Gravel Fondo Limburg Report

Gravel Fondo Limburg 2024, the return

Another year, another Gravel Fondo Limburg! You may be aware that gravel racing is now a big thing. What started with people riding their road bikes on un-made roads, or using their ‘cross bikes off-season, has exploded. There are all kinds of events for all kinds of riders; enduros, sportives, ultras and griteriums. I’ve ridden a fair number of gravel sportives, but have now moved to gravel racing. One of my first races was the Gravel Fondo Limburg, part of the UCI Gravel World Series and this year I’m back for my second attempt.

The Gravel Fondo Limburg and me have history
The Gravel Fondo Limburg and me have history

If you’ve read my previous report about the GFL, you’ll know it didn’t go well. It was the precursor to a nasty bout of pneumonia and a short stay in hospital; not great. This year I had help from Ric Stern at CycleCoach and was taking things a lot easier. The plan was not to worry about qualifying and just concentrate on getting a good ride in.


The Gravel Fondo Limburg starts and finishes in Valkenburg, in the south of the Netherlands. It’s a pretty town that is a popular tourist destination and has a little cycling history. Valkenburg hosted the UCI Road Cycling World Championship five times, in 1938, 1948, 1979 and 1998. The Cauberg hill, which we race up at the start, is a major feature in the Amstel Gold Race and it’s twice been a stage finish in the Tour.

Last year we stayed at a campsite outside of town, but the family wanted to stay in town this year. We chose the Hotel Botterweck, which was perfect. The kids had an apartment with a kitchen, so we could cook for ourselves. Meanwhile we had our own room in the hotel, which meant we didn’t have to listen to them!

Home for the weekend was the Hotel Botterweck

This time of year the central street which has loads of bars and restaurants, is buzzing and there’s lots going on as it’s also Koningsdag. This is a national holiday in the Netherlands and there’s a lot of orange around! Also for some reason, the locals drag a massive tree through the streets of Valkenburg. The procession takes ages as they stop at every bar for a drink! Eventually the tree gets hoisted up and more drinking ensues. There’s also plenty of touristy things for your non-cycling partners to visit, such as a castle and lots of caves to explore.

The race

That’s enough of the tourist stuff, what’s the race like? I was worrying as the race day approached, Europe had been suffering from heavy rainfall and was worried it might turn into a mud-bath. In fact the organisers had to shorten the route by around eight kilometres due to flooding in the preceding week. However the weather gods decided to play nice and it had dried out by race-day, but the course change remained.

This wasn’t too much of a loss, as two of the sections were not my favourite. One was a steep off-road climb that had caused massive tail-backs previously on the first lap. The second was the Keutenberg, which we climbed three times last year and I was not sorry to see it go!

The Elite Men appeared very relaxed at the start of the Gravel Fondo Limburg. Photo courtesy of MD_CyclingPics
The Elite Men appeared very relaxed at the start. Photo courtesy of MD_CyclingPics

This did mean that the race was very much a rolling affair, while there were some fast downhill chutes, generally the climbing was fine. Looking back the removal of those two climbs didn’t make a huge difference, with last year climbing being 1440m and this year 1332m.

Famous names

The race starts, as is usual for the UCI Gravel World Series, in waves. The elite male and female riders start off first with riders like Toon Aerts, Greg Van Avermaet, Jonny Hoogerland, Eli Iserbyt, Nikki Terpstra, Cameron Mason, etc, etc. In fact there were a lot of names that you would be familiar with if you watch cyclo-cross. There were also many riders that had recently, or not so recently retired from the pro peloton. It seems it’s not just me that can’t give up racing!

They still looked relaxed as they climbed the Cauberg at the start of the Gravel Fondo Limburg. Photo courtesy of MD_CyclingPics
They still looked relaxed as they climbed the Cauberg. Photo courtesy of MD_CyclingPics


The following waves are then made up of 19-34, 35-39, 40-44, 45-49 up to the 75 year plus riders. Each category has it’s own colour, so you know who you’re racing with. Once the racing gets going the categories start to mix, but with front and rear numbers you always know who your fellow competitors are.

I would have liked to go and watch these riders being introduced and grabbed a autograph or two. However I was too busy warming up and trying to grab a good spot on the grid. This is always a problem with these starts. You want to be close to the front of your category, as the starts can be fast and furious. With everyone trying to get to the front while dodging street furniture and other riders, you need good reflexes.

Obligatory back of head shot from the start of the Gravel Fondo Limburg
Obligatory back of head shot from the start of the Gravel Fondo Limburg

So some riders turn up well ahead of time to bag a good place on the front of the pen. However, this means you can’t warm up, or rub shoulders with the elite riders. What’s a boy to do? I chose to warm up and then join the pen at the rear, as I wasn’t going to try and qualify this time.

