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Chasing World Champions at Houffa Gravel

The latest round of the UCI Gravel World Series took place this weekend in Houffalize, Belgium. Houffa Gravel would be the second last qualifier of the season and attracted one of the biggest stars in cycling, the vice world champion in road and cross, Wout van Aert who choose this to be his first UCI Gravel event with the plan to do the World Championships later this season in Italy. Huge battles for the win were expected with last year’s winners Jasper Ockeloen and Tessa Neefjes, and other top stars like Niki Terpstra, Peter Vakoc, Paulina Rooijakkers, Johnny Hoogerland, Jan Bakelants and gravel specialists Ivar Slik, Piotr Havik, Hayley Simmonds, Paul Voss, plus cyclocross riders Joris Nieuwenhuis, Manon Bakker, Daan Soete; Ryan Kamp and Lander Loockx all being in attendance.

This would be my third entry into the 2023 series having already raced events in the Netherlands in April and Spain in June. This would be the biggest event in the series in terms of start numbers and competitiveness making it tricky to match my fourth place from last year, especially after missing two and a half weeks of training in July due to illness. It was great to be back in the Ardennes once again, an area I’ve fallen in love with since first visiting way back in 2012 when racing the MTB XCO World Cup. Since then I’ve been here for cross country, marathon, multi day stage and gravel races. I’ve travelled here with many friends and clients, this time travelling with wife and three-year-old son, it would be their first time to the area so I was excited for them to enjoy this beautiful region and experience the atmosphere of one of these events.

Race day dawned and the techno music boomed from the start line where thousands of eager participants were lining up ready to take on the challenging route. As 8.30 approached the tension rose and the medio crews gathered to capture images and quotes from Wout. With the press cleared out of the way the countdown began. Time slows down until the gun blasts and everything goes into fast forwards. The 110km race starts up the Côte du Saint Roch before winding through the beautiful woods around the city for a race with 1560m of elevation.

The start climb ends the hopes of many before even completing the opening few kilometres. This year I was on my limit trying to hold the front group up the climb, unable to move forwards when we crest the top and speed towards the first section of gravel, I could feel those missing watts after having covid 3 weeks ago. Despite the illness I set my fastest time up the 910m climb with its 109m’s of elevation, my Rotor INspider and Wahoo Elemnt Bolt tell me I rode at an average of 506 watts for 3 minutes 21. Very quickly the gravel road narrows until we are riding single file, you needed to be towards the front as the race was splitting as gaps opened due to differences in technical ability. I watch the front group establish but wasn’t confident enough to immediately close the gap, soon it was too late and my chance of a racing for the podium was gone. I tell many coaching clients, it’s only when you’ve learnt your limits and have the confidence to push to your limits that you’ll get the very best from yourself. Today though I’m thinking negatively, I tell myself I should be riding cautiously, I don’t know my current limits after being ill and it’s better to save some energy. Riding in the second group would avoid the fireworks which would inevitably be happening up front.

I settle into a group of around ten and we speed along until we miss a turn, the same turn everyone missed last year, I even knew it was coming up but the speed was so high it was impossible to slow down for the turn in time. This allowed the group behind us to catch. As we rejoin the route and accelerated back up to speed the pressure was on as riders looked to take advantage of our mistake. I had to work hard at this point but soon found myself back in the second group. Soon the group splits again with age group world champion Kevin Panhuyzen, myself and one other rider making a break. We worked well together keeping the pace high trying to establish our gap to the riders behind. The pace is high uphill, on the flat and downhill. At this point in the race I am on my limit physically and pulling short turns, luckily Kevin is flying and is confident enough to do the bulk of the work on the front to help us maintain our advantage. I know I need to hang onto his wheel if I’m going to maintain a top ten finish.

I’m super thankful to be on the Lauf Seigla at this race, the suspension fork and compliant frame make a huge difference on what is one of the rougher gravel tracks I’ve done. The 45c Schwalbe G One R tyres at 29 psi, tyre inserts and Strada Gravel Ultra Plus wheels also help maintain my momentum. On one of the more technical trails one of the riders in our group punctures, leaving just Kevin and me. If you were on the mountain bike you’d have the dropper down on many of these descents and likely go much quicker on many of the trails. There were plenty of gravel bikes rocking 50c tyres for this race, Wout was stuck on 38c tyres due to sponsorship commitments!

With around 30 kilometres to go Petr Vakoc catches us, riding at a speed like he’s on a motorbike, there are two others tucked onto his wheel. We join this trio but this group quickly splits with two riders not having the same technical ability as us. Kevin and I hang on to Petr wheel for as long as possible until he gaps us on a climb. I later learn that Petr was keeping pace with Wout at the front of the race before puncturing. With Petr gone we can settle back into a steady pace, only disrupted when Kevin takes his white world champs kit for a slide through a huge muddy puddle! It was pretty spectacular but he was back up on the bike quickly and able to rejoin me after a few minutes.

It was no surprise to see Wout van Aert emerge victorious in his maiden UCI Gravel race. What truly turned heads, however, was the commanding 9-minute lead he established over the rest of the field, an achievement even he found impressive. Wout’s training partner Daan Soete (BEL) would finish second, ahead of Paul Voss (GER) who had previously showcased his prowess by winning in Aachen earlier in the season.

A similar narrative unfolded in the women's race as Pauliena Rooijakkers (NED) established an early lead over her fellow Dutch rider Sabrina Stultiens (NED). She maintained her dominance throughout the race, ultimately securing victory with nearly a 2-minute advantage over Stultiens. Meanwhile, mountain biker Stefanie Dohrn (GER), who had finished as the runner-up the previous year, clinched the third spot on the podium this time, claiming the bronze medal.

I raced with Kevin to the line, opting not to outsprint him in thanks of his support earlier in the race. I would finish up in eighth, less than three minutes away from a top five and five minutes off the podium. With the high level of competition and limited preparation I’m more than satisfied with the result. I now have three weeks till Nationals and another two weeks till European Championships, enough time to hopefully sharpen up for a big end to the season. First some recovery is needed, each of these trips takes a lot of work, this and two full days of travelling is tiring. 700 miles of driving and two ferries, all to do a four-hour race! It’s well worth the effort though when the adventure takes you to places and events as special as this one, this trip was made all the more enjoyable travelling with the family.


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