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LtD GRAVEL RAID // ARE GRAVEL RACES AND EVENTS FOR ME?

Katherine takes a weekend off from dirt bikepacking, and heads to the LtD (Laurens ten Dam) Gravel Raid in the Eifel Region of Germany to find out if the rising number of gravel races and events are relevant and enjoyable for us 'slow' bikepackers...

...from the serene wilds of the Second City Divide bikepacking route, straight to Laurens' sausage stand at the LtD gravel event/party in Germany

Meeting Laurens before the race to understand more about why he wanted to create the event, and things started to make sense – blurring the lines between bikepacking and racing – “For me it’s about a community… I was living in 2016 in Santa Cruz, and had one of the best days I’ve ever had on a bike. We went over the hill and it was raining cats and dogs. We stopped at a gas station to buy gloves because I had really cold hands, you know I bought those gloves you do the dishes with – they were bright purple. It was miserable but we had to do that route. We did five hours, stopped at the van and went to this one shop in Pescadero and bought a warm loaf of bread and a six pack of beer and it was the best day ever. I got home, it was like 6pm, and that was something I recall being off road that opened my eyes – like fuck, this is nice. I want to do this after my career still. At the end of 2016 I went to Grinduro in Quincy, there were bikes, there was the party. It was all about having fun on the bikes. Y’know, I was WorldTour, I’ve done ten Tour de Frances, we all have our separate buses, we spend three weeks on the road together but then we all have our own parties rather than having 150,160 folks having a big BBQ together at the end. That’s the way it should be.” So, the LtD Gravel Raid: a touch of Santa Cruz, a smidgeon of Quincy, and lessons learned (good and bad) from years of touring in a Pro Cycling Team.

Hearing that certainly put my mind at ease and it would soon become apparent that the event was as much about the party as the riding itself. In its second edition, there are over 500 riders here, yet you wouldn’t really know it. Sure, there are a dozen or so tipis and a small field of very regimented tents (German levels of organisation at it’s finest) but beyond that it’s hard to see where everyone is. There’s enough bustle to create atmosphere yet still feels like a smaller, family run event. Seeing about 100 people crowded around the campfires, enjoying a few beers and listening to the mad-as-hatters vinyl DJs the night before the race is evidence enough that there are lots of other people here for a good time, not a fast time.

On the morning of the race, it’s surprisingly casual. Rather than a hectic mass start, riders are free to get going at any point from 9am. The route was split into two loops with lunch back at base in the middle, and each loop offers either 55km or 70km options. Along the way there are three timed challenges, enduro style, which offer the racing element. Choosing to start some time after the keenest have set off, there’s little evidence on course of riders taking it that seriously at all. I’m pleasantly surprised. The forecast had not been optimistic, and truthfully conditions were nothing other than Flandrian – misty rain clouds looming to swift deluges, switching to persistent drizzle and eventually some shreds of sunlight through the heavy, thick clouds. You’re left with two options; to sulk about it and let your rain drenched kit chill you to the bone, or embrace it and channel your inner Euro cyclo-cross hero. We might as well have just raced a round of the SuperPrestige, judging by the states of riders’ faces/bikes/legs as they rolled back into camp. Bloody marvellous.

By now what you really want to know is what those trails were like, right? I was certainly keen to try a slice of Eifel, especially after taking the steep winding forest-lined roads to Hellenthal and spying dirt roads a-plenty through the window. We’d been invited out by Shimano to ride their newly released gravel specific range, GRX, so I was also saddled up on a new steed for the weekend. The Canyon Grail couldn’t be more different to my usual steel Mercredi gravel bike, but I was curious to give it – and the cycle world-dividing hover handlebar – a go. Having cobbled together a Shimano Ultegra and XT Di2 mix for my own custom build, I was keen to see how the GRX could potentially substitute or improve on this. A group of us headed out on the shorter 55km course, aiming to meet our more serious friends back at base at lunchtime who were going the whole hog. Straight out onto compacted gravelly yet somehow rocky doubletrack, the route skipped from river level at 370 metres up to 600, with some long and loose climbs, plus a little quiet road ascent. I haven’t ridden a double chainring in a long time but I was glad of the 31/34 on some of those inclines, and could have liked a bit more too if I’d have been loaded with bags. Near the end there was one killer climb. As 20 or so hiked up the wall of gripless mud, I chuckled to myself. I might not be the fastest climber or the most brave descender on the slippery, wet tracks, but this is something I know all too well!

Rather than thrash the whole loop in one go, I was pleased to see riders stopping to wait for friends, capture the moment and landscape in photographs, laughing at their accomplices’ gritty grins and take in the spectacular autumn scenery. There’s certainly more deciduous forest here than I got used to last week in Scotland, and now their branches are yielding great displays of fiery yellows, reds and amber, all in various throws of their fall attire. We needed little reminder that we were well and truly on the continent when we reached the feed station at 10 or 11am to cheesy euro-pop being blasted through the speakers. People rolled in steadily, men and women, on ‘cross bikes, mountain bikes, gravel bikes and even a few road bikes. No matter what they were riding, they all shared the same mucky smiles.

Rolling back into camp with a rumbling stomach and a promise of scrambled eggs from Laurens, a Kwaremont bottle was thrust firmy into my palm barely after racking up my filthy bike. There was no point in wiping the mud from our faces, so we joined the great line of hungry riders eagerly awaiting their BBQ and eggs. Before we could even get that far we were attended by Carlo, the event organiser, with a huge pizza box full of cherry pie, generous oozing slices devoured before we got to the front of the queue. My mother would tut at pudding before lunch, but here anything goes. After lunch riders were weighing up options. It had already gone 2pm and another 70km would likely mean finishing in the dark for some. A number of DIY routes were also provided, and a surprising number chose these shorter alternatives to try rather than the main ‘race’ routes and challenge segments. Again, I was seeing just how non-competitive a great deal of this event was. Succumbing to a hot shower and some more Kwaremont around the campfire, I chose not to ride in the afternoon. Usually I’d feel like a failure or cop-out, but the attitude here was so different that I didn’t have any regrets like that at all. Laurens firmly instructed us to ‘just have fun’…

…and that’s exactly what we were doing when we were all dancing (if you can call it that) to the rock metal cover/mash up band, Laurens’ little boy Bodi on his shoulders enjoying his first ever gig. It’s what we were doing when we laughed at each others golden finds in the record collection of the DJ set up. It’s what I was doing when some latino dance God took my hands and spun me round and round to some 70’s tune that I can’t even remember. I’d come for a bike race and landed two feet in the mud at a festival. My home for the night was a roomy teepee tent, which was much appreciated over my usual measly tarp and hammock setup on this soggy weekend. Plenty of space to hang out some damp kit and listen to the raindrops softly falling against the canvas roof above me…

MY BIKE: CANYON GRAIL W/ SHIMANO GRX

All in all, I don’t think it was quite as different as I was expecting. Of course not at all self-supported, and nowhere near the exertion of long distance bikepacking, but the riding challenging and laughs all the same. We shared beers and tales and were all dirty around the edges. Our bikes took us to new places we’d never seen before – trails we’d never tackled and hills not summited. I did a surprisingly good job of sticking to #15KPHCLUB rules at 16KPH – it was super fun – let’s just put the difference down to being luggage free, for now, shall we?

CREDITS

Words
Katherine Moore

Photos
Tudor Gillham – Second City Divide
Irmo Keizer – LtD Gravel Raid
Erwin Sikkens – LtD Gravel Raid

Additional Photos
Eppo Karsijns
Brian Megens

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