Old boys

I was in the male 55-59 category, which had grown considerably since last year. This year there were 109 riders, compared to around sixty last year. Most of them were Dutch or Belgian and looked to be very fit. They looked like the kind of riders that have raced as juniors and just kept riding at a high level and now gravel is giving them a new outlet for their competitive urges. Most were on the latest carbon gravel bikes, with a mix of 1 and 2x drive trains. Amongst the crowd were a few older ‘cross bikes with rim brakes and narrower tyres. There were also a few MTBs, including what looked like a beach racer.

We’re off!

As the clock counted down, I could hear the MC sending the other groups off and we started to shuffle towards the start gate. As usual there’s a little scrabbling for places as riders try to get closer to the front; all part of the pre-race nerves. Finally we’re at the start, the waves are setting off at two minute intervals. The MC has a few moments to wish us luck and then we’re off!

The Gravel Fondo Limburg passes through the Limburg's farm land
The Gravel Fondo Limburg passes through the Limburg’s farm land

The start rumbles out over a cobbled bridge and takes a couple of 90 degree turns that bring us to the bottom of the Cauberg. What with the flat-out start and dodging all the street furniture, jumping kerbs and dodging riders, I’m already gasping by the time we start the climb. I made myself calm down and ride up the Cauberg at a steady pace; only 30 seconds slower than last year.

Groups were starting to form over the top and I jumped onto the first likely one. Fortunately Netherlanders tend to be on the tall side, which gave me loads of shelter. I’m sure they were cursing when they slipped onto my wheel at the lack of cover I gave!

Gravel Fondo Limburg circuit

The Gravel Fondo Limburg is made up of three laps of a circuit, with a separate lead in and out. This is a bit of a double-edged sword when it comes to dealing with the race. On the one hand, as the circuit is only around 32 kilometres, it’s easy to remember. However, it also means that as you start to flag, you know what is coming! I can’t forget those wind-blasted sections over the flat farmland

Early groups soon began to break up on the Gravel Fondo Limburg
Early groups soon began to break up

The course is a mix of surfaces, gravel, farm tracks, grass, tarmac and what the Dutch call lössgrond. This is a compact, sandy surface that is great to ride on and good for growing grapes, apparently. When it’s dry it’s also very dusty and the wind on the day was creating mini dust-devils. While there were a few sections that still had puddles, mostly it was dry. A couple of the muddy sections were on up and downhills, for which reason I left my Schwalbe G-One Ultrabites on. There was also a short section of soft, newly cut grass that was an absolute horror to ride. As soon as you hit it you lost all speed and had to press hard to get through it, thankfully it was only 50 metres long.

While the rain stayed away, the wind was always present at the Gravel Fondo Limburg
While the rain stayed away, the wind was always present

Downhill advice

Another section that stood out was a fast descent into a 180 degree bend, which then went straight into a climb. The final five metres were on rippled concrete with loose gravel, which made for exciting braking; probably why the locals were stood there! I’m seeing a bit of a pattern emerging here with strong riders excelling on the flats, but being dropped when it comes to downhill or technical sections. My advice would be for you to spend some time getting comfortable descending at speed on loose surfaces. You’ll gain time on your competitors for free and save on brake pads!

Back to the race

As I rode on I stuck to my plan of slow and steady. This meant I was passed half-way through the first lap by the leaders of the 60-64s. Which got me thinking that I’ll be racing with them next year and I’ll only have to do two laps! Again, they all looked very strong, so it will still be hard.

While we were spared the rain, Limburg brought the wind. While the headwinds were bad enough, it was the side winds that were worse. On some sections of the course it did its best to try and throw me from my bike. These would always come when you least expected it and generally when you only had one hand on the bars. I kept thinking of what happened to Chris Froome when he crashed due to an unexpected gust and gripped my bars a bit tighter.

Plugging on through the wind in a gravel race isn’t as straightforward as in a road race. Due to the uneven and ever-changing road surface, you can’t sit as close to another rider’s wheel. Well, you can, but after hitting the umpteenth pot-hole, or just avoiding his swerving rear wheel, you soon think better of it. This made the brief respite of any tarmac so much sweeter, unfortunately these sections were just that, brief.

Feed zones and family helpers

The Gravel Fondo Limburg has two official feed zones, where they provide food and some mechanical support. They’re also where many rider’s helpers were based and the official litter zones. I was riding with two 500mL bottles and had my loving family stationed at one of these with extra bottles and encouragement. Despite my warnings about the need to dress appropriately for a long wait, there was some moaning afterwards! What I couldn’t help was the smell from the farmers field, thankfully the wind meant they were spared the worst.

