What cycling race is the toughest to compete in? The French Tour? Paris-Roubaix? Or how about Race Across America? Look no further than the Dutch Headwind Time Trial Championships for brutality per kilometer. This 8.5-kilometer time trial along a storm-surge barrier in Oosterscheldekering, southern Netherlands, is an annual competition that is now in its seventh year. The route is straightforward: it’s a straight line into one of Europe’s strongest headwinds.
Robrecht Stoekenbroek founded the competition in 2013, and since then, it has grown every year, attracting sponsors like Eneco and Gazelle. But don’t think this race is just a publicity stunt; it’s actually very serious. This race is held on the ‘worst weather day’ of the year, so riders must be prepared to race at very short notice – three days before an impending storm – along with storm-resistant spectator seating and a designated vomit zone.
This year’s race took place just before Storm Eunice, which tore through Europe, but the weather was no less harsh. A 7 out of 10 (code yellow) wind speed rating was given, one point less than the race in 2020, which had to be abandoned due to hazardous weather. The riders are not experiencing a summer breeze, for sure.
In a time trial, cyclists typically use aerodynamics to their advantage. They hone their skills in a wind tunnel, which is probably how this race felt, to find the ideal position so they can cut through the air as efficiently as possible. This is not only not possible in NK Tegenwindfietsen, but it is also frowned upon. Each participant receives an identically equipped single-speed Gazelle city bike made of aluminium from the organizers, which does have a brake but, it’s safe to say, nobody uses it.
Despite the three-day notice, there are only 300 participants allowed in the race each year, and they all start at 30-second intervals. In the first competition, which took place in 2013, Bart Brentjens set the “quickest” time. While he finished in 17 minutes and 51 seconds, it is important to note that in this race, wind speed—not time—rules. Wind gusts of up to 120 kph on this exposed section of the barrier during the race have the power to knock you off your feet. For the cyclists, it entails exerting all of your effort for essentially no reward. Jurjun van der Velde won the race this year in 20 minutes and 23 seconds, averaging an impressive 25.21 km/h over the 8.5-km course. This is a staggering time, especially when you consider that you are riding a city bike and that the wind is biting you the entire way.
With three consecutive victories in the women’s competition, Lisa Scheenaard might be regarded as the Marianne Vos of this extremely specialized discipline. And she is unmatched, winning this year’s race by almost 5 minutes.
Why then do it? Why subject yourself to this roughly 30-minute ordeal? According to Stoekenbroek, “This edition sold out within three hours, which is faster than ever. After two years under the Corona, I believe it to be a form of therapy for the Netherlands.
And perhaps that’s it? For 30 minutes, you and the wind face off against each other in a kind of escape where nothing else matters and you test your mettle against nature. There may not be a better place for this to flourish than the Netherlands, a nation founded on that very idea. It is a nation that has used ingenuity and tenacity to reclaim itself from the sea. When competing in this race, you might not need those, but you definitely need some Dutch bravery.
Follow them on Twitter to learn more about the race, and if you want to compete in 2023, you’ll need to be quick and close to the Netherlands. However, if you decide to participate, you won’t regret it.