I can’t see a thing. The dust is covering my sight. I aim for the dark dot before me, which should be another rider. I hold on to my handlebar. I can’t even cross my fingers not to hit a rock or loose gravel. It’s a carnage, but I’m not considering to back off. However, several riders must stop on the roadside due to mechanical issues.
We are just 13k into the UCI World Championship. The urban smell of pizza and espressos is swapped to the smell of fertilizers as we are onto rural gravel roads from La Bandie in Treviso heading north towards Pieve di Soligo in the Veneto region. Most people would travel here for the UNESCO city of Venice or head to the Dolomites. I’m racing alongside 214 of the World’s best gravel riders.
READ FROM 2022: UCI Gravel World Championship
I’m getting used to the screaming sound of disc brakes. Another almost-crash. One rider is standing in the ditch. An American rider tried to move up outside the gravel road and hit a sand pit. He has to stop. His mistake. Everyone wants to make it to the front. I started in 130th position, and making it to the front is quite a bold effort. It takes determination, strong legs, and quite some risks. I don’t want to puncture as I did early in the race last year, and I’m not pushing across the limit, but I make sure I keep up with the long stretched peloton of hundreds of meters. I try to be patient as it’s another 155 km to go, and the climbs haven’t even started.
Wout van Aerd is standing in the sand. Gianni Vermeersch punctures. Some riders are getting dropped. Many riders are in difficulties. So far, I have not had any difficulties and feel good. It’s a great feeling. I have been struggling with a cold for the last week, and training has been limited. I have been resting a lot, so my legs are fresh.
We hit the first climb after 30k of riding. It’s partly gravel, with the steepest parts on concrete. Wout van Aerd is passing me at the entrance to the climb. I try to hold on, but he is too strong. Several riders are struggling. I can manage the pace, but I cannot jump across when splits are opening in the front. At the top, I’m in a chasing group behind the first 35 riders.
Vebjørn Rønning is here too. He is one of the three men representing Norway in the Men Elite category. Simen Nordahl is the other rider.
– Don’t stress too much, I tell Vebjørn. There is plenty of firepower here in this group. No need to pull the group, I tell him. He agrees.
But at the next second, Gianni Vermeersch is motoring past the group. As I realize it’s the last year’s winner, I make it up to his wheel. Three Italian riders join the pace-setting, and I get a hard but handy train closing in on the big peloton.
– 1 minute, guys. Let’s catch them, Gianni encourages.
We pass the finish line and onto the first of two loops. The one we are starting is 45 km and has a lot of elevation with some steep and hard climbs. The second is longer but has mostly flatter gravel farm roads, finishing with three killer climbs. It won’t be a big group finishing together, but survival of the fittest.
We catch another Belgian rider. I make a few friendly pulls but let the Italians and Belgians take responsibility.
The road is ramping up. We are starting the first of many climbs on this loop. Gianni pushes the pace. My legs are feeling good, but my lungs are not responding as usual to the high oxygen consumption. I cannot keep up. They slowly get away from me. As we close the top, I see the peloton passing the summit. I know Gianni is going to make it up to the front. I am not.
It’s a beautiful course. Italian vineyards, flower farms, brewery, lakes, and views towards the high Dolomites. The course offers lots of variation. After I got dropped from the Gianni group, I feel empty. Eventually, I got caught by a group behind me. We are keeping a good pace on the foot trails along the lake. A few riders are sliding out in the corners. It’s dry, and therefore, the gravel is quite loose. Today will be another hot day, and the temperatures are already up in the mid-20s Celsius.
We are into another steep climb with more than 20%. I feel a bit nauseous every time I push hard. I assume my lungs aren’t ready to work at maximum capacity. But my legs recover well, and after the next downhill, I'm ready to pedal hard again.
As we are coming to the end of the loop, I am caught by Vebjørn. Then, not much later, we get passed by another hitter. Wout van Aerd is again coming from the group. I was really surprised, I thought he was up the road. This time there’s no free wheeling as we turn left. A big sign announces we are now starting Muro d’Ca del Poggio. The sign also compares it to Mur de Bretagne and Muur Geraardsbergen. A suffer fest.
