In November 2022 it was announced that Oud-Heverlee, a small municipality in Flemish Brabant, would host the following year the first-ever Gravel Belgian Championships. A few months later, in March 2023, the news was that the same event would also have the European Championships of the discipline at stake.
The awaited day for Belgians and riders from the rest of the continent finally arrived and on October 1st, around 1.600 starters of different categories and age groups took over the gravel paths and forests around Leuven.
The course consisted of a local loop of 28,4 km that led riders through covered gravel highways with no technical difficulty, and a big loop of 47,3 through more exposed areas, with tougher sections and a smaller share of unpaved roads.
Not all participants had to do the same amount of kilometers, as the number of laps varied depending on the category and age group. On the one hand, the elite women did two local loops before heading to the bigger loop and wrapping things up with an additional local loop, which added up to 132,5km. On the other hand, the men elite did a last lap on top of it and they ended up covering 160,9 km.
Unlike for the upcoming gravel World Championships, riders were allowed to race in their team kits rather than the national colors. Nonetheless, we saw the elite Italian riders, including the De Marchi brothers, wearing the azzurra. Mattia and Alessandro were racing together for the first time since their years as under 23!
The race started at 12:00, a time more similar to a road race than the typical long-distance gravel event. That may be the reason why so many WorldTeam riders and former pros populated the first rows at the startline. The elite men were the first to start, followed by the elite women, and then the age groupers.
With a course consisting of several loops, there was a big risk of the fastest riders lapping the rest of the field and causing some havoc. It was avoided until the last part, as for the third lap the elite riders headed to a bigger, distant loop while most of the age groupers finished their race in the local loop. However, the pace at the front of the race was so high that they even lapped many of the men 19-54 age groupers.
The story of the day was clearly the local hero Jasper Stuyven getting both the European and Belgian Championships. It was his first gravel race, and even if the off-road skills of the rider from Lidl-Trek may not be at the same level as the competitors in the lead, his knowledge of the area and his legs compensated for it.
Stuyven was quite active the whole day, trying to split the lead group and following moves too. He suffered a puncture but luckily it was not far from the tech zone and he was able to get a wheel from Thibau Nys, who had to abandon earlier in the race.
Alex Colman started the last lap in the lead, but on the first hill he was overtaken by Stuyven, who had attacked from the group just after crossing the line. The rider from Leuven would end up creating a gap of over a minute on the finish line. Tim Merlier, who is used to winning bunch sprints in road races, was the fastest of the chasing group and Paul Voss, nowadays one of the best gravel specialists, managed to outsprint several current pros to get the bronze medal.
That last solo lap in the lead, taking into account that he was racing in his backyard, was a unique moment for Stuyven. “It was very special to receive the cheers from the spectators and even the lapped riders”, he said to us in the press area.
We even got goosebumps during the podium ceremony. The ovation as soon as the local rider stepped on the podium, the enthusiasm of the little kids, the emotions of Jasper’s partner… Who would have said that gravel would be capable of this?
After the ceremony, he was asked several questions about his presence in gravel events from now on, even if he is still fully focused on road racing. “I have no idea, to be honest. I didn’t expect to win so it is difficult to answer all those questions”. What is clear is that with the European Champion on the team and the signing of Carlos Verona, who has been taking part in the Gravel Earth Series and other gravel events, Lidl-Trek should consider investing some resources in a gravel team within their structure.
Even if the men’s race in general, and Jasper Stuyven in particular, were the focus of attention for most, the performance of the women is also worth highlighting. Tiffany Cromwell made the decisive move in the last off-road sections and was enough to start celebrating as soon as she entered the finish straight without worrying about the riders coming from behind. Lorena WIebes outsprinted Fem Van Empel and she also celebrated it, as she would be crowned as European Champion. Tiffany won the race but, given that she is Australian – they didn’t even play the national anthem during the podium ceremony as they were not prepared for it -, it was the Dutch rider who would be awarded the distinctive jersey.
In a matter of two years, gravel has seen the emergence of the World Series, a World Championship, and now a European Championship, a clear sign of how structured the discipline already is.
The physical level required to be at the front of one of these races is now also absurdly high, as pointed out by many of the finishers last weekend. The fun side of gravel gives room to the competitive approach of road racing when it comes to racing for a distinctive jersey, so we will see something along the same lines this weekend during the World Championships in Veneto, Italy.