It’s a beautiful day outside. Shakira’s “El Jefe” is jamming on the speakers. The speaker is counting down, and you can feel the excitement building up in the 99 elite male riders. It’s like the calm before the storm, and you can sense the tension in the air. It’s a moment that’s both nerve-wracking and thrilling, and you know that something big is about to go down.
The first stage of X Santa Vall and the Gravel Earth Series is starting. I am accelerating and pushing over 1000 watts to get to the front as everyone wants to be in the front before the road narrows for the climb. Stage 1 is considered more of a prologue, and it’s where we put all the hard work done back in Norway to the test. We have focused on building our engine, and here we push it to its limit. It’s a 6 km hill climb with a mass start.
I can see some well-known riders, including Peter Vakoc, Daniel Oss, Chad Haga, Jasper Ockeloen, Mattia de Marchi, and Ivar Silk, among others, ahead of me. The women’s group had already started climbing as they began earlier than the men. The event has attracted many renowned gravel riders along with a large number of high-level amateurs. The race is being held for three days in St. Gregori, outside Girona in Spain. More than 400 riders are here.
I quickly realize that I am not in my best shape for racing. I have to let the first group of riders go ahead of me. Soon after, more riders pass me as well. My legs are not functioning well and are completely blocked by lactate. It’s painful!
Andreas Ohldieck is passing me too. We traveled here together and stayed in an apartment in the center of the cycling capital – Girona.
I crawl towards the summit, with fans cheering me on. Despite their encouragement, I can’t go any faster. Finally, I spot the finish line. I made it!
Now it’s time for the following pizza party at the event arena!
Yesterday’s stage 1 was quite challenging for me. I knew that my preparation was far from ideal, as I had taken a two-week honeymoon break with my wife Hanna and had not been riding during that period. Although it was a planned break and I don’t regret it, the Santa Vall race came a little too early for me. This year, my training has mostly consisted of Zwift, gym work, and skiing. It’s been snowy and cold, and it’s hard to ride outside. However, since this is not an A race for me, it’s all fine. Yesterday was a bit of a shock to my body. This race was a great way to open up my legs and body for the upcoming months leading to the main events.
Andreas is pushing the pace, trying to move us up to the front. Stage two is slightly different from a typical race, as we had two timed segments of around 25 km. We were starting in group 2, and the pace is fast. Even before the timed segment. As I expected, many strong riders are aiming to catch the first group which includes the top 50 male riders from yesterday’s stage. They were starting 5 min before us.
The weather is perfect for riding today. It’s getting warmer. The temperature is close to 20ºC and there’s no wind. I unzip and take off my vest. Once we hit the start of the segment, the speed picks up. Soon enough, we are on a single track and the group is stretched out. Currently, I am in 15th position just behind Andreas. However, gaps are opening and too many riders blocking the track make it impossible to catch up with the first. Honesty, I have more than enough with keeping this pace.
The first five riders from our group slip away. I am about to lose contact with Andreas and the riders around me. The gap grows, from three meters, to five, to ten, to twenty.
– Come on, Jonas, get yourself together.
I gear up, get out of the saddle and make a last effort to stay on, I convince myself to do a 30-sec max effort as a last attempt. The gap is decreasing! I am in pain but I manage to get back in the draft. Thank, God.
We are catching a big group. I did manage to stay with Andreas and the rider through the first segment. We are now in the middle of the two segments. I see a huge group of riders ahead of us. It’s the first group consisting of the top 50 riders, including the elite women riders. I think the organizers are dividing us to prevent having too many riders together at the same time for the segments. Now we are 100 riders together.
The second segment is starting. This part is more technical; we are now lining up on a single track in a forest. The course is fun, but I feel the lactate building up again as the speed increases. This is going to be painful once more!
The segment is 30k and all the way to the finish. The group is split into pieces, and eventually, I find myself together with the German Marius Karteusch, 2nd place from the Unbound XL 2022.
We stick together until the end, greeted by a rider-only area filled with refreshments. It’s a great opportunity to catch up with other cyclists. Being part of Santa Vall is more about the community than the actual race.
– Why am I here?
As I struggled up the longest gravel climb of the day on stage three, the question kept popping up in my mind. Stage three is halfway, and it’s brutal.
It started straight into a 12k undulating climb. Close to the top, the splits started to open up, and I had to let the first 50 riders go. Today, my legs are both tired and stiff. The lactate is building up today, too, making every pedal stroke painful.
The course is 115 km long and really beautiful. There is almost no traffic. A few crashes are mostly caused by overly excited riders taking too many risks. You have to pay attention to the course, but there are not many other obstacles than some rocks and not many punctures.
Finally, I find a group of riders I can follow. The course is flattering out, and getting some drafts is now easier. We are five people sharing the workload against the wind. I feel okay as long as I can ride at my own steady pace. It’s fast enough to be able to contribute to the group. We are far behind the fastest riders, but I am glad I can finally get some momentum here on the gravel.
There is the last feed stop. I’m stopping. The other riders aren’t. I refill one bottle and grab a couple of gels and a handful of candy before I’m back on the horse. But I am once again by myself.
Riding alone while tired feels like standing still. I know I am not very fast, but I can’t go any faster.
As I ride, a group catches up with me. The group is led by Halfstein, a real gravel Viking from Iceland. I accelerate and manage to join them. I am surprised that all these riders are so far behind. As we ride, the kilometers tick away quickly. I soon realize that we are on the last stretch, going in the opposite direction from yesterday’s start. It feels like I can smell the paella they serve at the finish line. I decide to push the pace for the group during the last two kilometers. I don’t feel the pain anymore. Maybe it’s just a mental boost, but knowing the finish line is near gives me a much-needed burst of energy.
There – I cross the finish line.
At the Gravel Earth Series, the community and the overall experience are more important than the results. We are spending a lot of time here, enjoying cold drinks, hot coffee, rice, and pasta. Santa Vall is a very welcoming and inclusive event, and it’s easy to strike up conversations with other riders.
As anticipated, my form was not yet ready for the race, but I am not concerned. This past weekend was an excellent training opportunity and a welcome return to the gravel community, and it has provided me with the motivation to work hard to regain my best shape.
Gracias, Girona, and X Santa Vall. I look forward to being back!
From the organizer:
The Vall del Llémana Gravel festival
3 days stage event
Welcome to Santa Vall, the first event of the Gravel Earth 2024. An exciting three-stage Gravel event that covers the best roads in Girona over three days. Santa Vall offers an exciting experience to meet the incredible community and connect with nature. We are here to present to you three challenging stages that will undoubtedly leave a lasting mark
Don’t miss this spectacular event with the best Gravel athletes in the world Gravel Earth Series.