I grind my way up, but Wout disappear.
I start daydreaming. My mind wanders to home in Norway. Usually, I manage to stay focused and concentrated during the length of a gravel race. My head is not where it should be today, maybe because of the recent cold or lack of training the last week. The season is coming to an end, so I guess it’s pretty standard. I am not at my best, but I feel comfortable following the pace in my group. I am now in a group of 20 riders. Some German riders, a couple of Spaniards, a Slovenian, an American, a Dane, and a few others. The pace is set by a Belgian and Richard Larsen from Sweden. I do my share of turns.
– Snake, Watch out! I scream. Richard is leading the group as a back snake is ealing across the road. As Richard maneuvers around it, it bites for Richard but misses. I don’t know if it’s poisonous, but I don’t want the Swede to find out.
Not long after the group starts the last 25 km, which might be the most challenging part of the whole race, there are continuously steep ramps with gradients of 20+%. Luckily, most of it is on concrete, not gravel.
As we climb the first kicker, I realize I am about to lose my power. I want to stop and walk, but I manage to keep pedaling. I am losing the group. From now on, it doesn’t matter; it’s one man for himself. Drafting doesn’t help much here.
I get another bottle from Bjørn, the father of Simen. He and Sindre, the father of Vebjørn, gave me fantastic support with the feed zones. And the sports drinks are needed in the heat. But there is a problem; in the feed zone chaos, I did not receive my own bottles of Ryno Power. Can I still stay energized all the way?
I take a big zip from the bottle before crossing a river and soon start long and steep climbs. A few riders are passing me, but I don’t care. I want to make it to the finish.
– Brroooom. What is that? There have been a lot of fans along the course and especially in the hills. They have been incredible, making noice and cheering at us riders. But this one is a little too much. I don’t know if it’s a chainsaw or a leaf blower, but it’s really loud. And the guy next to him has a boat horn. I have a headache, and honestly, peace would feel better now, but I have to appreciate the enthusiasm.
The next 15 km are up and down. Pietr Havik is passing me. He had a crash, but is making it to the finish. This is a survivor race. The UCI finally managed to make a course that capture the gravel racing. Challenging, hard, variation mostly gravel. Where the riders not only need to pedal fast but also be able to handle the bike and their equipment.
I make a right turn and a beautiful gravel road is twisting up along a river. I know what’s coming, and it’s not pretty. It’s going to be hard.
I’m on the last stretch before the finish. I am going to make it. The pain is over. I want to say the fun is also over, but honestly, the last hill was not something I’d recommend. Torture. Not something I want to even for my worst enemy. Oh well, the fans made it special. Hundreds of people cheering up the climb. I appreciated everyone running alongside me and giving me a friendly push in the steepest sections.
I’m wasted, but not many meters left. An epic ride is coming to an end. The World Championship in Gravel. Gravel racing is definitely here to stay. I’m crossing the line. 72nd and the best-placed Norwegian.
I am relieved. Starting from place 130 in a strong field wasn’t ideal, but I can be more happy with the final place. Okay, 72nd might not be something most people will remember, but from laying in bed a week back, with anything but perfect preparation, made me nervous. Seeing many strong names behind me or just in front of me boosts my self-esteem. I know I have more in store on a better day.
Having a perfect run when it comes to equipment is also something I’m pleased about. My tire choice, running Challenge Getaway XP 40mm, was definitely a good one. The Felt Breed Carbon bike, as always, felt good, and the newly mounted chain catcher worked as a charm - no chain drops. Thanks, Bjørn, for setting up my bike.
Thanks to my fellow Norwegian riders and their parents for the feeding.
I’ll build on this, saving the whole experience in the back of my head, and make sure I am taking another step next year. Now, you find me at the nearest pizzeria.
Belgian Waffle Ride, or simply BWR, is one of the most popular gravel series in the US, and this weekend it set for the penultimate race of the year. Let's dive into my experience from the Midwestern prairie.
– It’s too early to let the race be decided, I think to myself and push up the hill to close the gap. 6 of the favorites are already up the road, but my 12-man group is joining them.
