There’s the race, and then there’s what gives the race its personality. Join us as we undertake a different kind of UCI World Cup course preview, from the spirited fields in the USA to the hallowed cyclocross stomping grounds of Belgium and beyond.

KOKSIJDE, BELGIUM

The Sand People

I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth.

Anakin Skywalker, famous sand hater

There’s a lot of sand at Koksijde, and while soft to land on, it is by no means a smooth encounter. Like a heckler at a comedy show, it’s rough, coarse, and tauntingly unreasonable. It expresses its opinion of your ride ability by repeatedly attempting to grab your front wheel and hurl you unceremoniously into the earth—or at least force you to dismount and slog through it in bike-shouldering shame. There are dunes and dunes of sand populating this small, seaside town. Like bubbles roiling on the surface of a thick soup, these dunes roll across the landscape and into the grounds of a rarely used military airbase, about a kilometer away from the sighing ocean.

Koksijde is a basically a cyclocross race held in a sand pit. Young Darth Vader would absolutely abhor it.

Collared by the wind, the guttural sounds of a Belgian announcer are dragged across the dunes. The words drift in and out, flapping through national flags, puffy coats, and the ears of an eager crowd. Beanie-headed and red-cheeked, fans cluster near barriers, waiting. A yellow hessian fence, edges tattered and worn, waves beside a section of deep and ravenously hungry sand. Here they come, a fleet of human dune buggies, tractoring through the camel-colored grit. There’s a sort of controlled desperation to their actions. They must keep the momentum steady and moving forward, ever forward, in the wet, churning mess. Sand splashes up like suds from a sink of angrily washed dishes, and is hurled and shunted sideways by crazed wheels. Riders fishtail in the pit.

It’s a Belgian full-palette sky today—with all the shades of grey, and the occasional hint of sun—but the gloom you would normally associate with this kind of day is missing. They say love conquers all, and so it is with cyclocross in this country. It digs exuberance and joy from any able body, like teasing out a splinter from a foot. As riders pedal-stomp their way by, the herculean efforts of these heroes are rewarded with cheers and oddly polite clapping. Riders are enormously respected, revered, and worshipped here, particularly—no, especially—if they happen to be Belgian.

Of course, it’s not all sand. There are stretches of solid track through the green grass, and some paved sections near the finish, but sand is what Koksijde is famous for. It’s what makes this place hallowed, cyclocross ground. There are long stretches of it flanked by exuberant fans, three or four-deep in places. It is a delicious spectacle for them, but a scene of urgent frenzy for the racers. They grip their bars and torture their bodies as the course dips up and down through the dunes. Some riders hug barriers as they storm through, while others veer wildly from one line to another, carving ruts deep and unforgiving as they navigate the stuff.

Lungs suck down the frigid Belgian air in giant gulps, lap after exhausting lap. Legs burn, their fuel cells nearly depleted. And while much of this course relies on brutish leg strength to simply power through the traps, the run up—a crowd favorite on the side of a dune—takes a different strategy. It is dainty. Footsteps become short staccato beats of action, and it's as though these riders have spikes in the toes of their shoes as they peck them into the side of the dune. Left, right, left, right, peck, peck, peck, peck—up they go, shouldering bikes and sand-crabbing to the top before remounting and thundering on. Much like the women’s race earlier, a lone rider dominates and crosses the line. He is alone.

Later, in a post-race interview, he says that he enjoys riding in sand. He is obviously not Anakin Skywalker—more a lone Tusken Raider. Sand people know how to dominate it, but they also must have a little bit of future Darth in them. Because to dominate the sand is the use the Force. To feel it flow from the heart straight to the legs and there, spin those legs in a triumphant mix of constant churn, burn, and yearn. They trust this instinct. They put away their doubts and choose the right lines, keep their speed constant, and pilot their bikes to their destiny.

They love the sand.

UCI WORLD CUP #2: WATERLOO

The Body of 'Cross

This is a non-denominational service. Bunny Hoppers, Top Tube Grabbers, Cowbell Ringers, Single-speeders, Hecklers, and the Costume Curious—all are welcome. Please be seated (Unless you’re having flashbacks to the wooden stairs out on course, then we suggest you get out of the saddle and ride it, dammit. Riiiide iiiitttt!).

