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A super fast European Gravel Champs

Updated: Oct 6, 2023

The end of season is in sight but the two most prestigious events on the gravel calendar remained, European and World championships. Win one of these two races and your name is etched in sporting history. These races are still in their infancy, it was the first Europeans this weekend and next weekend will be the second Worlds. For many a race like the Traka arguably still holds more credibility as the biggest gravel race in Europe. The race course in Belgium was dubbed as a very flat race on cobbles through the forest, there were very few proper offroad sectors with any technical features. It was a track that suited a road cyclist. A gravel bike with 38c slick road tyres would win the women's race and a road bike with cyclocross tyres would win the men's race! What does that say about the sport? It certainly doesn't help the bike industry which is pouring money into this discipline. There is absolutely no way such a bike setup could win a race like the Traka. At the Rift this year lots of riders were on 50c gravel tyres the course was so rough. What is a gravel race though? There is no official definition and no guidelines on bikes from the UCI except that they must have drop bars. The sport will evolve in future years and hopefully these big championships will change from using a gravel route you can win on a road bike to proper gravel routes like we race on everywhere else.

Fortunately, the course raced far better than it rode and where the course lacked the event made up for in other areas. Live TV coverage on Sporza and GCN+, a first for gravel in Europe. A huge turnout of spectators with over 25,000 out in the forests, the start finish was packed, as were several fan zones out on course, the smell of Belgium beer and frits filled the air! The race attracted the biggest stars of the sport, the title and jersey a huge draw for these professional athletes. The start list was impressive with a mix of specialists from gravel, cyclocross, mountain bike and road. 1667 participants attending the events from 31 different countries.

After not starting World Marathon Champs in August due to illness it felt great to be back racing such a huge event. Covid meant I had 2.5 weeks off the bike in July and August, it’s taken a long time to regain form, my fitness is down 30 CTL from late spring and early summer, threshold power is down 20 watts. Another week of illness mid-September was another blow. Most people wouldn't even bother starting European and World Champs knowing they are so far from their best but I was determined to have fun racing my Lauf Seigla as fast as possible.

At the end I was 45th over the line, just ahead of the likes of Daniel Oss, Philippe Gilbert and David Van Der Poel! I couldn't match my pre season goal of top 20 or beat my 28 number board but was riding about there until a puncture on the third of five laps. Fortunately the Squirt sealant plugged the hole so I only had to put air in the tyre once which was a quick repair. The stop meant I lost the group though and dropped back to the next group on the road. It was a crazy fast race, the first 27 km lap was done at 37 kph, 369 watts normalized! I finished feeling absolutely cracked having run out of gels and energy drink with over an hour to go, I was very jealous of everyone who had feed zone support. It was incredible fun to ride absolutely full gas for over 4 hours at such fast speed, the course raced so much better than it rode.

In the female race over 131km, a group of 4 broke away on the final local lap with sprinter Lorena Wiebes (NED), cyclocross world champion Fem van Empel (NED), Elena Cecchini (ITA) and Tiffany Cromwell (AUS) battling for victory. Cromwell, not battling for the European title managed to get away in the last uphill to finally win with a small gap to Wiebes taking silver and the European title and van Empel as overall bronze.

The men battling for their titles over 160km or one extra lap saw a big group of 25 breaking away on the big loop. From that group Alex Colman (BEL) got a one minute gap on the second last lap, but it was Jasper Stuyven (BEL) who came back after puncture to close the gap and go over Colman to take a minute gap to the group behind to take the first European title in the men elite. Tim Merlier (BEL) outsprinted Paul Voss (GER) for silver and bronze.

Another fantastic weekend of racing bikes is complete, I now look forward to pulling on GB colours for Worlds Champs on the 8th of October in Italy.

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