For a moment, I’d lost my bearings. Was this the beer tent? Where was the bar? I tried to make it out through the crowd but my vision was being mangled on each organ-rattling thud of the techno beat. An elderly woman stumbled as she danced and fell into the arms of a man caked in sand and mayonnaise. A wild cheer went up, a guttural chant began to be honked out by the horde, arms in the air. A boy in a blue body stocking passed me carrying six beers in each hand...
What was this? What was I doing here? Then I remembered: I was on a cycling break in Flanders.
At Deserter, we may not know too much about cycling, but we are inexorably drawn to having a good time. So when Rouleur invited us to Belgium to experience World Cup cyclo-cross, possibilities whirled in my mind like a Low Country windmill. Here was a chance to watch a sport new to me, to witness our European cousins at play, to share intelligent and insightful observations. Chimay. Chocolate. Chips!
“You had me at Belgium,” agreed Deserter colleague, Dirty South.
“What is cyclo-cross?” you are almost certainly not asking yourselves, as you are reading a prestige cycling publication, but it was a question that dogged us from the moment we were asked to cover it. Finally, I looked it up. And, well... You know how, in normal bicycle races, you ride the bike? Well, in cyclo-cross, your bike also gets to ride you. And if that isn’t enough to make you wonder where your passport is, then take a good look at yourself.
"In cyclo-cross, your bike also gets to ride you"
And so, we set off for Koksijde in West Flanders – me, Dirty South and Ian Rouleur, our host and chauffeur – to enjoy our cyclo-cross holiday. But the journey to Eurotunnel started with a discussion of an altogether different sport, sparked by the passing of a dead pub en route.
“I saw Squeeze play there once,” said Ian as we passed the old Yorkshire Grey pub at Eltham, now retired and living out the rest of its life as a McDonald’s.
“They used to have bare-knuckle boxing there, in the back room,” said Dirty. “My great uncle killed a man in a fight. He had to flee to Canada and he was never heard from again.” This came as a surprise, not least as Dirty South is such a mild-mannered man.
“I can’t imagine anyone from your family being a fighter,” I said.
“Silence, or I shall crush you,” he said.
Out on the M20 the clouds lowered and it began to rain. “You think this is bad,” said Ian, “wait till we hit Belgium. I’ve never actually seen the sun in Belgium. By the way, has anyone got any Euros?”
“I’ve got 15,” I said. “That’s one beer each. We’re golden.”
At Folkestone Services, where petrol is more expensive than liquid gold, we picked up Geoff, the photographer, and some sausage muffins, then onto Le Shuttle for the Continent.
One of the first things that struck me about Belgium is how near it is. Basically, turn left at Calais and 45 minutes later, you’re there. Easy. Especially if you have a little snooze on the way. We parked up and changed into cyclo-cross watching gear. We’d been warned that Koksijde, being on the coast, could be bone-achingly cold but it was not quite as freezing as we’d expected. The hats and boots were on, I noticed, but the gloves were off, like Dirty’s great-uncle.
The Duinencross Koksijde, as the race is known, is held on a military base. The finish line is on a runway and the barrack buildings were supplemented by dozens of competitors’ campervans, giving the whole thing the slightly surreal air of an out of season holiday park.
"The slightly surreal air of an out of season holiday park"
“The more flash the campervan, the bigger the name,” advised Ian, as we strolled through them, adding, “KFC,” as a determined-looking woman in a stars and stripes cycling jersey emerged from one.
“I’m fine, thanks,” I said, still sated by my breakfast.
“No, Katie ‘Fucking’ Compton. The finest US female ’crosser of all time. She’s won their elite national title every season from 2004 to 2018. A 15-year winning streak.”
We followed the trail of people heading to the course and pretty soon it became clear why this race is known as a duinencross, or a cyclo-cross of dunes. Sand is the theme here. Sand in your shoes, sand in your hair, sand in your sandwiches and, of course, sand in your bicycle, which – not to get too technical about it – can really bugger up your bearings. The top competitors, apparently, will have three bikes for the race: one to be riding, one to have a gallon of Muc-Off fired at it in the pits in the meantime, and another to show they are a top competitor.
