UCI Gravel World Series: my new love!
While many were worried about what the UCI Gravel World Series would do to the “spirit” of gravel, I had no worries
You will probably have heard by now about the UCI Gravel World Series. This is a global series with seventeen races taking part over four continents; now that’s a World Series! While some have been wringing their hands about the nasty UCI befouling their pure sport by bringing in professionals, who by riding fast in a race will somehow ruin gravel…
Anyway enough of that argument. I decided to see what all the fuss is about and give gravel racing a go. So I took part in the 2022 Yuzzu Houffa Gravel, a gravel race in the Ardennes region of Belgium. After an overnight ferry and six hour drive we arrived in Houffalize; the town the race is named after. And apparently it’s got a bit of Mtb history, with rounds of the Mtb World Tour and Vittoria 3 Nations Cup being held here. It also sits on the route of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, so it also has road credentials. With both a road and off-road culture, Houffalize sounds the perfect place for a gravel race.
Home for the weekend was the Vayamundo hotel. This was a large sport orientated hotel, set in a little valley on the edge of town. Thankfully they are used to sweaty, lycra clad guests, so once we’d unpacked it was time to check out part of the route and the town.
Time to check out the start
Rolling along and already you’re nodding at other cyclists that are also there for the race. I’d loaded up the gpx files and saw that I could get in 10k of the start, then cut across and do the last 10k. Enough I thought to get a feel for the route and decide on what tyres to use.
Like most European events I’ve done, the race starts in the middle of town. Is it just here in the Uk that we hide our events away from the general public? Anyway, after visiting the HQ to pick up my numbers, we picked out a café and enjoy our huge tuna sandwiches; despite the best efforts of the local wasps. It’s then time to check the route.
Riding up to the start, I passed through the main square, where the race village is being set up. There’s plenty going on, with stands, concessions and staging. More importantly there’s also a good collection of cafe’s, bars and restaurants, so pre and post race is sorted. My teenage son had come along to see what all this racing nonsense is about. I’d suggested he bring his Mtb, so that he could see part of the course and ride around while I was racing.
Up the Rue du Saint Roch!
The start is right outside the mayor’s house and is on a slight climb, nothing too taxing, but a good way to stretch the field out. After a minute of riding and a right turn however, everything suddenly goes skyward as you hit the Rue du Saint Roch. This is a climb on Liege-Bastogne-Liege and has pitches of 17%, a bit of a shocker and not what my son had signed up for! Cue a quick U-turn and after dropping him back in town I headed back out again; good parenting skills?
Back up the Rue du Saint Roch and at the top the course hits a double track that pitches downward, it’s fast and rocky. The route then twists and turns along road and gravel tracks, with plenty of short climbs. I’m getting a feel for the course, it’s dry and the local rock is hard and sharp, with plenty of ruts. Cutting the course I head over to the last 10k, which is pretty easy compared to the start; apart from a naughty little sting the organisers had included in the last kilometre.
This came after you’d been rolling along nice flat tarmac, with the finish in sight, perfect finish for a tired rider I thought. Then a sudden route arrow takes you up one of those crazy steep little lanes that have you scrabbling for a lower gear that just isn’t there. Then, just when it can’t get any harder, it does. The road runs out and tops off with an even steeper bit of single track with a steep drop to the left; nice.
Time for a beer
Dropping back down on to the tarmac is glorious and a final 180 turn brings you down on to some cobbles by the church and over the finish line. So, proving the benefit of pre-riding a course, I head back to collect my errant child. Once found we head back for a quick change of tyres, give the bike a wipe and head up for a shower. We head back into town for dinner and a stroll. The food was good, the beer better; I was good and limited myself to just the one.
Race day and we’re up early and join the huge crowd of hungry cyclists, they seem determined to eat everything! The hotel has laid on plenty of food to cater to all tastes, but I feel sorry for the staff. Having to face that ravenous horde so early must have been nightmare. Once fed it’s time to check the bike, why? Nothing has changed since last night, the weather report is for a dry, overcast day. I’ve got 38mm Schwalbe G-One on the front and a 35mm G-One on the back. I wanted a fatter tyre on the front just to give a bit of cushioning over the ride and was glad that I did. On the rear I ran a 35mm tyre as there was talk of some mud and I didn’t want any chainstay rub.
As usual I was a bit late getting to the start, so was a little further back than I wanted. As it was a UCI age categorised race, we were separated into five year age blocks. Each category has its own coloured body and bike number; 55-59 and yellow was my group. The start would be in groups of age categories, rather than each category heading off on its own. This helps the organisers with a reduced start envelope. It also means you get more of a mass-start feel, but does mean you don’t to get see all your competitors at the start.
Disco start music
As well as starting right in the middle of the town, the organisers had employed a very vocal MC and some serious Euro-pop to keep us going. And to get you motivated there was a rock-/disco countdown for each start, perfect for eight o’clock on a Sunday morning!
So, 3,2,1 and we’re off! Pedals clicking, gears crunching and lungs wheezing the race is on. As I said the Rue du Saint Roch is right at the start and it’s a real bunch-sorter. I got in some ducking and weaving as I charged up this early monster, avoiding some mis-timed gear changes from surprised riders. Hitting the top and the bunch is hurtling down the jeep-track. Some of the braver riders are flying down at breakneck speeds; had they not checked the route? Or they’re just better than me! Halfway down and bidons are every where, jettisoned from bottle cages, they’re littering the track and add another obstacle to watch out for.
