The headwind, sand and salt water blind you as you try and force your pedals round. Your wheels are digging into loose sand and your heart rate is maxed out: welcome to a wet hell. Then suddenly, the sun breaks through the clouds and you’re pedalling full throttle along a smooth beach with a tailwind at 45kph. Your wheels make a satisfying crunching sound as they crush razor shells on the waterfront. This is bicycle beach racing: one of the most Dutch of cycling competitions to have emerged in recent years.
Beach racing began in the Netherlands back in the 1990s. The longest, toughest beach race in the world was also one of the first. This gruelling 135km race, along the sand from Hoek van Holland, near Rotterdam, north to Den Helder was first ridden in 1993. A small field of 87 mountain bikers started that year. In 2018, there were several thousand entrants. The 2018 event was won by well-known Dutch cycling journalist Thijs Zonneveld. Seasoned professional rider Laurens ten Dam now lives near the beach in the province of Noord-Holland and has been riding beach races since back in the day.
Low to high-tech
Beach racing along the North Sea coast used to be ridden on your crappy, old aluminium mountain bike – the one with the 26-inch wheels and fitted with knobbly tyres. Why? Because of the sand and saltwater. That, too, was a long time ago. Today, top riders ride specialised beach racing bikes. These specially-built 29ers have carbon fibre frames, tubeless balloon tyres and rigid front forks with either semi-drops or flat handlebars. Koga Miyata manufactured the first-ever commercial beach racer, but now Giant appears to be joining in. This Instagram picture of a very tidy looking machine was posted by the Stefan Bolt, the co-host of the Netherlands’ most popular cycling podcast Live Slow, Ride Fast. The podcast recently featured beach racing (Dutch only).
View this post on Instagram
Fiets klaar voor zondag. Moraal ook. Dijk tot Dijk beachrace. Nu nog benen. En talent. 😬 #liveslowrideslow #beachracer #podcast #kaaaaaaaaaaaaaakwaaromdoeikditA post shared by Stefan Bolt (@steviethunderbolt) on
Big names then and now
Quite a few big names from various cycling disciplines and generations have entered Dutch beach races with varying degrees of success. Tom Dumoulin, Lars Boom, Laurens ten Dam, Leontien van Moorsel, Bart Brentjes, Gert Jan Theunisse, Johan Museeuw, Sebastian Langeveld and Marianne Vos have all tried it at least once.
One Dutch rider has been king of Dutch beach racing for many years: Ramses Bekkenk. Now 42 years old, Bekkenk was a major innovator in the sport and won most of the big beach races in his day. He is still a major force in mountain biking, but is currently concentrating on marathon mountain biking events. Bekkenk used to work at a bike shop in the province of Noord Holland and helped design and build the first specialised beach racing bikes.
This, also legendary, beach racing event takes place in January. In 2018 it was held for the 20th time. Much shorter than the Hoek van Holland–Den Helder race, at around 35km it is a full-gas charge up and down the beach south of Egmond-aan-Zee. This event also attracts thousands of entrants and is always a spectacle to watch.
Bicycle beach racing tyres
“How low can you go” used to be the motto at the start of a Dutch beach race. This means how low do you dare you deflate your balloon tyres (Schwalbe Supermotos or similar). Tyres and pressures are a voodoo thing at beach races, just like cyclocross. A lot of riders ride tubeless, their tyres filled with liquid sealant. This means you can drop your tyre pressure without worrying about pinch flats. But if you’re riding a race for the first time, a 29er mountain bike fitted with balloon tyres and latex inner tubes will work fine. Most bikes these days have mountain bike 1 x 11 setups but usually with a road racing cassette fitted on the back wheel. The famous semi-dropped handlebars seen on many beach racers were invented by Ramses Bekkenk. He wanted dropped bars which were legal for mountain biking (they had to conform to UCI minimum width). And if you don’t have rigid front forks, simply lock the lockout and go!
Try it yourself!
There are more and more events taking place along the North Sea coast in the Netherlands and Belgium. This is one of the most comprehensive lists we could find: scroll down if you don’t understand Dutch or French.