In the distance, growing louder as we walked, was an insistent boom-boom-da-boom of drums and bass.
“What’s that music?” I asked.
“That,” said Geoff, a Koksijde veteran, “is electro-oompah, and you’d better get used to it.”
With an almost telepathic understanding, we made our way towards the beer tent where tumblers of Jupiler, the local lager, were procured and we waited outside for Geoff to have his fill photographing an impromptu planking competition he’d spotted. It was 20 minutes until the Elite Women’s race and I wondered aloud where the best place to watch it might be. After a brief discussion we decided the perfect spot was right where we were. We had a view of the first big dune, were next to the flyover, could see the big screen and were right by the beer tent. Ideal for the lazy spectator.
The women’s race started and a stretch on tarmac quickly gave way to a right turn onto grass and then on to the surface du jour, sand. Cyclo-cross, I was learning, is all about transitions. Over several laps of a custom-built course, riders are obliged to move between different surfaces, negotiate obstacles, climb and descend and even dismount and mount.
Yes, some parts of the course, in what I was assured was not a terrible design oversight, are unrideable and require the competitor to get off and push, or even carry their steed. Cycling is such a perfect marriage of man (or woman) and machine (or womachine) that it seems positively perverse to devise a track on which one is so frequently required to divorce. It looks unnatural, like a fish, designed to swim, suddenly being obliged to get out and lug its own bowl around.
But it certainly adds a different dimension of skill, as riders turn dismounting and remounting into an art form in itself. Cyclo-cross is said to have its origins in cyclists keeping fit in the off-season, racing across countryside, village to village, like a steeplechase, so called because a church steeple was sometimes the only navigational aid. A bit like the way Dirty South and I use pubs when out walking.
“Zombie Cake, gentlemen?” said Ian.
"Zombie Cake, gentlemen?"
This strange invitation turned out to be an offer of a beer made by Brewdog, a case of which had, for some reason, arrived at the Rouleur offices and that Ian had – quite brilliantly, in my view – brought along for the ride.
Okay. Here I was, standing on a sand dune in Belgium, drinking a powerful Praline Chocolate Porter. Everything started to make perfect sense. I looked around at my fellow spectators, their cheeks ruddy from the cold and the beer, much of it supped through tremendous beards and Poirot moustaches. They cheered and laughed, banged bells and honked horns. Someone lit a pipe. Belgium was shaping up very nicely. And then we had some chips.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, as Jane Austen perhaps meant to write, that potatoes are the most versatile of all vegetables. You can roast them, of course. Or bake them, or boil them, or sauté them. You can make them into smoky bacon flavoured crisps. You can even make them into a salad, for some reason. And then there’s chips. Lovely chips, made in Belgium. How do you know that Belgians invented chips? Well, they tell you. Quite a lot. And why not? Unlike sprouts, Fentanyl and Plastic Bertrand, it’s an invention to be genuinely proud of.
"And then we had some chips"
In 1781, possibly, a particularly harsh winter caused the River Meuse in the Namur region to freeze over, meaning the locals couldn’t get at the fish they would traditionally fry for their winter fish festival. A fried fish festival with no fish? This was a frite-ing disaster. Or at least it would have been had some wise Walloon not come up with the idea of cutting potatoes into little fish shapes and frying them instead.
It didn’t take long, I imagine, for word to get around about this new, feel-good delicacy that was being sold down by the jetty. And, like the understudy blowing away an incapacitated lead, a star was born. Chips were tasty, they were salty, they were warming. They were, let’s face it, better than fish.
I joined Dirty South at the frituur, or chip van, for a cardboard tray apiece of sheer delight, that could be topped with a stupefying array of ketchups and sauces. I hadn’t realised that the frites came ready-salted and had given mine another generous sprinkling. Now I yearned for something more to drink. Something cold and fizzy, something like beer. Beer.