READ FIRST: Belgian Waffle Ride Kansas 2022
It’s a chilly morning in Lawrence, Kansas. It didn’t take many minutes to warm up. The race is already aggressive, and we have just started. It's going to be a long day in the Kansas hills. And a windy one: it’s a steady 16 mph (7 m/s) wind from the north, and right now, we are facing it. We are 10 km into the 197 km/122 miles Waffle course, a hilly course with constantly rolling hills.
One of the main protagonists will be my fellow Norwegian Torbjørn Røed, who studies at the Colorado Mesa University—a strong rider. Last year's winner, Adam Roberge, is here too. Ex. World Tour-pro Nicholas Roche is setting the pace with Brennan Johnston on his wheel. We are now a group of about 25 riders. Soon, Luke Hall is breaking away with six riders—an aggressive start to the race.
The break keeps growing their lead. My group, the chasing 20-men group, are attacking each other, and we are just partly cooperating in the chase to catch the riders up front. I’m riding conservative and try not to do more than I need to. My legs feel alright, but my breath is still not 100% after my recent cold. My lung capacity is not at its highest, but I am determined to get the most out of my day either way.
We have done 82k/51 miles of the race and head into some narrow trails into the woods.
– May I pass, please? I ask.
I am in the Perry Lake Trail, a 7k technical section. I lost the wheel of the first riders of the group right before the trail and try now to make up ground, passing one rider and chasing the next. I struggle to find a good flow, and soon, I am all by myself in the woods. There are some sections where I need to dismount and carry the bike. In other parts, the biggest challenge is to avoid the sharp rocks.
Finally, I am closing in on a rider, then:
– Screeeetchgrrr… A strange sound is coming from my front wheel as the wheel suddenly stops rolling. I stop quickly and see the problem. A stick of wood is jammed between the fork and the wheel. I pull it out and start riding, but the rider in front is gone. I am alone with 110k/68 miles to go.
– I must hang on; I’m not fighting this wind alone! I think to myself.
My motivation right now is not to get a result but to get to the finish. I’m riding with three other riders. We are keeping a good pace. In the hardest climbs, I don’t want to keep suffering, but I know the road home gets so much longer if you find yourself alone out here on the prairie. The elevation is starting to take its toll, but the other riders are also tired. We have done nearly 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) of elevation on gravel roads.
We are about 30k to the finish now. After Griffin Easter managed to catch us, we have been on a good speed but have not caught many riders. Perhaps there are about ten riders ahead. I don’t know.
Then, we see Ian Lopez De San Roman ahead. Finally, we are catching someone.
– Shall we try to pass with speed so maybe he can’t catch on? I ask Griffin.
– Let’s do it, he answers.
As we are catching Ian, I go on a full sprint. He is caught by surprise but accelerates. We keep pushing. We're playing cat-and-mouse for a bit, but ultimately, he manages to get on our wheels.
The last final of the course is pretty unique for gravel. When we arrive at the finishing arena, we are led onto a 10-mile (16 km) single track instead of passing the finish line. It’s a flowy and smooth trail, but it's hard to pass other riders. Therefore, I set the pace into the last corner. Kyle Trudeau sprints past me and makes the corner first. I enter the trail second of us. Now, it’s all about finding the rhythm on these trails. But I make an early mistake and go too hot in a corner. I need to dismount with one foot, and Ian passes me.
I try to catch up with Ian. He’s not far ahead, but the gap keeps growing. Five seconds, then ten, then 20 seconds. Eventually, I cannot see him. I have been riding well on the trails, but I’m about to lose the flow. Luckily, there are no riders to see behind either. It seems like I will stay in this position to the finish.
– Where is the finish? I get a little frustrated. The trail is never-ending. It’s 2 km to go. It takes forever.
There, I see the turn, and I am on the last grass spiral to the finish line. It’s like cyclocross, though no hurdles, luckily. There is the line. Finally! Another BWR accomplished!
– Jonas Orset, 10th place!, the speaker announces.
– Jonas will be glad to hear his countryman won the race, the speaker continues. Wow, that’s great. Torbjørn won the race! A good Norwegian day in Kansas.
