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.