The Grind: Talking Belgian gravel with Gravel World Series manager Erwen Vervecken

Houffa Gravel plants the flag as the first gravel race in Belgium, and one of the 12 Gravel World Series events.

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The Grind is a weekly column on all things gravel.

Belgium, as Tadej Pogačar said today, is the home of cycling. But for all its decades of deep history in professional road racing, its millions of cycling-mad fans, and its millions of everyday bike riders who often ride rough roads, Belgium is not the home of gravel racing.

While organizers have dabbled with a few gravel sportives, there has has not yet been a true gravel race in Belgium. Three-time world cyclocross champion Erwin Vervecken is changing that with Houffa Gravel.

“There have been a few gravel events, but none of them are races; we have not had any real competitive events in gravel,” Vervecken said of his home country of Belgium. “There have been a few so-called MTB marathon events, which are the same style event as gravel. But gravel is a real American thing. The first European gravel events only started to exist four, five or six years ago.”

Vervecken followed his 15 years of professional racing with 15 years of event organization with the UCI Gran Fondo World Series. Now, he is also heading up the just-launched UCI Trek Gravel World Series, which will culminate in the first-ever UCI gravel world championships.

Houffa Gravel will be held August 28 in Houffalize, Belgium. Houffa Gravel is one of the 12 events on the Gravel World Series calendar, with 68 and 110km distances on offer. Like the other Gravel World Series events, the top 25 percent of the field in each age category will qualify to race in the UCI’s gravel worlds, for which a date and location has yet to be announced.

Riders at the 2021 Houffa Gravel included former road pro Bram Tankink, multi-time cyclocross world champion Sven Nys, and former road pro Ine Beyen.

Houffa Gravel was held for the first time in 2021 as a non-timed sportive. This year it will be a race, like using the Gran Fondo World Series format of three waves of starters: licensed racers in the first wave; unlicensed riders who want to go for time in the second wave; and riders who just want to enjoy the day in the third wave.

Houffa Gravel will Houffalize’s city center, and heads right up the steep Rue du Saint Roch, which road-race fans will know from  Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Some 80 percent of the race is on gravel.

Related: The Côte Saint Roch wall of Liège-Bastogne-Liège

Vervecken said he expects that Houffa Gravel and other races in the Gravel World Series will attract between 500 and 2,000 riders this year. Manila Gravel, the first race in the series, sold out at its 500-person cap.

“I expect it to be bigger than the Gran Fondo World Series in a few years,” said Vervecken, who has overseen gran fondos will 8,000 riders. “In countries like Belgium, we don’t organize new gran fondos anymore because it is too expensive, or you have to organize on open roads, which is too dangerous. It’s easier and cheaper to organize gravel events. Most European gran fondos are on closed roads, and that is an added value to the rider, but that is not cheap.”

Cyclo-rides, like the We Ride Flanders sportive on the Tour of Flanders course this Sunday, remain massively popular. The Flanders sportive often sells out its 16,000 spots.

A rider in the 2021 Houffa Gravel.

While quiet small farmroads abound in Belgium, true gravel roads aren’t as common.

“Find a gravel route was a big challenge in the beginning,” Vervecken said. “I know in the U.S., gravel races are held on 80 to 90 percent gravel. But that is nearly impossible in a country like Belgium. Even in the Ardennes [home to Houffalize] it’s hard to find.”

As for bike choice, Vervecken said he expects the competitive riders in the front to be almost all on gravel bikes, while those just doing it for fun will likely be on a cyclocross or mountain bike.”

“A lot of riders are now switching to gravel bikes. It’s the hot new thing, but it’s hard the last two years to get any kind of new bike,” he said.

But Vervecken expects the number of gravel bikes in Belgium to only grow, just like the amount of events in the Gravel World Series.

“For next year, I am convinced we will have 20 or more races in the Gravel World Series,” he said.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.