I’m happy with 10th in this company. Belgian Waffle Ride is always highly challenging and demanding, and this is my best result in this race series. The best thing about this race would, nevertheless, be the waffles at the finish, and I’m not getting one, but two waffles and a Belgian finisher beer.
Thanks for another great Belgian Waffle Ride. I look forward to next year!
Also, I thank Cadence Cyclery for preparing my bike and supporting me in the US. A shout-out to my teammate, Corey Ray, for making it to the finish despite an early crash. A true Viking spirit by my Texan friend.
READ ALSO: Belgian Waffle Ride Arizona
Last race of the season in Bentonville, Arkansas, USA. The final event of the Lifetime Grand Prix included all the best American off-road specialists in a showdown to dig into the prize purse of $30k. I’m not part of the Grand Prix, but I was racing alongside the best riders in the pro category. One hundred miles (160 km), 7500 feet (2300m) of climbing on gnarly gravel roads full of loose sand and sharp rocks. This is a dive into my Big Sugar Classic.
– This was not part of the plan, I think to myself as I push the pace up a tough climb 41 miles into the race. The surface is loose and chunky gravel. If I pedal standing, my tire will lose traction and spin. On my wheel is John Borstelmann. Behind us, it’s a 2-minute gap to the rest of the field. We are in a duo breakaway and helping each other to fight the wind.
John is known to be a powerful breakaway specialist who loves to go hard from the start of these gravel races. We were on an early move 10 miles into the race, but it didn’t stay long. A little later, I was up the road all alone, but again, I got pulled back by a 50-man peloton continually becoming smaller as riders couldn't keep up.
I stayed with the head of the group, and when I saw John attack again a few miles before the feed zone, I made a huge acceleration and closed the gap up to him. Then we were two.
Soon, we got a considerable lead. We are the break of the day. But this wasn’t part of my original plan. I was going to conserve energy and let the LifeTime riders set the pace. But I felt strong… and I got excited…
– Good job, John says while breathing heavily as he takes the front over the top of the climb.
It was hectic in the front group. Crashes, punctures, attacks, and sharp turns. In the front with John, we can ride steady and choose better lines to avoid the sharpest rocks.
– Watch out, I yell to John as four dogs run into the road. The two motorized bikes following us chase the dogs out of the road. We can keep riding, and the motorbikes roll on. They are filming and making content for Instagram. They are filming the race with a helicopter just above our head. The chopper is noisy, but being in the front seat of such an event is inspiring.
– Welcome to Missouri, John tells me. The roads are faster now. It’s a better surface but continuously rolling hills. Up and down. I feel good, but we are pushing a high pace, and I know it might cope up with me eventually.
It’s getting warmer. My head unit shows 27°C (80°F). I need to remember to eat and drink.
Then, at mile 65, I turn and see the chasers behind me. They are closing in, but we still have a 20 sec gap. Soon, we are starting a longer asphalt climb. John is pushing a pace I cannot keep up. I am getting caught by the front group. Only about 12 riders are in the group. I grind and manage to stay with them over the top.
Several riders are struggling. We are back on a gravel road. Riders such as Russel Finstervald and Alexie Vermuelen are getting dropped. I dig deep and close the gap to the first eight riders. This still looks good for me, but as the speed goes down, Russel and the other riders are closing the gap, and again, we are about 12 riders in the front group. There is one single warrior up the road. John hasn’t given up yet and is still a little ahead of the group.
The group keeps a steady pace, and I hang on. We start a longer drag, and I begin to struggle. My legs haven’t recovered my breakaway effort yet. After all, during the first 3 hours, I had 327 in normalized power, which are solid number for me. To be able to recover such an effort, I need to be in my very best form. I am not there today.
The first time I give a gap to the rider up front, I manage to close it, and then it happens. I blow up!
It’s a strange feeling. It doesn’t feel like it usually does when I blow up. I don’t feel like I’m boinking. I have just no more power in the legs to keep pushing. About the same time as I realize I will never see the front group again, the air goes out of me. I am depleted.
The first rider who passes me is Alexi Vermuelen, with Laurens ten Dam. They are going fast. A few minutes later, the next group is coming. It’s Dylan Johnson and Konny Loser. I don’t even try to hang on. Empty.