In my experience, if you’re not sure whose round it is, it’s probably yours, and so it was at this point, high on starch and porter, that I made my sortie into the electro-oompah marquee, now heaving with folk, most of whom hadn’t even left to watch the racing. Despite my momentary discombobulation, I eventually made it to the bar, where I was served by a small, red-nosed man in a singlet. His hair was matted with sweat.
“You look hot,” I said.
“Not hot, sir - ill, ill!” he said with a smile and sneezed over the beer. I was impressed by his dedication to duty. It was just a shame it happened to be in the service industry. Dirts was easy to spot outside in his pink and blue bobble hat and I handed him his drink.
“Enjoy this,” I told him. “It might be your last.”
The women’s race was won by Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado, a Dominican Republic-born Dutch rider, in a thrilling cat and mouse finish, with a creditable performance by British interest Anna Kay, who finished 12th. In fact, it was a Dutch one-two-three-four-five, which caused some murmurs amongst the local supporters, and even a smattering of boos. But worse was to come for the home crowd. Because next up was the Elite Men’s race and amongst the starters was one Mathieu van der Poel, another Dutchman and reigning cyclo-cross World Champion.
"The women’s race was won by Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado"
“Would it astonish you to hear that he is nearly half a bicycle?” asks the village sergeant of the narrator in Flann O’Brien’s comic masterpiece, The Third Policeman. He goes on to explain how, according to atomic theory, the people of the village get their personalities mixed up with those of their bicycles as a result of the “interchanging of the atoms of each of them”. O’Brien’s village postman is thought to be 71 per cent bicycle and it would be no surprise to discover that, like him, Mathieu van der Poel spends long periods of time “leaning with one elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at kerbstones.”
For this is a man in harmony with the bicycle; he is congruous; he is at one. And he’s a pure pedal powerhouse. From impeccable riding stock, he is designed to ride. He makes racing look effortless; he especially makes cycling uphill on sand look effortless. Hell, he even makes running uphill on sand while carrying a bike look effortless, as he powers past rivals, two at a time.
Van der Poel, "a man in harmony with the bicycle"
Caught up in a crash at the first bend, MvdP was almost in last place. By the end of the first lap, he was the race leader. And after he hit the front he never looked back. If he had, he would have seen that no one was anywhere near him. He was operating on a different plane of existence, like a god amongst mortals, like a potato amongst, well, other root vegetables.
It was making me thirsty just watching him.
“Another Belgian lager, mate?” said Dirty South, like a mind reader, when MvdP had opened up a lead of a full minute.
“Please,” I said. “But see if you can get served by someone other than Tintin Quarantino. I haven’t had my flu jab.”
"Another Belgian lager, mate?"
With more beers in hand we all decided to walk round and catch the finish. But even though we only had to travel 200 metres and MvdP had to go another three miles over sand dunes, he still managed to beat us. What a man and what a race. A walkover it may have been, in the end, but it was, we agreed, one of those walkovers you feel privileged to have witnessed.
Walking on sand all day takes it out of you and by the time we made it back to the motor, Dirty South was limping quite pronouncedly, having tweaked the ligaments in his ankle. It’s the kind of injury that is not uncommon in elite sporting competition although, to be honest, it does usually involve the athletes.
“I’m not sure I’m cut out for these endurance events,” he said, almost to himself.
It was a relief to sit down in a warm car. With the light fading and the barbed wire glinting in the floodlights the surroundings began to look more like what they were: a military barracks.
“Let’s go somewhere else,” said Ian.
Our hotel was in nearby De Panne, a beach resort so out of season that not a single establishment was open along the front. After a brief lie-down and rest of the eyelids, we reassembled in the hotel bar, whereupon I ordered a Chimay Blue. This dark, 9 per cent Trappist ale turned out to be one of the all-time great post-nap tipples, so much so that I might start keeping it by the bedside. Conversation flowed, or at least mine did.
