The Netherlands is not known for its beaches.
But beyond the pretty brick towns and windmills and tulip fields crossed with tiny canals lie the dunes, which give way to blankets of fine, white sand all along the Dutch coast, from Cadzand in the south to the islands north of Friesland.
lives in the little village of Lisse, which lies about halfway between Amsterdam and The Hague, just a few kilometers from the sea. In summer, city dwellers flock to the bars and clubs by the nearby beach. There are a few other hotspots, but the rest of the coast is mostly tranquil: just swaying grasses and swirling sand, the calls of the gulls and lapping waves. By wintertime, it’s abandoned. Winds blow in off the North Sea and batter the shore. That is when the beach races are held. Sebastian Langeveld
“I’ve been doing them almost every winter, and it’s not like you’re a professional rider and you’re on the start line and you know you are going to win.”
The Dutch invented beach racing out of necessity. During the mountain-bike boom of the 1990s, riders in Holland were faced with a peculiarly Dutch problem: there was hardly anywhere to ride their new off-road machines. Farmers’ fields were hardly the most challenging terrain, and you would soon have a tractor coming after you if you ran over a flower. Open countryside was in very short supply, with a town in every direction every few kilometers, except by the sea.
The first race was held in 1993—135 kilometers from Hoek van Holland to Den Helder. The organizer Filip Kos had ridden the route on a whim the year before and known right away that he wanted to turn it into a race. Eighty-seven riders took part on mountain-bikes and cross-bikes that first year. It was every man for himself.
In the years since, the sport’s popularity has exploded. The races are now much more organized and competitive. On any given weekend right through the winter, World Tour pros will duke it out on the sand with local specialists, while business clubs and families bring up the rear. The French, Belgians, and Brits have taken up the sport, and the Dutch cycling federation now organizes an overall classification for the top men and women. The first European championships were held in 2016. This January, more than 4,000 people raced Egmond-Pier-Egmond, the biggest beach event of the season.
“It is actually quite a serious thing,” Sebastian Langeveld says. “I’ve been doing them almost every winter, and it’s not like you’re a professional rider and you’re on the start line and you know you are going to win.”
From the gun, the best riders have to sprint to make it into the first group before the peloton splits in the wind. And there is always wind. Racing into it can be a very hard slog, but with it at their backs, riders can easily hit 65 km/hr.
Beach racing requires more than speed and power though. The sands are always shifting. The art is in making sure your tires are on the fastest surface. Most races include a few technical sections up into a forest or through the dunes too. One race, riders might find themselves hiking their bikes up a steep pitch. The next, they could be racing laps around a criterium circuit.
Sebastian Langeveld makes it a goal to win one every winter.
I like to do some beach races. It keeps you mentally fresh and ready to go.”
“Some guys are doing the six days, and some guys are doing some cyclocross races. I like to do some beach races,” he says. “It keeps you mentally fresh and ready to go.”
His coach, Jonathan Vaughters, agrees. “It’s something Sebas likes. He’s competitive and likes competing. Purely on a training level, the beach races are great for extended steady maximum aerobic power. It’s like a short mountain workout. There aren’t so many mountains in Holland, so it’s perfect.”
Langeveld modified his Cannondale mountain bike for racing on the sand. Some riders opt for frames with a more road-like geometry and drop handlebars. He just switched out the suspension fork for a rigid one and mounted special slick tires. The best set up for the discipline has yet to be determined. What is certain is that you need bigger gears to handle the high speeds and you have to run very low pressures in your tires. The more rubber there is on the sand, the faster you go, Langeveld says. He runs as little air as possible in his tires to better float over the beach.
Langeveld doesn’t prepare specifically for the beach races, but he does often head out onto the sand to do his normal training during the winter months. That allows him to avoid the risk of falling on icy roads, and he can always go up into the shelter of the dunes to warm up if he gets a bit cold.
“You don’t have any traffic lights. You’re alone. The scenery is beautiful. You can do really good efforts,” he says. “Sometimes, it’s nice to get away from the road bike for a little bit.”
Many of the best Dutch pros agree. On January 27th, Langeveld beat them all at the beach race in Noordwijk, which was run on the Langevelderslag—his home beach.
No beach vacation for sure.
Learn more about Sebastian Langeveld here.