GRAVEL BIKING IS HERE TO STAY
Incidentally, the same goes for the UCI, which in 2022 organized the Gravel World Series for the first time and a real world championship in the Italian region of Veneto. The European Championship, with a win by home rider Jasper Stuyven and places of honor for Tim Merlier and Gianni and Florian Vermeersch, was a great success for our compatriots. That bodes well for next year’s World Cup.
Through the green scenery of the Brabant Woods
After organizing a very successful World Championships on the road in 2021, Flemish Brabant will once again host the battle for the rainbow jersey. After all, it is the gravel hall of Flanders. There are no less than five different gravel routes there for the fans. Although the details of the World Championship course are not yet known, it looks broadly as follows.
From the start in Halle to the finish in the provincial capital Leuven, the riders will cross the beautiful green scenery of the Brabantse Wouden from west to east. After the start, the riders first ride a loop in the neighborhood. Then it goes via the Hallerbos and the Zoniënwoud to the Meerdaalwoud. There, several loops are completed before finishing in Leuven.
Explore the course yourself
Prior to the World Championships, you can get a taste of what the pros can expect next October by riding the European & Belgian Gravel Route Brabantse Wouden, which follows almost the entire course of the European & Belgian Gravel Championships 2023. This route of 77 km and 710 hm, of which 44 km unpaved, starts at the Zoet Water in Oud-Heverlee. If you then have a taste for the Geuze Gravelroute, the Cornet Gravelroute, Dwars door het Hageland and the Dijleland Gravelroute are also waiting for you. None of the routes are signposted but the GPX files and all other info can be found on www.toerismevlaamsbrabant.be/thema/cycling/gravelroutes.
The very first World Championship in 2022
The start of that first World Championship in 2022 was in Vicenza. Via Padova, the riders rode an almost flat course to the finish in Cittadella where two local laps had to be completed. With among others Mathieu van der Poel, Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet, Gianni Vermeersch and Zdenek Stybar at the start, a lot of well-known road riders took part. Our compatriot Gianni Vermeersch crowned himself the first ever gravel world champion on Oct. 8, 2022, ahead of Italian Daniel Oss. Mathieu van der Poel completed the podium.
The first official round of the UCI Gravel World Series in Belgium.
On August 27, 2022 an official round of the UCI Gravel World Series, the Houffa Gravel, was held in Houffalize for the first time in our country. These heats are held to give the participants the opportunity to qualify for the World Championships. Winner of this race was Dutchman Jasper Ockeloen. Given the timing of this race, there was still plenty of road racing going on, there were hardly any well-known riders at the start.
The first test in a gravel race for Wout van Aert
After the Tour de France and the World Championships in Glasgow, Wout van Aert had built in a rest period. But in preparation for the second World Gravel Championship in Italy, he still wanted a taste of a real gravel race. For his baptism he chose the second edition of the Houffa Gravel of 110 km, of which 75% is unpaved with 1430 hm, on Aug. 24. That the popularity of this type of race is growing is also evidenced by the field of participants in which a number of (ex-)pros acted such as Niki Terpstra, Jan Bakelants, Daan Soete, Petr Vakoc, Ryan Kamp, Joris Nieuwenhuis, Piotr Havik, Johnny Hoogerland and Ivar Slik. Although Wout claimed his fitness was not yet top, he completely rolled up the opposition. With a whopping 9 minute lead, he won ahead of Daan Soete and Paul Voss. The next Houffa Gravel will be held on August 24.
Another World Gravel Championship in Veneto
The second World Cup took place in the same region as last year. However, a totally different and much tougher course was chosen this time on the slopes covered with vineyards. Starting place was Lago Le Bandie, which we remember from the Cyclocross World Cup in 2008. There Lars Boom became world champion in the elite and Niels Albert in the underpromise. The finish of the gravel race was after 169 km and 1890 hm in Pieve di Soligo. Nine climbs of up to 15.5% on average with a maximum of 22% awaited the riders.
As one of the favorites, Wout van Aert came in third at the first passage to the finish after 123 km. The leading group of 64 riders included Jan Bakelants, Matej Mohorič, Piotr Havik, Ide Schelling, Quinten Hermans, Alejandro Valverde, Florian Vermeersch, Jasper Ockeloen, Coen Vermeltfoort and Laurens ten Dam. After a fall and a flat tire, he lost more than 9 minutes and was left to chase. Halfway through the race van Aert was already out of the race.
At the second crossing of the finish line with 70 km to go, only three leaders remain: our compatriot Florian Vermeersch, Slovenian Matej Mohorič and British rider Connor Swift. The latter goes overboard first on the toughest climb of the day. On the subsequent climbs, Mohorič also puts Vermeersch under pressure by fearlessly and with a good dose of technique making the most of his excellent descent skills. And at about 18 km before the finish, Vermeersch also has to drop out. To make matters worse, a little later he also got chain problems which only widened the gap. A few kilometers from the finish line, Mohorič crashed on a turning at a bridge. But just like van der Poel at the World Championships in Glasgow, he gets back up quickly. His lead is more than enough to secure the third rainbow jersey of his career and that in his very first gravel race ever. Florian Vermeersch takes second and Conner Swift third. Sixth place is for Quinten Hermans and Wout van Aert still finishes eighth. Eleventh place is reserved for the outgoing world champion Gianni Vermeersch. Our compatriots have shown that, just as in cyclocross, graveling is tailor-made for them.
The next World Championships
After our country it will be Nice in France in 2025, Nannup in Australia in 2026 and Akula in Saudi Arabia in 2028. In 2027, gravel will be part of the program of the Super World Cycling Championship in the French region of Haute-Savoie.
Remaining in Italy
The third edition of the Serenissima Gravel in Veneto was held five days after the World Championships. That concurrence meant that a number of participants in that World Championship were also at the start in Cittadella for this 149 km race of which 96 km was unpaved. For the flat course, which consisted of four rounds of 37.3 km with an off-road stretch of 15 km along the Brenta River, four WorldTour teams had signed up, among others. With famous names like our compatriots Gianni Vermeersch (former World Champion 2022), Florian Vermeersch (vice-World Champion 2023), Quinten Hermans, Brent Van Moer, Milan Menten and Jonas Rickaert.
It became a real elimination race. In the final lap seven riders remained who had a chance of winning. They were Gianni and Florian Vermeersch, Filippo Fiorelli, Simone Velasco, Fredrik Dversnes, Matis Louvel and Anthony Delaplace. In the end, both Vermeerschs were able to sprint for the win on the Via Roma, with Florian beating his namesake Gianni. For the Lotto Dstny rider, it was his first win in 2023. Norwegian Fredrik Dversnes of Uno-X, who was riding his first gravel race, finished third.
Also the Tour de France embraces gravel
In 2022 the Tour de France Femmes had the premiere in the 4th stage (126.8 km) from Troyes to Bar-sur-Aube with four ‘chemins blancs’ (12.9 km). The men had to wait two more years for it. But in 2024, for them in the same region, the 9th stage from Troyes to Troyes (199 km) even includes 14 unpaved strips (32 km) in the course. Among them are also some we already know from the ladies. In any case, there are chances for the gravel specialists in this stage.
A new playground
In addition to cyclocross and mountain biking, road cyclists have discovered a new playground, gravel biking. For the viewer, it provides spectacular images with the unpaved roads winding through beautiful landscapes. Unfortunately, due to the busy road calendar, we will only see the real top riders in gravel biking at the championships. But at least we have something new to look forward to next year.
Text: Rens Klaasse