More riders are passing me. I don’t know if I will even finish now. What’s the point? My race is over. Well, I got to get home, so I better keep moving my heavy legs.
Not long ago, Peter Stetina passed me and told me to hang on. I dropped in the next climb. Luke Hall flew by a little earlier, telling me to follow him. I had to let him go. I’m out of it now. I gave it my all, and the result doesn’t matter anymore. I just want to get to the finish. Get home.
Riding alone, with no result goal anymore, I am able to enjoy the scenery and cheer for other riders from the 50-mile category that I am passing. There are my housemates from our Airbnb, Ann and Chris. They are also part of the Cadence family. Ann had a crash earlier but she keeps going. I ride alongside them for a few minutes, and we encourage each other before I continue on my mission to get to the finish line.
A little later, Lance Haidet is passing me, following two riders sponsored by Walmart. I love Walmart. It’s so American. I’ve been five months in the US for the last two years, but I am still a tourist in many ways. Walmart is originally from Bentonville. There is even a museum downtown. It’s on my bucket list.
Lance keeps a steady pace across the cornfield. Finally, I am able to hang on. It’s a relief after getting passed by so many riders. Eventually, I feel fresh enough to contribute. It’s only 5-6 miles to the finish line now. I will get there.
We are dropping the two Walmart riders. We can almost smell the food trucks at the finish—one more asphalt climb.
Lance makes a last effort, and I tell him Hasta la vista. The final miles I’ll do in my rhythm.
There is the finish line. The lead group finished 25 min ago but is still there. I wave my hands to get some enthusiasm from the spectators as I pass the line.
– Great ride, man! It’s Alan Pocock, my fantastic support man. I smile and hug him. We made it.
I smile again when the speaker announces my fellow countryman and friend Torbjørn Røed winning the race. That’s insanely impressive! Viking power. Love it!
I'm happy with the day. I gave it a go, and I felt strong. This boosts my self-esteem that I can be a prominent rider among the best American riders. Today, I only had my leg battery charged for 100k, but next time, I hope I’ll have energy for 100 miles!
It’s been a long season, starting with the win in Renegade Rambler, Texas, in February, and I’m tired. I’ve been in the form of my life, but I need to reset. I assume the hectic last months, including the World Championship, Belgian Waffle Ride, and fighting off a cold caught up with me.
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Being off the front in such a race was super fun. It won’t be the last time I’ll try to break away. But it is the last time this year.
Thanks to Alan, Ray family, Chad, Terry, Nick, Eric, Ann, Mike, and the rest of Cadence Cyclery for giving me VIP support in the US. I am so grateful to you!
It's time to eat a burger, drink a cold beverage, rebuild, and get even better next season!
SEE MORE: Race stories 2023
The sun is rising. 15C. It’s quiet but humid after yesterday’s storm. Soon, another storm will be coming, named the final of Gravel Earth Final.
I am lining up with many big names in the world of gravel. Mattia de Marchi, Lukas Baum, David Lozano, Piotr Havik, Adam Blazevic and so on. I shouldn't forget to mention Carlos Verona from Team Movistar. The women are starting 5 min behind us.
It's an early start. 7.40 AM. We are minutes away from the final leg of Gravel Earth Series. A series gathering unique gravel events around the globe, from The Rift in Iceland to the Migration Race in the Masari desert in Kenya. I raced the Gravel Earth Series race in Sweden. Now we are here in Catalonia, 80 km outside Barcelona.
I arrived Thursday night. Jofre Prunera picked me up at the airport. Jofre is a friend and the founder of 101percent Training, where I also work as a cycling coach. Yesterday, we were accompanied by the Italian Maurizio, who, like Jofre, is racing for team Oleka. This morning, we woke up in our AirBnB by our alarm at 5:15 AM. I made my oatmeal, and after a morning coffee, we took off to the start.
