Michael van den Ham Reflects on the Koksijde World Cup

The following is a piece written by Michael van den Ham from his blog on mvdhcyclocross.com. Michael is spending the rest of the season in Europe as he prepares for the World Championships in Zolder. 

Ah, Koksijde. Everyone I have talked to who has come over to Belgium has told me that Koksijde is the hardest. I suppose I always believed them, but never had any concept of what that meant. With that in mind, trying to explain the race to someone who hasn’t raced it is just about impossible, but here is my attempt.

There is sand, lots of it. When we think of sand in North America, we think of just muscling our way through a volleyball court. I don’t know how to explain the sand here other than say that if you take that volleyball court, triple it in size, add another foot of sand below, put in some elevation, and then ride this five or six times per lap, you are starting to get an idea of what Koksijde is like. And that’s before you consider the big muddy bogs in between those sand pits.

The sand is a cruel mistress. The second you start letting it get to you, it’s over. To ride it well, you need to be relaxed, powerful and confident. Once those abilities are lost, the sand eats you up. All this can make Koksijde an emotional race. One lap, you clear a sand section with ease and are on top of the world. You begin to imagine yourself as the next Sven Nys. The next instant, a seemingly pathetic crash knocks you and your dreams back to earth. Frustrated and tired, you begin to wonder why did you thought this sport was a good idea?

With all that in mind, my race actually went quite well. After a slow start, I found my rhythm sometime around the third lap. Despite all my apprehension about the race in the week prior, I was actually beginning to enjoy myself.

In a clever, or perhaps desperate, attempt to gain some more support, I had stopped atop one of the dunes during pre-ride and yelled, pleaded, “Will you cheer for me?” Maybe I looked just desperate enough, but the spectators agreed wholeheartedly to support my back-pack battles. Buoyed by their support, I moved my way past one rider and then another and then another until I was sitting around 40th place during the race. Was a 300 euro payday in the cards for me? (Note: 300 euro is the prize money for 40th; zero euro is the prize for 41st.)

Not that day. With four laps left in the race, I made a silly mistake and crashed to the mud. The crash itself wasn’t so terrible, but the timing was less than ideal. Sven Nys and Wout van Aert had been breathing down our necks for a while already and our getting pulled was imminent. A clean lap would have meant one more lap on course, a crash meant that this may be my last. I tried as hard as I could to catch the group in front of me. I drew them in closer, but not close enough. As I watched the group 20 m ahead of me roll onto the pavement to race one more lap, the race officials waved me off the course and told me my race was over. So close, but so far.

At the end of the day, after the stinging cold and equally stinging disappointment had faded, I’m satisfied with my race. As I said before, Koksijde is a unique beast and to end the day in 42nd, three laps down, is something I can be happy with and, to be completely honest, a fair bit better than I had expected I would do only a few days prior.