Having had barely a handful of hours kip on the ferry the night before last plus the four thirty start for the two hundred plus kilometres from Dieppe to Dunkirk I have a lie in before heading for Koksijde, just over the border in Belgium. Despite a decent night’s sleep my head is thumping with tiredness and dehydration, I drank nowhere near enough during the ride yesterday. My legs feel heavy and I ache almost all over. Before yesterday I’d not ridden since I was last in France in October. I didn’t intend to take a break or have a rest, I just haven’t been that fussed about riding. Or rather I’ve not been that bothered by not riding. A little after dawn and seventy five kilometres into the ride I was sat on a bike rack outside a supermarket eating a sandwich considering that I might have to find a train station at some point. The stupid part of my brain (the same dumb part that decided riding a DIY audax after a month off was a good idea) knew full well I would ride the whole distance regardless. It could have gone two ways, either the rest would have done me good or my fitness had dropped off a cliff. I knew precisely which way it was going to go.
A damp grey sky sags over the empty streets of Dunkirk, the tip of a church spire pokes into cloud, the upper floors of a block of flats the same. It’s a slow cold misty ride. In the town before the border I spot the familiar green sign of a PMU bar, pretty much guaranteed to be open on a Sunday morning. Surrounded by old men drinking beers and small glasses of wine whilst watching horse racing on the screen above the bar I order a ‘grand cafe’. A single isn’t going to cut it this morning. The roads around De Panne are familiar having been here a couple of times before, last time when George and I rode from here out to Roubaix and Ypres back in February. Friends Dan and H from Breakaway Digital drove over yesterday so I track them down to leave the bike on their roof rack saving me the hassle of finding a fence to lock it to. So I don’t have to lug them around all day I dump my helmet, Garmin, and lights in the car. I pull my down jacket from my Carradice and roll down my trouser legs.
“Is that all the luggage you’ve got!?”
“Nah, I’ve left the other bags and kit back at the hotel.”
“Ah, I knew Brooks saddles were comfortable but I didn’t think even you’d ride 200km in jeans!”
I can hear the beer tent before I see it. The mist has retreated but the air is now filled with banging Euro techno. We queue up to trade some euros for tokens and head for the bar. It’s not even midday and it’s already party time in here, dancing and singing. First beer of the day. Not sure this is textbook rehydration. Clamber up a dune, the ground shifting beneath my feet, it’s not aiding my aching limbs. Already missed the juniors but catch the final couple of laps of the Under 23s. There’s a long gap between the end of their race and the Elite Women so it’s back to the beer tent and then queue for chips. Everything costs one token it seems; a plastic beaker of Jupiler, one token, cardboard tray of frites, one token, dollop of mayo on top, one token. Beer drunk, chips eaten, another beer. Finding a spot on the barriers on a steep sandy descent we make ourselves at home. It’s quite comfortable sitting in the sand, maybe I’ll stay here all day. From the speakers at the top of the hill we can hear the women racers being introduced. Ten minutes to go…
The announcer calls the start. We look to the sand dune across the way and wait for the lead riders. The crowd’s cheers can be heard above the music that continues to pound from the beer tent between us and them. Riders come into sight, shouldering their bikes as they run through the sand, the camera crane swinging around after them. Down the bank and over the bridge and out of sight again. Turn to look up our dune and wait. The silhouette of a rider carrying a bike rises over the crest of the dune, then another. They jump back on and roll past us. The lead riders clear the sandy descent but further back it’s a bit more tentative, feet are unclipped, lines aren’t quite as straight, wheels dig into the sand, bikes jack knife, riders tumble, those behind unclipping as they try to avoid those that have hit the deck in front of them. We stay here for a couple of laps then head across the course to a ridiculously steep climb and descent. Bikes slung over shoulders, barriers gripped as they climb. As some riders take a line so tight around the bottom corner I hear the clunk of pedals on the barriers. From the tannoy hooked up in the trees I hear it’s the leaders have entered the final lap so stroll back round towards the beer tent…
Deafening music thumps out of the soundsystem set up on the sand dune where the biggest crowds are. From this section you can see a large chunk of the course and the crowd up to 7 or 8 people deep. The atmosphere is fantastic but there’s nowhere really to stand. This lot settled in a while ago, sending mates off to collect trays of Jupiler as required. The mens’ race is due to start any time now. I watch the first lap from here but then find my way through the crowds, grab another beer and wander under the bridge and back up the other side. The great thing about this course is it’s all pretty tight so you can get from one section to another easily, you can often see more than one part of the race at the same time, plus big screens show the television coverage. Stroll past the pits and end up back at the spot where we watched the first laps of the womens’ race. Find some space on the barriers on the far side this time, the racing line inches away. There’s big cheers coming from just over the top of the dune so I go to investigate. Another steep climb and plenty of space on the barriers back over the other side. Down, cross, back up again. Lean on the barrier and wait for the next lap. The Belgian riders get the biggest cheers but despite a partisan crowd all the riders are cheered. The fact a Dutch fella is giving them all a caning doesn’t dampen the Belgian spirits. Mathieu Van Der Poel is a class apart. Every lap he takes another few seconds from the rest of the field. First lap I’m stood here I can see why he is pulling out a bigger and bigger lead. Compared to everyone else he carries so much more speed into the climb and doesn’t hop off until far further up it than everyone else… and it’s obvious he wants to ride it all. People lean over the barriers urging, no… willing him on. Next lap he gets higher, the cheers get louder, then the lap after he clears the climb. A huge cheer goes up. Behind him a clump of Belgians are tripping over each other as they jump off opposite me. A couple of laps left I climb up to the top of the bank to watch the remainder of the race unfold and listen to the crowd on the dunes opposite. Sweet Caroline pumps out of the beer tent.
The racing over another queue forms for tokens, there’s beer to be drunk, Euro pop to dance to. The beer tent resembles something between a rave and a wedding party that is on the verge of getting out of control.
The riff from AC/DC’s Thunderstruck blasts out of the speakers.
The place goes mental.