Another problem with not watching the speed limit on these Belgian tracks are those square edged rocks. In what was to become a very common sight at the end of every downhill, was groups of riders by the side of the track. Hunched over their wheels or looking plaintively around for aid, they’d all been bitten by the puncture fairy. For once my less than stellar descending was proving to be a bonus.
Once I’d got myself into a nice group containing a few more yellow dossards, it became a bit more like a road race. Many of the tracks are passable in groups and the speed is grippy, but bearable. Unfortunately that was the moment that some of the riders competing in the Wallonia Gravel Champs came past! These fit young things – one who could have been a body-double for MVDP – blew through our group. Unfortunately this old man thought he could keep up and set off on their wheels. Big mistake that would only make itself known later in the race.
The rest of the day followed in a blur of working with groups that would expand and contract depending on what the route threw at us. A few moments still stand out. On one section of flat, fast gravel – which was perfect riding – we hit a five metre hole that had been filled with rubble. However, because of the dust clouds raised by the bunches, we couldn’t see the obstacle until we crunched through it. The sound of rock hitting expensive wheels and pinging off, was only matched by that of rider’s cursing. Again there was a motley crew of puncture victims, sadly plying their tyre levers. And again, I sailed through, teeth and sphincter clenched, but puncture free!
Another time I’m with a fast moving group, hiding behind the bigger boys and saving energy. Flying through a corner I drop down to the smallest cog to keep up with the acceleration and CRUNCH! The chain has dropped off the little cog and jammed! Screeching to a stop, I’m off and freeing the recalcitrant chain. Job done, it’s back on the bike and engage chase mode. Fortunately my incident has happened just before a ridiculously steep and rutted descent. Bouncing off the ruts and taking way too many risks, I manage to get back on to the group again.
Flash forward again and the group has broken up and I’m riding with three fast women. We work well again, but I can feel the beginnings of cramp coming on and have to keep backing off. Finally I get the full cramp halfway up a slope and have to stop. Only to see two yellow dossards blow past, blast! I limp up the hill and manage to get some life back in the legs, but where I’ve been overtaking people now it’s my turn to be overtaken. It’s agony, there’s only twenty kilometres to go; can I hang on?
I manage the little technical section in a group of three, get past them and whiz over the finish, knackered spent, done. But happy. Rolling through the finish chute, I clutch my medal and goody bag and head for the recovery beer and meal; with free wasp accompaniment. Next to the finish area, showers are available in the local sport centre. The last is vital as we are heading straight back and I need to get clean. Many of the other riders are laughing about the day, others are broken. Feeling a little more human I head over to the results screen to see how I’d done. 7th, an excellent result, but if not for that cramp…
What a day! The race was fantastic, a great course, well supported by officials and locals. On the route we were cheered and had no issues from traffic. Although the road sections weren’t closed, this is Belgium, one place you know cyclists are more than tolerated. But what about the spirit of gravel?
How was the spirit?
Well if you like fast and hard racing over different surfaces, testing your skills and fitness, the Houffa is for you. Was I put off by the soulless UCI sucking all the fun and freedom out of the event with their heavy handed interfering. No. Was the event full of drug fuelled Euro-robot riders, cruising along tame cycle paths? No. Was the event ridiculously long and mega-expensive to enter? No.
Was the event easy to enter, of a length that made it fast and achievable for amateurs that have a family/job/life? Yep. In a nice little town with plenty of accommodation and places to eat? Yes. Was it enjoyable? Oh yes! You can probably guess that I’ve been finding the whole “spirit of gravel” moaning a bit silly. The UCI have set up a World Series and it’s about bike racing on all kinds of surfaces on any bike. You don’t have to do it – many events have a sportive option – and organisers are still able to run their own events in their own way.
So I’m not really sure what the complaints were about. To claim one country is the founder of this type of racing – when everyone has been doing it for years in different countries – and then telling everyone what qualifies as gravel seems a bit exclusive. Let’s forget all this what is and isn’t gravel. If you want to race, then race. If you want to ride for days and sleep in a hedge, then do it. If you want to ride with your mates and stop for lunch, crack on. And if you want to do them all, even better.
Back again for 2023?
Of course, it’s my new love! I’ll be heading back to the Houffa in 2023, but I’ll also add in a few more. Being on the south coast of the UK, it’s easy to get over to Europe for a weekend race. First up is the Gravel Fondo Limburg, this is a bit different in that it’s three laps of a circuit and includes a climb of the Cauberg. Next is the Gralloch, this Scottish race is a new one and will take riders deep into the hills of the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere. Looking at the information the Gralloch looks like it’ll be one loop of a mainly gravel/forestry road circuit. And if the there’s time I might take in the Gravel 150 another Dutch race. If you fancy having a go then take a look at the UCI gravel calendar.
As an extra incentive I’ve decided that I need to get a new bike! My current Handsling CXC has been a great bike, but while cantilevers are fine on the ‘cross course I think it’s time to change to discs. Having that extra power on long off-road descents is a definite bonus. As I mentioned in a previous do-it-all bike article, I’m looking at the Handlsing CEXevo to fill my UCI Gravel World Series bike shaped hole. It’s fast, light and strong, I just need the legs to power it round!
I’ll keep you up on my Gravel World Series adventures and my new bike as it gets built. Hopefully I’ll see some of you out there? Come and say hi if you do, test my gravel spirit!