UCI Gravel Fondo Limburg a tale of cramps and grit

Round three of the UCI Gravel World Series, the Gravel Fondo Limburg was won by some fit young things: here’s my report from the other end.

Gravel racing UCI style is here, it’s fresh and new and still has some spirit: or is it soul? Whichever it is I headed over to Valkenburg to race the Gran Fondo Limburg. This is a new addition to the series that I first rode at the Houffa in 2022. I loved the Houffa, it was a tough race over a great course and I came 7th! So I started looking for another hit and this was it.

Living in the south of the UK getting across to the Netherlands is straightforward. Thirty-five minutes on the Eurotunnel and the roads of northern Europe are yours. Dragging some of the family and turning it into a mini-break also seemed a good idea. We could get some family time in and I wouldn’t have to do all the driving, like last year’s Houffa! The weekend’s accommodation was the City Kamp just outside Valkenburg. This was a perfect stop for the weekend, a quiet campsite with friendly staff: I can fully recommend it.

On the way to the Gravel Fondo Limburg
On the way to the Gravel Fondo Limburg

Valkenburg race centre

Sunday was race-day, so we arrived Saturday afternoon. I dumped the family to sort out the accommodation while I rolled down to Valkenburg to register and check out some of the route. The great thing about these UCI events is the sheer number of cyclists you see on the roads. Getting to the HQ is never difficult, just go where the cyclists are!

Riding down I notice that a lot of riders are sporting tired looks and dirty bikes. Seems that there’s been a gravel sportive on today, the LtD Gravel Fest no less. These are run by ex-WorldTour rider Laurens Ten Dam and are a more relaxed version of tomorrow’s event. Wish I’d known about it, would have made for a great double-header, one for next year.

Registration took place in the Shimano Experience Centre, where you can look at all the latest Shimano kit, have a bike-fit, look at bikes of the pros and realise just how small some of them are! There are also signed jerseys, a fishing simulator and you can get a coffee and cake. The centre is also where the race will start and finish. A quick word about Valkenburg. It’s a charming and very neat town, with a lot of cafes and bars to eat at. It has some serious cycling credentials as it has hosted at least four road World Championships and plays a big part in the Amstel Gold race. You can’t miss the signs pointing you towards the Amstel Gold experience and showing you the way to the famous Cauberg climb.

Checking out the Cauberg

I rode up the Cauberg, as it would be part of tomorrow’s race, stopping to take pictures of the King Mathieu stencils and the Col du Cauberg sign! It would have been better to arrive earlier and do a bigger lap, but I managed to do the start and finish, which gave me a feel for the route. The night was spent fiddling with tyre pressures, my rear didn’t seem to want to stay up. I figured some extra sealant and a whizz around the campsite would sort that…

The Cauberg climb features in the start of the Gravel Fondo Limburg
It’s a col apparently!

Gravel Fondo limburg set-up

A quick note about my ride and equipment for the day. First up is my new ride, the Handsling Bikes CEXevo. I had picked my bike up only a few days before and this would only be my second ride on it. I was running Shimano Di2 105, with 50×32 chainrings and 11-34 cassette, which turned out to be perfect for this race. Wheels were Handsling’s own carbon hoops, with 38mm Schwalbe G-One Bite tyres.

Post-Gravel Fondo Limburg shot of my CEXevo

Last minute scare

Race start is 0930 – so I’m up just before 0700 – time for a leisurely bowl of porridge, nice. Looking out at my rear wheel and I see it is completely flat. Oh. There followed the fastest complete strip down, clean and reapplication of a tubeless set-up I’ve ever done. I removed the rim-tape and replaced the valves, checked the tyres – again – added fresh sealant. Everything behaved and the tyre even went on with just a track pump. Pockets were stashed with food, bottles filled, phone checked for battery and tool bag checked again. I’m ready.

Arrangements are made with the family, details of the start location, where and when to collect my warm-up kit and where they would be on the route, to proudly cheer me on. All to no avail, as they were late! They just saw me passing through town, then stood on the Cauberg waiting for a race that had already passed! The best laid plans, etc.

Last minute checks done

Back to me at the start. My group of 55-59 year olds were one of the last groups to start and numbered around fifty riders. Looking around there were some very fit looking legs! I had done well at a previous round in Belgium, but this lot looked serious. Maybe I would have to adjust my expectations? My training hadn’t gone well over the winter with two running related injuries and gastric flu stopping me taking part in the ‘cross season. Then a bout of Covid and another cold delayed things even more. And to add to my excuses, I cut the end of my finger off at the beginning of the week! Maybe I should take it easy and just enjoy the ride? Yeah, right!

