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23-05-2024 | Michiel Minnaert

Hard'n Gravel Challenge: a sportive disguised as a race

The Hard'n Gravel Challenge: I don't know where to start. With only 50 participants, there was no need to be early at the start to secure a spot in the front row. From reading the description on the website, I knew this was going to be an adventure, more of a sportive event rather than a race. The organizers decided not to mark the route (just like the gran fondo), so each participant had to rely on their GPS. It was hard to consider this a race, but I was determined to make the best of it.

From the start, we went straight uphill, and a small group quickly formed. After about twenty kilometers, I pulled ahead on some uphill sections. It was nice, but now I really had to rely on my GPS. Navigating the Ardennes forests was challenging. A few kilometers further, I found myself in front of a gate at a stone mine; the route was 20 meters down a path. No one was behind me, and no one was in front of me. Were there people ahead? It was a mystery. Nevertheless, I continued riding and enjoying the beautiful Miavoye region. The trails were smooth and rideable, at least for now...

Tracking

After 60 kilometers (with a brief transit through France) and a little over halfway through, I thought, "What a beautiful day. No one in front, no one behind. Beautiful weather, stunning scenery, excellent hills, and well-maintained trails." It felt more like a fun pathfinder gravel ride than a race, but who cares? Then came the second half. Still beautiful, but not suitable for gravel riding. The route included heavy rocks, steep climbs and descents, and deep puddles of mud. I frequently lost my way due to the difficulty of reading the GPS. Sometimes I had to choose a different route because the mud was impassable. Occasionally, I had to climb over a wire. Time seemed to move very slowly.

Cyclist riding through challenging gravel terrain in the Ardennes

Long live the bike bell

Highways, footpaths, the pedestrian bridge over the Lesse River, and crowds of kayakers made for plenty of adventure. I inched toward the finish line. Beforehand, I had wondered why I even had a bike bell, thinking, "You're going to ride a race!" But I was suddenly very grateful for it, given the hike. Dismounting was a hassle, especially since I was wearing road shoes, making it a challenge to climb slopes on foot.

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Dehydrated on the wrong side of the finish line

Facing a multitude of logistical challenges, I ran out of supplies, notably booze, yet the end seemed near after crossing the Lesse River. Dehydrated, the final ascent proved insurmountable by bike—a coarse rocky slope approaching a 20% gradient for nearly a kilometer. It's hard to imagine how any participants managed to cycle up. The finish line was tantalizingly close, but in the last stretch of forest, my navigation failed spectacularly. My GPS incessantly warned of errors as I followed a steep path on foot, making several incorrect turns before ending up on a main road. Trudging along, scrambling over fallen trees, I eventually spotted the finish line—albeit from the wrong side, having added an extra 4 km to my journey.

Start numbers laid out for a race

Despite the detour, I crossed the time mat and corrected my course to finish properly. I had led the race throughout, yet a forty-second delay at the finish relegated me to second place—a bitter pill to swallow knowing I was faster than the winner.

The event was adventurous but poorly suited for a competitive gravel race. The lack of directional signs and marshals, coupled with the need to navigate busy roads, bordered on irresponsibility. While the organization manages excellent sportives, framing this event as a race with official results required more thorough preparation. I hope this experience encourages the organizers to implement necessary improvements for a genuine race next year. Despite the issues, it was an enjoyable sportive event.

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