In the first national land championships of the Netherlands

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On Saturday, a nation well known for cycling but less for gravel formalized the off-road discipline: in the Netherlands, Demi Vollering (SD Worx) and Tijmen Eising (VolkerWessels Cyclingteam) became the first Dutch national gravel champions in winning NK Gravier.

The women’s podium at NK Gravel – Lorena Wiebes, Demi Vollering and Floortje Mackaij (Photo: Bruno Bobbink)

While gravel is more associated with the Flint Hills than the hills of Limburg, the discipline is booming globally. From Iceland to Kenya and most places in between, gravel racing goes beyond road and mountain as the participatory discipline of choice.

Earlier this year, the British Gravel Championships awarded national jerseys to all age groups. This event was organized by Golazo Cycling, which is part of the Golazo group which will organize the UCI Gravel World Series and the Gravel World Championships in 2022.

However, NK Gravel is the first national gravel race to attract top professionals and award national championship jerseys.

In the United States, where gravel has a mythological cradle in Kansas during the race now known as Unbound Gravel, race organizers have been reluctant to invite governing bodies to the gravel party, keeping discipline firmly. in the hands of private organizers. When UCI or USA Cycling are even mentioned in the same breath as gravel, comments about sock heights and aero bars start to fly. However, when the UCI announced the gravel world championships in 2022, the question shifted from when, not whether other countries would follow suit with qualifying heats and races.

Last weekend’s Dutch National Gravel Championships present an interesting case study.

NK Gravel was created by Mathijs Wagenaar and Marieke van Altena. The friends have held races together before, including a long-running road race in their hometown of Ebe. A few years ago, Wagenaar had the idea to organize a race on land in the same region. He spoke to the Royal Dutch Cycling Union (KNWU), the national federation of the Netherlands. He never had any feedback from the governing body.

The 7.5 km circuit included gravel, tarmac, sand and mud. (Photo: Bruno Bobbink)

Last August, with proof that the races could be safe in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, Wagenaar asked them again, this time with an even bigger proposition – what about a championship national?

“At first they didn’t respond because they were full of Covid and canceling stuff,” van Altena said. “They didn’t have time to think of new things. Now everything is a little quieter on the agenda and that’s why they said, “Maybe this is a great time to do it.”

Because NK Gravel would be a new event, Wagenaar and van Altena had to compete for organizing rights with other candidates. Van Altena said 10 other race organizers applied, but because she and Wagenaar already had an itinerary, approval from local municipalities and some big name sponsors including Cannondale and Shimano, they got the rights.

And then I had three months to put everything together.

The promotion of gravel racing in the Netherlands, while nascent, is also different from the American version for geographic and cultural reasons. Because the United States is so vast and gravel roads predominate in sparsely populated rural areas, Americans are used to long distances and the great outdoors. Traffic, or closing roads to avoid it, is rarely a problem.

Van Altena said the lack of unhindered physical space coupled with the reluctance of government officials to impede any kind of traffic – pedestrian, automobile or otherwise – puts a damper on the ability of the Dutch to respect the traditional notion of gravel. Permits are also difficult to obtain.

“We wish it could be like you in the United States,” she said.. “But you have so much more space and roads – we are a small country. If you want to organize long distance road cycling or gravel race here, you have trouble with government permissions. There is a lot of forest here, but some of the parts you need are from private owners, some from the government, so you need a lot of permits. If there are a lot of roadblocks in the race, the police have to be involved and they don’t have the capacity in Holland anymore, and they don’t want to do that.

In order to get the KNWU’s approval for the race, van Altena and Wagenaar had to make compromises – and running the race on a 7.5km circuit was a major problem. Although going through a small loop and calling it a gravel race is not what American runners are used to, van Altena said the race would not have been possible otherwise.

“That way we could shut it off completely to traffic and we wouldn’t disturb anyone and the police didn’t need to be involved as there was no traffic involved. Then you get the permits very quickly.

In terms of rules, NK Gravel was lightly regulated. Van Altena said the KNWU borrowed the rulebook from Dutch beach racing, another niche discipline. Basically, riders had to be on road or gravel bikes (no flat bars) and be self-sufficient in case of mechanics.

“No stupid rules, just normal rules,” she said.

Men and women started separately, but there were no age groups or categories. The men covered a total of 120 km and the women 75 km. The 7.5km loop included gravel, pavement and sand, as well as a 400m section that turned into a very cyclocross muddy mess after heavy rain the day before the race.

Some 200 men and 60 women ran NK Gravel. There was a large contingent of pros, but anyone could race with a daily license. Van Altena and Wagenaar also created a GPS tour for people who wanted to do the route as a ride, and nearly 200 people participated.

In the future, NK Gravel hopes to become a bigger event, with a different course and more options for riders. (Photo: Bruno Bobbink)

So, did everyone enjoy the course, the infrastructures and the race rules?

Van Altena said Dutch gravel racers are, like their American counterparts, protectors of the discipline. She and Wagenaar have received criticism for bringing the once specialized discipline to the officially sanctioned level.

“It’s a big criticism here, it’s kind of the same,” she said. “They say” because gravel is a forest experience, relaxing on your bike. Why should it be a race? But I still have to laugh because anyone who says if you check out Strava, they always go fast on all of their quick relaxation tours in the forest. They still ride very hard. So why are you saying that? Everyone likes to go fast sometimes.

“So we said, ‘I think you can’t stop it. You cannot stop this development in the gravel. Don’t beat him, join him. Then you can do it with good legislation, good rules, in complete safety, and that’s good.


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