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Into the Wind: The Story of the Dutch Headwind Time Trial Championships

By Joshua Donaldson

Ask yourself, what is the most brutal race in cycling? The Tour de France? Paris-Roubaix? Maybe Race Across America? Well, for brutality per kilometre, look no further than the Dutch Headwind Time Trial Championships. This annual race, now in its seventh year, is an 8.5-kilometre time trial along a storm-surge barrier in Oosterscheldekering, southern Netherlands. The course is very simple – a straight line into one of the strongest headwinds in Europe.

The race was started by Robrecht Stoekenbroek in 2013 and it has gone from strength to strength each year, picking up sponsors Eneco and Gazelle along the way. But don’t think that this race is just a gimmick – it is serious. Along with storm-resistant seating for spectators and a designated vomit zone, this race takes place on the predicted ‘worst weather day’ of the year, meaning riders have to be ready to race at very short notice – three days before an impending storm.

This year, the race took place just before Storm Eunice that ripped across Europe but conditions were no less brutal. Wind speeds were rated at 7 out of 10 (code yellow) – one point lower than the 2020 race, which had to be abandoned due to dangerous conditions. It’s certainly not a summer breeze the riders are dealing with.

Normally, in a time trial, cyclists use aerodynamics to their advantage, honing their craft in a wind tunnel – which is probably the literal feeling of this race – to find the perfect position so they can cut through the air in the most efficient way. However, in NK Tegenwindfietsen, this is not only impossible but frowned upon. The organisers give each rider an identically specced bike, a single-speed aluminium Gazelle city bike, which does include a brake but it’s fair to say no one needs that.

Despite the three-day notice, the race is limited to 300 competitors per year, each setting off in 30-second intervals. The ‘quickest’ time was set in 2013, the inaugural edition, by Bart Brentjens. His time of 17 minutes and 51 seconds is relative, though, as wind speed, not time, is king in this race. On this exposed section of the barrier, wind speeds during the race can gust to 120 kilometres per hour, which has the ability to sweep you off your feet. For the cyclists, it means giving your all to go pretty much nowhere. In this year’s event won by Jurjun van der Velde in a time of 20 minutes and 23 seconds, he averaged an impressive speed of 25.21 km/h over the 8.5-km course. Factoring in that this is on a city bike and the wind is biting at you for the whole journey, this is a staggering time.

In the women’s event, Lisa Scheenaard could be considered the Marianne Vos of this very niche discipline, winning the last three editions. And she is unrivalled, winning by nearly 5 minutes in this year’s race.

So, why do it? Why put yourself through roughly 30 minutes of torture? Stoekenbroek told THEN24: “This edition sold out faster than ever, within three hours. I think it is a kind of therapy for the Netherlands after two corona years.”

And maybe that is it? It is something of an escape where it is you vs the wind for 30 minutes, where nothing else matters and you battle the elements to see who is better. For a country built upon that very thought, perhaps there is no better place for this to flourish than the Netherlands. It is a country reclaiming itself from the sea with ingenuity and tenacity. You may not need those when riding this race but you certainly need some Dutch courage.

If you want to find out more about the race, follow them on Twitter, and if you want to take part in 2023, you’ll have to be quick and near to the Netherlands. But if you want to take part, you won’t regret it.