My first Gravel Race

Aug 26, 2023

Today I raced my first Gravel race - The Houffa Gravel in Houffalize Belgium. And oh boy, Gravel is different than MTB - a race report.

I was a bit nervous before because I was not sure what I was dealing with. Would it be super rocky and/or rooty or would it be smooth? It would probably be very fast, but how to manage drafting when going 40 km/h over unknown bumpy tracks!?

Yes, it is fast. Crazy fast. The first ten kilometres I was just occupied grasping what is going on. My plan was to find a group I can ride with as fast as possible. But it seemed that every group I found was either going way too fast for me, or going way too slow. Also the groups were constantly splitting up again. That was very exhausting. After fifteen kilometres the stress settled a bit but I was already pretty spent from my countless tries to hold on to a group. Then the pro women passed me, I tried to hold on because that works most of the time in Marathon Mountainbiking. But no chance. Pauliena Rooijakkers was shouting her way through the field. (In my opinion it was a really bad idea to let the pro women start behind ALL the men. Yes all men, even the 70 year old amateurs. I think in the second or even first start block would be much more appropriate.) I could hold her wheel for about 30 seconds. Haha. 😄

After around 30k I had somekind of downtime. Maybe it was just in my head, because I can’t find it in my power data. But I let go of several groups because I thought it will not be possible to sustain this kind of effort for another 80k. That phase passed luckily and after around 50k I more or less rode with the same guys. Not really in an organised group, though. On the short ramps I moved down the field, because I just don’t have the punch to stomp up each and every ramp over and over again. The climbs are much too short for me to unfold my climbing talent. In the downhills though I often managed to caught up with them again. Especially when it got technical. I was afraid before that I would not be able to handle technical gravel with a bike without suspension and short handlebars, but I suppose my MTB expierience helped a lot here. Sometimes I overtook ten people in one short downhill. I was surprised that they were cautios with crossing rivers or mud. Sometimes they even got off the bike in those circumstances.

The last downhill back to Houffalize is a bit longer than the other ones. And it was technical again. A narrow grassy trail with one path in the middle. There was one guy in front of me who looked extremely oncomfortable. He almost crashed two times directly in front of me. So I thought ‘this is too dangerous I have to overtake him’. Next to the trail there was wet grass. So I went into the grass but because it was so wet I slid around and … went over the bars myself. Great job. Luckily I landed on my thigh with just some scratches. I didn’t even loose a position and was on the bike again in seconds. But this was a stupid crash.

Nobody of my age group was around at that time so I more or less rode casually through the finish line.

One goal here was to try and qualify for Gravel worlds in Venetia in October. To qualify I would have been among the first 25% of my age group. I became 50th of 118 participants, so I didn’t qualify – 20 places too bad. Maybe it was a bit ambitious to try and qualify for a World Championship in my first Gravel race. Especially with a course profile that doesn’t really match my skills and with a not exactly great preparation. But I have to say I’m quite surprised that I even made it to the top 50% in my group, during the race I felt like I will definitely be among the 25% worst in my group. So I’m very happy with how it went and the outcome. Maybe next year I will find a qualifying race that suits me more and try to prepare better for it. But this will not be my last gravel race for sure!