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Smugglers’ Path: The go-to gravel camp in Flanders

As temperatures keep rising, all kinds of outdoor events populate our calendars. In the same way that a lot of people look forward to that particular summer festival they go to every year, gravel enthusiasts from Belgium and neighboring countries have the days of Smugglers’ Paths marked on their agenda.

The event was sold out in just a week, and 500 lucky ones, including us, could enjoy a perfect weekend of gravel riding and camp vibes in Limburg. More than half of the 2023 participants had attended one of the previous three editions of Smugglers’ Path, which shows the good impression that the event leaves on all those taking part. Many of them had stickers of the event on their helmet and wore with pride all possible pieces of merchandise that the organizers have ever launched.

Around a third of those tickets were for the whole weekend, which included on top of the Saturday ride two nights of camping and hearthy meals. Given that the campsite was located in Hamont-Achel, barely a handful of kilometers from the border with the Netherlands, the share of participants outside Belgium was quite high. We also met people from more distant places like the UK and Italy.

The camp opened its doors on Friday, May 26th, at 1.30 PM. It wasn’t long until many campers and people with their tents filled the place, and in addition to the nice bikes we saw around the venue, it seemed that there was a contest about who had the best place to sleep. There were tents that could fit a whole family!

We traveled by bike from home to the start venue, which forced us to pack light instead. Nonetheless, following the advice of those we talked with on day one, we managed to make the most of our setup and have a good night of sleep. When we arrived there was already a BBQ in place, so we immediately joined the rest of the participants on the table.

Those who filled their bellies first started gathering around the bonfire, and soon many people would have a beer in hand. The dilemma was either partying hard that night and suffering the consequences during the 160 km ride the next day, or saving as much energy as possible and giving it all the following night with the residual energies left.

As we were having breakfast the next day, the participants with a day ticket arrived at the venue. At first glance, it was already easy to distinguish those that came for Saturday’s ride only from those staying for the whole weekend. With their appearance and lower average age, they seemed to be more race focused, but we soon realized that no one was there to race. We were all looking forward to tackling the route and having a great time.

The track has been more or less the same throughout all four editions, but it is built in a modular way. This allows the organizers to switch the order and direction of the loops within the overarching route, making every year slightly different than the previous ones.

The terrain was 90% off-road, and within that percentage there was not only pure gravel but also rougher surfaces, such as descends with roots and sandy sections, making it entertaining and challenging at the same time.

We have always thought that a mountain bike is not really useful in the Flemish part of Belgium because of the lack of mountains. However, given the amount of well-preserved unpaved paths throughout the region, a gravel bike is very convenient. With the Smugglers’ Path route, we had a taste of everything.

A big chunk of the total kilometers was around the Wouterbos, in the Flemish region known as Kempen. Several ups and downs along the forest kept us busy for a while, taking shelter from the scorching sun.

The feed station was in Opitter, where the Cornelissen brewery is located. The ones doing the long route passed by two times, meaning that there was a constant flow of riders recharging batteries and sharing the adventures experienced until then. The pastries were next to the taps, so it was really tempting to go for a beer instead.

We ticked kilometer after kilometer while having fun on our gravel bike, and before we knew it we were already back in the base camp. In a similar way, the time between our arrival and the start of the pizza party we had for dinner flew by because we were busy talking to fellow participants we encountered along the route.

We are ashamed to say that there were many people with more energy to party than us. By hearing the conversations the following morning, it was clear that it was a long night of hardstyle music and beers for some. The “hangover ride” planned at 8.30 AM had a very fitting name, and unfortunately for all of us, it marked the end of a nice weekend.

Smugglers’ Path was a big realization of how inclusive gravel is. We are glad to have come across such a nice event, and we now understand why, for a lot of people, it is the best weekend of their year. The same organizers have a second event with similar vibes later in the year, so do not hesitate and sign up for French Borders while there are still some tickets left.

Photos: Sam Cornette