We are gathered here today to discuss this thing called cyclocross. Now, many of you have heard this sermon before, delivered as it is from the mud-encrusted pulpits of Europe where the pews are full and the frites flow hot and mayonnaise-y. But here we are here in Waterloo, U.S.A for the UCI Telenet World Cup, and our European brothers and sisters are all, “Huh? Where are the waffles?” Friends—we all worship at the same altar. And yes, there are waffles, but have you tried the Fried Cheese Curds yet?

Let us begin. Open your hymnal to the World Cup Waterloo course map on page 12 and poke your finger right there, on the start grid of today’s 2.7km UCI WC track. My dear congregation—did not your autograph-hungry fingers twitch when you saw the cyclocross royalty lined up, right here on American soil? Rainbow stripes, stars and stripes, national stripes of all colors—so many stripes. And did your heart not soar to see these fine speci-mens and speci-womens surge from the start line, like dogs let out of a car after a long drive? Magnificent. But has not the Benevolent Barrier God provided for us all these past few days? Race bounty for everyone here—young, old, gears, no gears, and even sharks, pizzas, and dudes who wear American flags as capes. To this we say: blessed be the BBG.

Did not melodious cowbells ring out as the hole shot was claimed and our heroes bravely rounded those first corners? Some better than others, admittedly, but watching them canter enthusiastically on and toward the forest of fencing on that steamy, open field was a sight to behold, was it not? Sure, when viewed from a distance it looked like pure chaos, with riders heading in opposite directions, but the Celestial Cyclospirit smiled down upon them this day and pulled them toward the flyover hill with a motion as smooth as a well-lubed chain. Beautiful. Seriously, mechanics in the pits wept.

And there we stood, like trolls at the heel of a bridge, as these two-wheeled knights launched their hopes and dreams skyward on the flyover. Onward, onward, we followed their progress as they snaked further around the course. After a hard charge on a grassy straight, they entered the woods kicking up a fine and golden dust. Their sheer speed was impressive—no one dared scream, “Why are you riding so slow?!” at their agonized faces this day.

The cruel run up is so steep and so 100% Euroland-hard, it hurts. Literally. It hurts everyone, including perhaps a fan that inadvertently grabbed a thorny tree to stop herself from sliding down the steep spectating slope. It’s ok, the blood flow was minimal. Regardless, the Divine Off-Camber Creator sends us these things to test us. And today’s exam—can you dig the tips of your toes into the side of a hill without crampons and billy-goat it to the top, all while carrying a bike and looking cool doing it—was a doozy. Many received an A+ here. [Triumphant plastic horn sound]

Around and under the flyover they moved, grinding along at a frenetic pace. They jumped a couple of barriers, cool as The Dude, and before long were flying along what could easily be termed “the back nine” of the course. Did you see the woodland creatures back there, dotted in amongst the trees and skulking around a secret bar? You no doubt heard them with their techno-groove, cowbells, and spirited high jinks. Perhaps you were a cash-dangling fisherman, or a cupcake siren, tempting these warriors each lap? No matter—the High-Heckle Priestess loves all her creatures, great and a little tipsy. She commends you for your intimate, in-yer-face interactions with those fine professionals.

Photographers fired as riders emerged from the darkness of the technically challenging woods, caked in fine Wisconsin dust. It seemed to get thicker with each lap, did it not? Before long, our brawlers were duking it out on Factory Hill, trying to catch the leader. What did you witness there, my friends? Did you see skill, guts, and determination stomped all over that thing? Did you see that perhaps the best way to take an off-camber tight right-hander is to skid the rear wheel around it? The sniff of the end drew near and we, like charging hordes ourselves, rushed for the finish. To have witnessed artistry, I ask you: how blessed are we?

Deep breath. I leave you today with this. American ‘cross is young, spirited, and wild. It may seek its rhythm in the fields, but gains its lifeblood from you. So take these lungs, for they are filled with the sound of your revelry. Take this brain, for it is curious for the challenge. Take this heart, for it is filled with love for the unpredictability of…everything. Take all this for this is my body, and this is the body of ‘cross. And it. Is. Awesome.