Somewhere up there is the front of the Gravel Fondo Limburg
Somewhere up there is the front of the Gravel Fondo Limburg

We’re off!

The whistle goes and the front explodes as the top riders sprint off the start, we look around and go nowhere. Eventually the group begins to move slowly forward, there’s around a thousand riders squeezing along the start funnel. The groups are getting mixed up and I’m trying to keep an eye on the yellow dossards that denote my category. I wanted to have some idea where I was in my category, but it’s proving difficult.

We rumble over a little cobbled bridge onto the road and turn right into a small lane. Crash! Riders are down already. Nothing serious and we filter around them. The bunch hurtles along the narrow streets, everyone looking for clear road, it’s thrilling! We turn right and begin the climb of the Cauberg. It’s not the monster I thought it would be, but then we are just starting the race. It’s at this early stage that I forgot my own advice. Start conservatively, don’t go mad, be calm.

Up the Gerendal

Instead I charged off, trying to keep the front-runners of my category in sight and going way in to the red too early. Of course this was stupid and yes, I would pay for it later. But for now it was great! Charging along, swapping-off with others when the tarmac allowed, dive-bombing onto the gravel sections and just generally pushing too hard. This mad dash was halted for a while when we hit a bottleneck on an off-road climb called the Gerendal, I think. It was a mini trench, just wide enough for one, which meant we had to walk.

A few cheeky types tried cutting past by climbing up the slope, but they were soon brought down. And so we trudged and laughed, glad of the respite, but well aware the race was getting away. It was also a good chance to drink and eat, we weren’t going anywhere fast, so it made sense to make the most of it.

The Gravel Fondo LImburg finish

The Keutenberg

Not long after the Gerendal there’s a long, fast pot-holed concrete path that screams down into a 180 degree turn. That turn brings us to a dead-stop, so that we start the climb of the Keutenberg at a crawl. Now the Keutenberg is allegedly the steepest climb in the Netherlands: and we have to climb it three times! These Netherlanders certainly have a sense of humour. I checked my time up there, my “fastest” effort was 2’41” behind a certain M. Van De Poel.

The keutenberg had a feed station just past the top and helpers were out offering support. And I needed all the encouragement I could get up there. With my early efforts starting to demand payback, I was spiralling down in to a dark place. Cramps were slowly creeping in, pushing too hard up a climb would bring them on, so I had to be careful. After a while I thought I was ok and pressed on to keep up with a small group: big mistake.

Gravel Fondo Limburg, was a tough race for me
Tough race? Oh yes!

Cramps

Coming out of a corner I tried to catch the group in front and BAM! The cramps had finally arrived. With both feet out of the pedals I couldn’t move! What next? Well the marshal at the top of the climb was shouting at me in Dutch, I just waved and shouted back “cramp!” He waved me up and then proceeded to stretch and massage my legs before putting me back on the bike and advising me to take it easy for a bit: what service!

The rest of the race passed with me trying to cling on to groups on the flat and rolling sections, getting dropped on the climbs and then screaming down the descents way too fast to try and keep up. The last technical descent into the finish, saw me scaring myself and the rider behind me as I pin-balled down it! I’m not sure how I stayed up, La Madonna di Ghisalo must have been looking out for me!

Gravel Fondo Limburg, finished

From the bottom – where there’s a very nice cafĂ© and some confused goats – it’s a short, flat section to the finish. Is there anything more dispiriting than rolling over the finish a long time after everyone else? I don’t think so. The family are waiting and I get a cheer and a hug from the kids and then trudge over to the results table. 42nd out of 52 riders was not great and with only the first 25% qualifying for the Worlds in Italy, it was mission not accomplished.

“Never mind dad, there’s always next time!”

That puts a bit more pressure on for the next race for me, The Gralloch. This looks to be a very different race up in the wilds of Scotland. It’s one loop, no more laps and the distance is the same with 400 metres more climbing. So will I learn my lesson and start a bit slower? Past experience says no, but the pain and humiliation from Limburg is still fresh, so maybe I’ll pay attention! If you want to see what the fast boys were doing check out Trinity Racing’s Cameron Mason YouTube from the Gravel Fondo Limburg.

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