Inside the Netherlands’ first gravel national championships

Last weekend, NK Gravel in the Netherlands crowned two national champions. Is the race a harbinger of more sanctioned gravel to come?

Photo: Bruno Bobbink

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On Saturday, a nation very well known for cycling but lesser so for gravel made the off-road discipline official: in the Netherlands, Demi Vollering (SD Worx) and Tijmen Eising (VolkerWessels Cyclingteam) became the first ever Dutch gravel national champions by winning NK Gravel.

The women’s podium at NK Gravel (from left): Floortje Mackaij, Demi Vollering, and Lorena Wiebes (Photo: Bruno Bobbink)

While gravel is more associated with the Flint Hills than the Limburg hills, the discipline is booming on a global level. From Iceland to Kenya and most places in between, gravel racing is outpacing road and mountain as the participatory discipline of choice.

Earlier this year, the British Gravel Championships awarded national jerseys across age groups. That event was held by Golazo Cycling, which is part of the Golazo Group that will run the UCI Gravel World Series and gravel world championships in 2022.

However, NK Gravel is the first national gravel race to bring in top-name professionals and award national championship jerseys.

In the U.S, where gravel has a mythological birthplace in Kansas at the race now known as Unbound Gravel, race organizers have been reluctant to invite any governing bodies to the gravel party, keeping the discipline firmly in the hands of private organizers. When the UCI or USA Cycling are even mentioned in the same breath as gravel, comments about sock height and aero bars start flying. However, when the UCI announced a 2022 gravel world championships, the question switched from when, not if other countries would follow suit with qualifying series and races.

Last weekend’s Dutch gravel national championships present an interesting case study.

NK Gravel was created by Mathijs Wagenaar and Marieke van Altena. The friends have organized races together before, including a longstanding road race in their hometown of Epe. A few years ago, Wagenaar had the idea to put on a gravel race in the same region. He approached the Royal Dutch Cycling Union (KNWU), the Netherlands’ national federation. He never heard back from the governing body.

The 7.5km circuit included gravel, tarmac, sand, and mud. (Photo: Bruno Bobbink)

This past August, with proof that races could be held safely amid the ongoing pandemic, Wagenaar asked them again, this time with an even bigger proposition — what about a national championship?

“First, they didn’t respond because they were full of Covid and canceling stuff,” van Altena said. “They didn’t have any time to think about new things. Now, everything is a bit more quiet on the agenda and so that’s why they said, ‘maybe this is a very good time to do it.'”

Because NK Gravel would be a new event, Wagenaar and van Altena had to compete for organization rights with other bidders. Van Altena said that 10 other race organizers applied but because she and Wagenaar already had a route, the approval of local municipalities, and some big-name sponsors including Cannondale and Shimano, they won the rights.

And then had three months to put it all together.

Gravel race promotion in the Netherlands, while nascent, is also different than the U.S. version for geographic and cultural reasons. Because the United States is so vast and gravel roads predominate in rural, lightly populated areas, Americans are used to long distances and wide open spaces. Traffic, or shutting down roads to avoid it, is rarely a problem.

Van Altena said that lack of unhindered physical space coupled with government officials’ reluctance to impede any type of traffic — pedestrian, vehicular, or otherwise — puts a damper on the Dutch’s ability to uphold the traditional notion of gravel. Permits are also hard to come by.

“We wish it could be like you guys in the USA,” she said. “But you’ve got so much more space and roads — we’re a tiny country. If you want to organize a long distance road cycling or gravel race here, you have problems with the government permits. There’s a lot of forest here, but some of the pieces you need are from private owners, some is from the government, so there are a lot of permits you need. If there’s a lot of road blocking in the race, the police have to be involved and they don’t have the capacity anymore in Holland, and they don’t want to do that.”

In order to get the race approved by the KNWU, van Altena and Wagenaar had to make compromises — and holding the race on a 7.5km circuit was a major one. Although lapping a tiny loop and calling it a gravel race is not what riders in the U.S. are used to, van Altena said the race wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. 

“This way we could close it totally off to traffic and we wouldn’t bother anyone and the police didn’t have to be involved because there was no traffic involved. Then you get the permits really quickly.”

In terms of rules, NK Gravel was lightly regulated. Van Altena said that the KNWU borrowed the rulebook from Dutch beach racing, another niche discipline. Basically, riders needed to be on road or gravel bikes (no flat bars) and be self-sufficient in the event of a mechanical.

“No silly rules, just the normal rules,” she said.

Men and women started separately but there were no age groups or categories. The men rode a total of 120km and the women rode 75km. The 7.5km loop included gravel, pavement, and sand, as well as a 400m section that turned into a very cyclocross-esque muddy mess after heavy rains the day before the race.

Some 200 men and 60 women raced NK Gravel. There was a heavy pro contingent, but anyone could race with a day license. Van Altena and Wagenaar also created a GPS tour for people who wanted to do the route as more of a ride, and nearly 200 people participated in that.

In the future, NK Gravel hopes to become a bigger event, with a different course and more options for racers. (Photo: Bruno Bobbink)

So did the course, infrastructure, and rules of the race please everyone?

Van Altena said that Dutch gravel riders are, similar to their American counterparts, protective of the discipline. She and Wagenaar received some criticism for taking the once-niche discipline to the formally sanctioned level.

“That’s a big criticism here, it’s a bit the same,” she said. “They say ‘because gravel is about the experience of the forest, relaxation on your bike. Why should it be a race?’ But I always have to laugh because everyone who is saying that, if you check Strava, they always go quick on all of their quick relaxation tours in the forest. They’re always cycling very hard. So why do you say that? Everyone likes to ride fast, sometimes.”

“So we said, ‘I think you can’t stop it. You can’t stop this development in gravel. Don’t beat it, join it. Then you can do it with good legislation, good rules, safely, and then it’s good.”

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