Petr Vakoč is having a season one could dream of. The Czech rider, who retired from road cycling at the end of the 2021 season, switched to gravel and XC racing this year and finds himself once again at the top of the race leaderboards. Last weekend, he finished second at the famous gravel race SBT GRVL in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, adding another major placement under his belt alongside a second place at Unbound, the win at Gravel Adventure, which is part of the UCI Gravel Series, and more.
We talked about what led him to his career restart, what it is like to be an independent rider fighting for podiums, how the race in Steamboat unfolded and what his future plans are.
Early achievements on the road, career-threatening accident and subsequent success in gravel
Petr Vakoč stepped into the professional peloton with the colours of Quick-Step. It led him to 5th place at the Strade Bianche in 2016 at the age of 23, followed by a victory at the Belgian spring classic Brabantse Pijl and a second place the following year. Petr seemed to be set to establish himself among other young rising stars of his generation of road racers. Nonetheless, a life-threatening accident early in 2018 while training in South Africa put him out for the whole season.
Petr, however, managed to make a comeback to the WorldTour. He would then join Alpecin-Fenix for the 2020-2021 seasons, and even though some might say he perhaps did not reach his previous form in terms of his individual race results, he still played a key team role alongside the team’s superstar Mathieu van der Poel.
He was planning on finishing his road cycling career early, and since he felt that he had accomplished all his goals in that discipline, he concluded that his road career came full circle and it was time to call it a day. Nevertheless, he would still seek success racing in alternative disciplines.
Nowadays, Petr is fighting for victories once again. This time, it is in the most important gravel races. His switch to gravel racing seems quite spontaneous. Petr initially planned just to say goodbye to his cycling career at the Cape Epic 2023, but after placing 7th together with his race partner Marc Stutzman, he decided to keep the form and momentum swinging and show up to the famous Unbound Gravel race and other American gravel events.
Racing as an independent rider
Competing in the Unbound Gravel was a late decision, only a month before, so the preparations were not ideal. Petr had no sponsors and was going into the race as an independent rider on his own Canyon bike. He arranged for kit support with Isadore and on-course support with the Canyon CLLCTV. He finished 2nd behind Keegan Swenson and ahead of Lachlan Morton, so it wasn’t long until he put pen to paper on different sponsorship agreements. He finally signed a contract with Canyon, including support for the next 2 seasons.
Different atmosphere than Unbound
SBT GRVL is perhaps the 2nd biggest event of the gravel racing calendar, just behind Unbound. “At Unbound, the pressure is on. The riders feel they need to deliver for their sponsors and the stakes are high. It is comparable to what you feel at the Tour de France,” as Petr compares it with his road cycling experience. The atmosphere ahead of the race in Steamboat on the other hand felt a bit more relaxed, but of course that did not take away anything from the race’s importance. He already knew the organizers from Finland earlier this summer, where he raced in another event organized by them, FNLD GRVL. “The race organization was really on a high level, both here and at the FNLD GRVL. The parallel programme such as the Expo was great,” said Vakoč.
High altitude racing
A key aspect of the SBT GRVL race is the high altitude. The race takes place over 2.000 meters above sea level. Petr decided that first, he would race in the Leadville Trail 100 MTB preceding the SBT GRVL to adapt to the altitude. The Leadville race is even more ruthless in this sense: the race takes place mostly at an altitude over 3.000 m, with its highest climb reaching 3.800 m. Even though Petr arrived 9 days ahead of the race, he says it is almost impossible to prepare for such extreme racing conditions. At least not in Europe. In fact, a lot of his current American rivals live in the high altitudes of Colorado, which seems to be advantageous while training for this kind of races.
Petr finished 10th at the Leadville and felt really confident going into SBT GRVL. When talking about his preference between XC and gravel, he said that gravel suits him better, given his experience from road racing and similar group dynamics. That is another reason why he was so confident ahead of the race.
Race tactics and how it unfolded
Petr chose 35mm tyres for the race, compared to racing on 40mm earlier this season. Even though that was the choice of the majority of the riders in the previous editions of the race, this year most of them opted for the wider tyres. Nevertheless, he felt that it was a good decision as the gravel was quite fast.
He knew that last year the breakaway almost stole the show. Similarly, at the FNLD GRVL this year, the main group did not cooperate well to catch the race leaders and he had to settle for 4th place. So, this time, he was ready not to miss an opportunity and rather to jump into an early breakaway.
That happened around the 10 km mark, when he bridged across to Keegan Swenson to form a group of six strong riders, including two top-5 finishers from the previous edition. However, they were caught around the midway point of the race. The pace was then stable and not really high, so Swenson and Vakoč went into another breakaway, this time the decisive one.
At SBT GRVL riders can’t get a bottle from their team by the side of the road, and they can only stop at the neutral feed zones. This means that racing in over 30°C temperatures with only a backpack and three bottles took its toll on Petr. With 40 km to go, Swenson attacked on a climb and Petr could not follow, knowing he would go over his limit. Petr then paced himself carefully as he started to cramp and secured second place. “Keegan was the best rider of the day. I think he also dealt better with the temperature conditions.” admitted Petr, as he finished two minutes behind him, with a five minute gap on the group behind fighting for the third place.
Plans for the rest of the season and 2024
When we had our conversation with Petr, the next stop in his calendar was the Houffa Gravel UCI Gravel Series on August 26th in Belgium. He finished 6th after sharing the front of the race with Wout Van Aert until he had a mechanical. Up next, La Monsterrato Strade Bianche and after that, he will take part in the UEC Gravel European Championships in Belgium and the Gravel World Championships in Italy.
Delighted with his current form and results, Petr is not about to stop racing now. His 2024 calendar will be filled with as many races as this year. The main races he competed in this season aren’t missing from the list, and he will probably add the Belgian Waffle Ride in San Diego, Sea Otter Classic and maybe The Traka. Cape Epic is also on his schedule. “Maybe I will extend the season and even take part in Big Sugar”, he says while looking clearly temped, although the race takes place late in October. Hopefully, we get to see him at the start of many more races to come.