New Nordic gravel national championships are taking a US approach to racing gravel

'We believe that a gravel championship should have a certain standard of both quality and distance of real hardpack dirt roads,' says race organizer Maarten Patteeuw.

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Will 2023 be the year of the gravel national championship?

With countries as far flung as Kenya hosting its first gravel championship race next year, the United States about to release a 2023 date, and the Netherlands to crown its third set of gravel national champions next year, it would seem that ‘everybody’s doing it.’

The more important question however, might be: ‘how is everybody doing it?’

For the recently announced Nordic & Baltic Gravel Championship and Finnish Gravel Championship, which will both be held July 28-29 in Jyväskylä, Finland, the answer to that question is somewhere along the lines of, not like the UCI did it in October.

Wrapping my head around a gravel world championship that doesn’t really resemble gravel 

“We believe that a gravel world champs, or their qualifiers, should have a certain standard of both quality and distance of real hardpack dirt roads,” said Maarten Patteeuw, the founder of the the Nordic Gravel Series and organizer of the Nordic and Finnish championship races.

“And that lies closer to the events in the US and the terrain available in the Nordics. Otherwise it just becomes stretched out cyclocross.”

2023 Nordic & Baltic Gravel Championship and Finnish Gravel Championship

Patteeuw has been appointed to organize the new gravel championships by the Nordic Cycling Federation, which represents all Nordic and Baltic cycling federations (those represent eight countries: Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, and Sweden).

A Nordic title will be awarded in four age categories for licensed riders and one open category (non-licensed) for both men and women. Finnish champions will be also awarded in four age categories for Finnish Federation licensed riders, and one open category for non-licensed riders.

The Finnish men’s and women’s elite category winners will qualify automatically for the UCI Gravel World Championships in October 2023 in Italy.

For Patteeuw, a Belgian who has lived in Finland for over 20 years and organized the Nordic Gravel Series for five, it’s important that the championship courses differentiate themselves from the last big gravel event in Europe — the inaugural gravel worlds.

Gravel racing is a newer phenomena on the old continent than in North America, and Patteeuw said that some people seemed willing to accept the UCI’s first attempt at organizing a race.

Some, he said, were not.

“There were some sarcastic remarks in Europe, ‘you can’t criticize the parcours of the UCI because you can’t define what gravel is.’ I’m a bit, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t agree with that.’ We all agree what good, wide open gravel roads are. Yes a few singletrack and forest roads, there can be a mix of that, but there is still a bottom line of what a good gravel road parcours is and the UCI wasn’t that.”

Patteeuw has long espoused that the the Nordic nations have the best gravel terrain in Europe. He has also paid close attention to the gravel scene in the U.S. Both of those things combined have led him to create championship courses — and rules — that wouldn’t sound out of place at a race in the United States.

To that effect, the Nordic & Baltic and Finnish championship races will be held in the Lakeland Region surrounding the city of Jyväskylä. The terrain in the area is hilly, forested, and  surrounded by hundreds of lakes.

The course, which will be used for both the Nordic & Baltic champs, as well as the Finnish championship, is 180km long with 2800 meters of elevation gain. 85 percent is dirt or gravel.

For reference, the elite men’s gravel worlds course was 190 kilometers with 800 meters of altitude gain and a total of 73 percent gravel, while it was 140 kilometers, 700 meters, and 69 percent gravel for elite women.

For the Nordic & Baltic Gravel Championship and Finnish Gravel Championship, men and women of all age categories will race the exact same course.

Patteeuw said that, for him, the US gravel scene has set the gold standard for putting on events in the Nordic nations. And that includes both the competitive and participatory nature of events in the United States.

“There are few events that have built a reputation in Europe, like The Rift and The Traka, but beyond that, yes it’s definitely true,” he said. “The rest of Europe is modifying from mountain bike races to gravel. For us, gravel has already been the starting point.”

While the Nordic Gravel Series has always been promoted as a more social than competitive event, Patteeuw has also received feedback that some people want to race.

It’s partially why he put his hat in the ring to organize the new gravel championships, and it’s why he’s sandwiching them into a weekend of Nordic Gravel Series programming at the same venue.

Three non-competitive races — 50km, 110km, 170km — will also be on offer during the weekend in Jyväskylä as part of the six-event Nordic Gravel Series.

“As we’ve been riding with the community and tens of thousands of riders throughout Finland, we’re also listening to their thoughts and needs,” Patteeuw said. “In that way, we want to safeguard the social aspect of the events and will continue to do that.

“But the race aspect, that can be combined in a good way, in a positive way. I think we’ll see 20-30 percent racing and the rest enjoying a good day out. I’m not afraid that will change too much of the atmosphere of the events.”

The year of the gravel national championship is truly taking shape.

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