leaders, with Aernouts making his bid for the lead. The move was short lived, however, as Stybar hit the gas, capitalizing on his handling and pedaling through sand that forced everyone else off their bikes. The move dislodged all by Nys and Vantournout, and the three sprinted for the finish, with Stybar narrowly eking the win ahead of Nys. Albert finished just off the podium, in fourth.
Vos leading Van Den Brand and Kupfernagel. ?Bart Hazen

The 2009 women’s edition saw a hard-fought battle between Marianne Vos and Daphny van den Brand for the win, with Katie Compton slowly pulling riders back in after a number of setbacks at the start. Up front, Vos and Van Den Brand worked together to fend off the US Champion. Taking turns at the lead, the two worked until they made the left turn onto the final stretch of road, successfully keeping Compton at bay.

With a very long stretch of of perfectly flat road to work with, Vos showed off the skills that have brought her Olympic Gold on the track and rainbow stripes on the road, pulling away from Van den Brand to take the victory. Compton rolled across comfortably in third, looking relieved to have recovered a podium finish after her early, near-disastrous struggles. Kupfernagel and Van Paassen held on to fourth and fifth, respectively.
2008: Vervecken Gets His Due, Compton Sprints to Win

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Although Sven Nys nearly ruined it, the day belonged to Erwin Vervecken and team Fidea. After neutralizing early attacks by Klaas Vantournout and Sven Nys, Fidea had an impressive four riders in the the lead group of six late in the race, and took turns attacking Nys on the last lap. First Wellens took to the front, then Stybar, and when Nys made his final late attack, Vervecken stayed close. Nys took to the final pavement stretch with a lead, but kept looking back, wary of the sprinting abilities of Vervecken. In the long drag to the finish, Vervecken closed the gap, sat in the draft and sprinted to victory past a gassed Nys. Stybar, Wellens and Pauwels finished in third, fourth and fifth, respectively.
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Katie Compton overcame a slow start on a day that saw Koksijde’s sand deep and difficult, catching race and World Cup leader Hanka Kupfernagel to beat her in the sprint for victory.

2008 Women’s Highlights:


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2008 Koksijde Elite Men’s Last Lap Highlights:

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Cyclocross Magazine, Issue 22, Print and digital subscriptionsHave you subscribed yet? You're missing out if not. Get all-original content and your cyclocross fix throughout the year with a subscription and Issue 23 back copy, with features on Lars van der Haar, Jonathan Page, Elle Anderson and more!
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