On Sunday, April 30, over a thousand participants lined up for the Gravel Fondo Limburg, the official qualifier for the UCI Gravel World Championship on October 7 and 8 in Veneto, Italy. The organizers had built a fantastic event site around the Shimano Experience Centre in Valkenburg. In addition, the sun had started to shine and it was 21 degrees. After weeks of cold and chilly weather, this was a gift for everyone!
Beforehand, there was severe commotion about the starting procedure. The highly debatable priority box of max 25 riders/influencers, meant that for contenders in my M40 category, a considerable slalom to the front was needed. The race director has told me that this will definitely be different next year.
From my category there were no less than five riders (officially four) at the front, including Laurens ten Dam, Maarten Wynants and Ismael Aguero Esteban (former Spanish national CX champion).
The catch-up race was limited by the 540 riders in between. At the start it became immediately clear that there was no getting through, but that changed quickly because a few hundred meters after the start we went directly up the Cauberg. There we were able to catch up, and on my gravel bike I managed to set a nice PR. Of course, this catch-up cost a lot of energy and I might have to pay for it later on.
After the Cauberg, there was a short stretch of paved road after which the 34 km gravel lap up and down the plateau near the Geulvallei began. The lap consisted of open dirt roads, forest paths, single tracks through meadows and narrow rocky climbs and descents through woods. And on top of that three times the Keutenberg, the pinnacle of the day. Exactly like three weeks ago for Pogacar during the Amstel Gold Race.
In the first lap I was still held up a lot by the slower climbers and descenders on narrow trails. Slow progression was made to get to the front though and after an unpaved -18% descent, the 22% climb of the Keutenberg began immediately. From here the road was open and I, along with another M40+ rider, joined a group of younger riders who had a nice pace. Halfway through the second lap, my legs felt strong. The race in the race had begun and I had kept everyone in my category behind me along with another M40 rider. I had also counted three riders from our category who had started at the front and whom we had caught back; the battle for a podium spot was open! You can clearly see this by the numbers as each category has its own color, just like in the UCI Gran Fondo races. So you're really riding a race within a race and the other riders really get it.
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Because my legs felt so good, I decided to finish out of the 20-man group. This went well, for 25 km I rode solo and couldn't see anyone behind me. In the last 10 km unfortunately three riders joined me, among them my fellow cyclist Thijs Zonneveld. He clearly had some surplus and in the last climb (Strava segments called 'Groeneweg'!) he had an unbridgeable gap. I could not imagine a worse place where this would happen. In the final technical descent that was littered with dropped water bottles I did take quite a bit of risk to get closer but in the end I had to settle for fourth place. A fourth place in a group of five pro/ex pro riders, qualified for the World Championship: I'm proud of it!
The 113 km with 1469m+ I rode in an average of almost 33 kph. I might have expected a slightly higher average beforehand but the addition of some technical elements in the course and the accumulation at the beginning certainly played a role in this. In 3 hours and 25 minutes the race was over after which the festival grounds were open for a real gravel BBQ with music.
Next weekend I will start at UCI Gravel Blaavands Huk in Denmark. Here I do hope to make the podium! Storms are predicted for this 155 km gravel race through the western dunes of Denmark. Still some kind of mountains so on this otherwise flat course.