A little word about what I used for fuel on the GFL. I got through three bottles of hydration mix and around five of Kendals mint gels, which I carried in soft flasks. This was the first time I’d use a soft flask in a race and was really impressed. No more desperately trying to tear open the sachet, while bouncing around one-handed. I could take as much or little as I needed, without covering myself or kit in sticky gel, brilliant.

What's the secret to not losing your bottle at the Gravel Fondo Limburg? Metal cages and small bottles
What’s the secret to not losing your bottle? Metal cages and small bottles


Sorry another diversion, but it really irked me on the day. Despite the organisers having clearly marked zones for disposing of rubbish, the amount of rubbish dropped on the course was terrible. The Limburg is a beautiful area, popular with tourists, to see it covered in discarded wrappers is not doing cycling’s image any good.

There was one form of debris that wasn’t deliberate however. That was the bottles that were at the bottom of every rocky descent. Riders who use larger bottles and lightweight bottle cages risked losing them on every bump. In fact I hit one on a descent after it flew off the bike in front. There was a brief “oh sxxt!” moment, but I managed to stay upright. I called out the the rider as I passed him, but I don’t think he even realised he’d lost it!

A little bump

With the turn off to the finish approaching, I decided I could start playing racer and began a bit of a to and fro with another rider in my category. We had been passing and re-passing each other for a lap and I figured a little friendly competition would make the last kilometres go a little faster. While he was definitely stronger than me, I was faster on the downhills. So my plan was to attack him before the final descent, getting a good lead in to it and then hold on to the finish.

Checking my helmet after testing against a tree!

It would have started better if I hadn’t misjudged a corner and come to a stop, head-butting a tree and breaking my computer mount! Brushing that aside I set off again, with my computer hanging by it’s lanyard, to vanquish my foe. While I got the lead I wanted, the final descent proved to not be as big an advantage as I’d hoped. This off-road section had well placed marshals with whistles and flags to warn of the the large rain gullies and other obstacles on the way down.

I was enjoying the ride down, when suddenly the marshals were warning me to stop. The reason? A rider had crashed badly and was being attended by first-aiders on the spot. You never want to see another rider down and I rolled slowly past until we were clear to race again. I hope whoever it was, was ok and as there hasn’t been any news since, I assume they were.

Pouring on the power at the Gravel Fondo Limburg!

A few more watts

The accident meant that my nemesis was now closing in on me! The final kilometres, while flat, went through some technical sections that made it hard to keep your speed up. These included a stately home, with modern art sculptures and a brief excursion through the car park; strange. Then it’s past a playground, through a very neat housing-estate and the finish is only a few hundred metres away. But oh no, he’s got past me! Time to try and squeeze out a few more watts, all to no avail. I roll over the finish to the resounding cheers of my family in 57th place. That put me around one hour and ten minutes behind Toon Aerts and 49 minutes behind my category’s winner. Overall I was 1135th of 1630 riders, of who only 1250 finished.

What did I ride?

Handsling CEXevo

I was riding my Handsling CEXevo, this is a T800 Toray carbon frame, one of the British brand’s own designs. It’s a fantastic bike, fast, agile and light; makes me happy every time I ride it! Groupset was Shimano 105 Di2 and I have to say that I’m fully converted to electronic shifting; especially when it comes to off-road racing. Shifting is so easy, especially when bouncing around on rocky tracks, it only takes a click of your finger to change gear. Gearing was 50-34 on the front and 11-36 on the rear, which gave me plenty of range on this course.

Tyres were 40mm Schwalbe G-One Ultrabites, a little too aggressive for this course, which was mostly dry. I had left them on over the winter to deal with our mud and wasn’t sure what I’d face in Limburg. In the end there were a couple of short sections where their extra grip helped, but many riders got round on less grippy tires. The wheels are Handsling branded and hand-built by Ian Lynch, they probably one of the nicest pairs I’ve had and far too nice to be ridden off-road! Watch him at work on the video below, thanks Ian!

In conclusion

So that’s it another Gravel Fondo Limburg done. This one, although tough, was a much better experience. Once again I managed not to qualify, maybe next year? Who won the elite races? In the men’s elite race, a breakaway group of ten formed, with Toon Aerts and Piotr Havik making their move in the final lap. Aerts dominated the sprint at the Shimano Experience Centre, securing first place, followed by Havik in second and Adne Koster in third, trailing by 20 seconds.

Meanwhile, Tessa Neefjes engaged in a fierce battle with Irina Lutzelschwab in the women’s race. Neefjes managed to create a gap, clinching victory with a 2-minute lead over Lutzelschwab. Wendy Oosterwoud claimed the third spot on the podium, finishing 3.5 minutes behind the winner.

Gravel Fondo Limburg 2024 Aftermovie from International Cycling Events on Vimeo.

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