Laurens ten Dam and the ‘Dutch mafia’ hit Unbound Gravel

There's a new gang in town and they're ready to leave their mark on the US gravel scene.

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Laurens ten Dam was almost certainly the first, but he won’t be the only male Dutch rider on the start line of this year’s Unbound Gravel with dreams of victory.

In the last 12 months a number of riders from the Netherlands have followed ten Dam’s lead and forged their own paths in the U.S. gravel scene, and while the domestic-based riders are still expected to dominate in terms of numbers, don’t be surprised to see ten Dam or one of his fellow countrymen close to or on the podium after the 200-mile race.

Collectively known as the ‘Dutch mafia,’ ten Dam leads a group that includes friend and former road teammate Thomas Dekker, as well Jasper Ockeloen and Ivar Slik. The latter pair went one-two in May’s Gravel Locos in Texas, while another Dutch rider, Dennis van Winden can’t be overlooked this weekend either after cracking the top-10 in Unbound last year.

“So they call us the Dutch mafia now,” ten Dam told VeloNews. “Ivar and Jasper are traveling together but as a group that’s what they call us.

“Last year they also did Unbound but I know them all really well from back home in the Netherlands. Ivar is in my training group, and Jasper trains with Thomas so there’s a real connection between us. Me and Ivar train together a lot and then Jasper and Thomas live near each other too in Amsterdam.”

Read also: Gravel Locos: A race, a ride, a remembrance

And, there’s more than just gravel that combines the foursome.

Ten Dam, Dekker, Ockeloen and Slik all had careers on the road — in fact, Slik only changed to gravel full-time earlier in the year. The quartet also rode for Rabobank orange at one stage or another during the road days, and although there’s almost a ten year gap between the combination of Dekker and ten Dam and Slik and Ockeloen, the riders have all made successful transfers to gravel in the last couple of years.

Ten Dam is too modest to suggest that he started the craze, but it’s certainly true. He raced some off-road races back in 2016 when he was still in the WorldTour ranks but he was so impressed with the laid back style of riding and the atmosphere that he decided to complete the move to gravel once his road days were over.

Read also: The Migration Gravel Race is bringing Unbound winners and East African pros to Kenya

Those plans were put on hold in 2020 due to the global pandemic, but in 2021 he raced across North America, Europe, and Africa.

“To be honest, last year was my first real year,” ten Dam said. “I did some gravel back in 2016 but I was still fully on the road at that point. I won a few Grasshoppers but I wasn’t at Unbound back then. But now there’s me and Thomas in the house here in Oklahoma. Ockeloen and Slik are ten years younger than Thomas and I so it makes sense that they travel together and Thomas and I do our thing. We’re the old guys.

“But we don’t race as a team. It’s everyone for themselves in gravel. Maybe there’s a bit more sympathy for each other in the group than if we didn’t know each other but we all do our own race.”

According to ten Dam, his fellow countrymen have upped their game over the winter since dipping their toes in the gravel pool.

“Ivar and Jasper were new to it last year but they saw the level of me and Ian Boswell and maybe it was a different ballgame but they did their homework over the winter and I’ve got to give them credit and compliments for that,” he said. “In December I had a big BBQ and they came over and started asking me all the best questions about gravel, when to come over, the traveling, the race conditions, and everything else and now they manage themselves for a month here.

“They’re making friends here and they’re here with a very good level. I think that’s good. Thomas and I are at 41 and we’ve got lots on at home but we’ve really trained hard over the last month and hopefully that’s enough for next Saturday.”

It’s not just the Dutch riders who have impressed in the last 12 months though, as the entire field has stepped up in terms of gravel racing and the competition within the leaders. An increase in prize money, more interest from sponsors and the Life Time involvement has all driven the competition to a new level.

“Last year there were only six guys in our group at Gravel Locos and this year there were nearly 50,” ten Dam said. “The depth is there now, especially with the mountain bikers and the Life Time group coming in. It maybe makes the group bigger but it can also lead to negative racing because if the group is big then you have riders starting to skip turns and things like that.”

Read also: 10 men to watch at Unbound Gravel

As for ten Dam, who was second to Boswell at Unbound in 2021, the form is ever-improving after a difficult period.

“Last year I came into the race with a lot of confidence,” he said.

“I came into the U.S .knowing that I’d trained really well and I went and won Gravel Locos straight away. Now I’m still in the mix but I also had some problems.

“I crashed last September and had a brain contusion but I’m really happy and proud of my comeback. I’m maybe not on the level that I was at last year when I was super strong and still just two years out of the WorldTour but I’m still super happy with my current level. I hope to take the next step to my final preparation here in Oklahoma.”

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