The last time I’d been in Belgium, I related to the boys as they struggled to stay awake, I’d overnighted in Liège on my way to a prog rock festival in Holland. There I met a beautiful Colombian brain scientist at the Brasserie C brewpub who had told me two interesting things. Firstly, that not only did Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude depict the phenomenon of collective early onset dementia that was prevalent in rural Colombia at the time (due to inbreeding), but it did so many years before the syndrome was recognised in neurology. And secondly, that meat is good for the mind.
Meat – especially cooked meat – increases brain function and capacity, she told me, and its consumption is now thought to have fast-forwarded human development. This may not currently be a popular thing to espouse, for lots of reasons, but after a hard day on the dunes it was all the encouragement we needed to have a steak each at dinner. It simply wasn’t worth the risk, we agreed, of waking up stupid. We weren’t sure whether or not red wine was similarly important for brain power but we decided that we’d better have a bottle to be on the safe side. And then another to make sure.
We agreed to meet in the hotel lobby the next morning to seek breakfast and so that Geoff could return to the racecourse for some shots of the aftermath and teardown. But Dirty South was a no-show and after a bit, I texted him to check he was awake. He texted back:
Down in a bit. Not got great ankle.
To which, unable to resist, I replied:
Yes you have, mate. He just went to Canada, that’s all.
We found a snazzy place doing breakfast, ordered a delicious koffie (or “café” as yet another bilingual sign pointed out) and I gazed out of the window. Across the road an apartment was available to let. Maybe I could move here, I mused, and do absolutely nothing. Or perhaps I could come up with a hybrid Franco-Dutch language so that all signs don’t have to be written out twice even though it’s bleedin’ obvious what they mean. Though I’d rather do nothing, to be honest. Maybe I could just disappear, like Great Uncle South, but without the blood on my hands.
“You could do a Marvin,” said Geoff.
Searching for Marvin...
Yes! In one of the more unusual plot twists in popular music history, Marvin Gaye, your actual Prince of Soul, once lived in nearby Ostend. Yes, really. It was the spring of 1981 and realising that the drink and drugs were no longer working, not to mention being chased by the IRS, he decided to drop out for a bit and move to this down-at-heel Belgian seaport and resort. And he bloody loved it. He only meant to stay for a couple of weeks but ended up staying for a year and a half, dropping into local bars and clubs, making new friends and just checking if the drink was still not working.
He even wrote Sexual Healing in his fourth floor seafront flat. Not quite a new hybrid Franco-Dutch language, to be fair, but it’s something. In a further, and final, twist, 18 months after he returned to the States from Belgium, he was shot dead by his father in the mansion he’d bought him. Families, eh?
Back at the Koksijde racecourse the environs seemed to have reverted entirely to a military complex, with unfriendly barriers blocking our progress by car.
“Let’s take it by force!” said Dirts, possibly channelling his own violent family history. “And get renditioned to the Congo!”
But we parked at Lidl, found a way in and climbed back over the dunes to the beer tent, now empty and forlorn, as if the madness inside had been just an impossible dream.
Geoff wandered off, as photographers are wont to do, if they get distracted by a nice leaf, and while we waited, the conversation turned to politics. I was reminded about the time that Belgium did without a government. What larks! Following the federal election in 2010, the formation of a coalition government took 18 months, a world record. It didn’t seem to make much difference. Everyone just ignored the politicians and got on with their lives (cycling, beer, chips – everything) without their so-called representatives able to lord it over them, or lie or cheat or feather their own nests.
Oh, Belgium, you beautiful, barmy beast. Could you get any better? And then something unexpected happened – the sun came out.
“Blimey,” said Ian. “I’ve seen it all now.”
We rounded up Geoff, who’d cricked his back out on the dunes, and as Dirty South hobbled back to the car in front of me, I felt the telltale tickle of a head cold starting in the back of my throat. Belgium, you nearly destroyed us. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
From Rouleur issue 20.2. Deserter's second book, Shirk Rest and Play, is on its way, when the workshy wastrels can be bothered. Back it here