The organizer is setting the scene with sparklers and a motivational talk. "The world's best gravel riders are all here, “ he says. It's discussable, as a few top guys might be missing, especially the Americans, but the field is packed, and I know there will be a fast and challenging race. Yet, I am hoping to be up there. I have been in great shape the last month but have also been busy organizing cycling schools, hosting Nesfjellet Gravelduro, and renewing our new home. Balancing all those things isn’t easy. I have been tired the last week, and the race can go either way.
Off we go. We ride behind a motocross bike, setting a neutralized pace for the first two km. I make my way to the front. The moto almost slides out in a corner, in the slippy mud after the rainfall.
– Yihaa, he screams, and then he drives away. The race is on.
The pace is high. It doesn’t take long to get a reality check on my form. As I feared, my legs aren’t responding well to the high power output. I start losing places in the peloton. I was in front, and soon, about 20 riders passed me. Carlos Verona flies by. I need to pace myself. Find my rhythm and eventually the right group. It’s going to be a long day.
Now, we are closing into the 2nd aid station at 120 km. I had three bottles of Ryno Hydration mix and a hydration pack with another liter of water. I skipped the first aid station, but it was hot. The sun is heating the dry Catalan inland. We have been pushing the pace for hours; hydration and nutrition are essential. I was riding with a 10-man group for a while. Mattia de Marchi set the pace as we caught him after he had a puncture. In the last climb, he pulled away, making our group split into pieces. I am now with only four riders left.
– Do you remember we were also chasing together here last year?
It’s Martí Vido del Arco. We were racing on the same roads one year ago during Ranxo Gravel. Then, we made it up to the first group after a long chase. I am not sure today. We keep the speed high, but I am tired and have heavy legs.
There is the aid station. It’s like coming into an F1 pit stop. Two women run to fill my bottles, and another man asks if I need lube on my chain. I have never met them, but they treat me like a VIP. As I’m sure, they are doing with all riders. We are taken care of.
– Suerte, now the big montaña starts, the mechanic says and sets me off.
He is right. Immediately, we start gaining elevation.
It’s only Seth and me now. After the aid station, we hit a solid climb of almost 10 km and 500 meters of climbing. It had some rough gravel with ramps of 15%. I like that kind of hill, but it was brutal. Luckily, it was worse for the other three guys I rode with. I eventually took off and caught Hakizimana Seth. He’s from Rwanda, racing for Team Amani, an African gravel team, one of its kind.
A few km ago, we hit a steep 12-15% climb and were met by a group of fans sharing and offering a cold Coke. A highlight after all the suffering. It is more than 31°C, so anything cold is a blessing.
We are sharing turns to keep the pace up. We have been riding in undulating terrain since the aid station. There is not much time to recover before the next challenge occurs. However, now, it’s finally more downhill than uphill. We are closing in on the finish.
The last 10 km are the same as the first, and it feels great to be back on the muddy terrain again. It’s still muddy and wet, but Seth and I are not taking risks and getting comfortably through. I have no idea where we are positioned. We could be top 30 or top 15. Either way, I decided to give it a go-to outsprint Seth.
I hear the sound of the arena. The music is high, and the speaker is cheering riders across the line. I push the pace and wait for Seth’s response, but he doesn’t try to pass me, and I make it across the line first. The speaker is announcing: 14th!
We were not that far outside the top 10. After a long day of suffering and heavy legs, I am happy to be able to finish off with a 14th, which is a solid result. 263 NP for six hours 51 minutes, is not nasty. It’s lower than my better numbers, which gives me confidence I could have been up there with the best. Top 6-7 could have been possible on a better day.
The Gravel Earth Final isn’t finished with the race. We are led to an outdoor buffet with lots of food and drinks. There is a pool there, and after a good portion of Paella, I swim in the pool. Nice after a long day in the heat!
The following hours, I spent chatting with fellow gravel friends. I am enjoying the stories. It has been a great ride on a challenging and fun course. I want to do this again. Thanks, Klassmark, for hosting a great weekend while taking environmental responsibility, which other organizers should learn from. Trailblazing mentality. I like it.
Thanks also to Jofre for the company and the last days joining him at home in Botarell, outside Tarragona.
Now it’s about absorbing yet another gravel adventure, both mentally and physically, and getting back to my best form heading into the Gravel World Championship in Italy.
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