The new UCI Gravel Series comes as gravel cycling continues its rise in popularity, gravel is very much the buzz word this year. What better way to experience the growth of gravel than heading to the heartland of cycling, Belgium, for the seventh round of this new headline race series.
After a long journey from the UK we climbed into the Ardennes before dropping down to the town of Houffalize which has a rich history of cycling having hosted the UCI MTB World Cup from 1990 to 2012. For me the Ardennes have become a place of happiness, I've been here to race cross country world cups, world marathon series races, stage races and now the UCI Gravel World Series. International trips have been few and far between this year due to the rising costs of travel so each trip is now extra special, this was my third trip to the Ardennes this year!
Friday we made it out onto the race track to sample what was in store, we bumped and shook our way around the final 50 kilometres of the 110 kilometre course. The gravel roads round here are pretty rough on a gravel bike! Tired inserts, maybe 45c tyres and even a suspension fork would have made things a bit more comfortable! The gravel roads were rough and the singletrack was challenging. After practise I was genuinely worried about just how challenging Saturdays race would be.
8 am the next morning we were on the start line, the techno music was blasting and the commentator was hyping everyone up for what was to follow. A coaching client and I squeezed our way onto the front row. I hoped to stay near the front of the race but really didn't know what to expect from the hours ahead! I didn't have any support and didn't even know how long the race would take. It was actually quite a refreshing change from the regimented routines of other events.
The race began up the Cote de Saint Roche, almost 1 kilometre long at 12% gradient and pitches of 20%! This 3 plus minute efforts is a killer start! I launched from the line with 1500 other participants behind me, heading into the climb I was well placed, half way up I was still in the first few riders and could hear the heavy breathing around me as other riders oxygen demand exceeded possible oxygen uptake! The legs were good, I was working hard, really hard by the top, but managed to maintain position and felt I could have moved onto the front if I wanted too. I start to think a big result was possible today.
Onto the first descent and it’s my first sighting of just how fast the gravel pros are. Uphill, on the flat, and downhill, its full gas!! Where I felt like we should be braking they are on the pedals accelerating!
At 10 kilometres in there's a big lead group that's formed, perhaps 30 riders. Heading down one particularly fast section the people on the front of the group see the route signage too late and slam on their brakes, for the riders behind there's no time to brake! Crash, bang, crunch! About half the lead group are on the floor. I get a soft landing and am back up on the bike quickly. A pause to the effort is called so those in the crash can make their way back but I'm certain a few bikes and bodies never got back up.
I was still in the lead group though and gradually through an increase in pace and the difficult terrain the group was whittled down to a group of around 8. I was sitting comfortably until my chain jumped off the chainring, I jumped off the bike to find the chain looped around itself. I lost a minute at that point, time gap provided by someone at the first feed zone. Was the race already lost within the first 20 kilometres? I powered on knowing the front group would likely split and I could at least catch a few people. I set about riding the climbs at or just above threshold, soon I could see the leaders ahead with a few stragglers behind who'd been dropped. I overtook one by one until just one more big effort got me back to the leaders. The legs showed up today!!
I recover on the back of the lead group before taking any turns on the front. The kilometres quickly tick over, I'm very happy that the opening 60 kilometres isn't as rough as the remaining part of the course we'd practised on Friday. This did worry me though, the hardest part of the race was still to come.
We fly along through the countryside, up and down hills, round the edges of farmers fields, through little picturesque villages, and punch through dense forests on gravel roads and trails. We are on the part of the route I knew and soon reaching three quarters distance. There's just four of us left at the front. With 20 kilometres to go my gears begin to jump, the indexing has moved out of sync, a rock strike perhaps tweaking the mech or mech hanger. I have to stop to adjust the gears and in my adrenaline filled state it takes a couple of attempts to get them usable again. This takes time and a sizeable gap opens. I don't lose my cool even though I knew that could be podium chances gone.
The legs keep pumping, I know my durability is good and I'm staying on top of my nutrition, so I begin to chase. I just need to catch one person to get on the podium. The legs are now beginning to complain but I ignore the lactate and fatigue, a podium is at stake at a UCI race, this is a fight worth having. I push on the pedals again and again until I can see the group ahead at maybe 30 seconds. It's not easy by I claw my way back to the leaders. I can sense their surprise as I catch. The attacks are happening, punching me whilst I need to recover, one rider is especially keen to break up the group or go solo. He launches attack after attack, uphill and downhill. With 10 kilometres to go one of the group gets crossed up in a rut and gets fired out into a farmers field through the electric fence! That could be my ticket to the podium but a few minutes later he catches us leaders.
I'd burnt a lot of matches catching up those minutes from the two mechanicals and each attack I had to follow in the final kilometres hurt. I replied to every attack all the way up to the final minutes, ultimately though I lost a bit of time on the long final descent as these three were on fire downhill. Maybe I should have in unplugged my brain and let off the brakes? Or maybe I should have been on the front of the group controlling the pace?
Down onto the road back into Houffalize and I was 20 second behind! Podium chances gone? I chased but with a kilometre to go what chances were there? There was one last sting to the course, a 350 meter climb rising 30 meters with an average gradient of 8% and a much greater max gradient. I come close to catching third place but we were both on our limit and there just wasn't enough climb left before we crested the top and dropped down the tarmac to the finish line.
Houffa Gravel done, 4th place at my first UCI Gravel World Series race! The pace was HOT, 355 watts normalized! I was so close to the podium, frustrating on one hand but I was also super happy as well. This was my second fourth place this year in Houffalize as I finished the same position at the UCI Marathon in May. Today there was 1500 starters, 4th place is pretty good!!
This was my second taste of gravel racing and I'm buzzing. Theres a few big mountain bike races coming up in the weeks again but I’m excited for some more gravel bike action later in the year! The question now I've qualified for World Gravel Champs is should I make the trip to northern Italy in just over a month’s time?