Times are changing and Europeans are infiltrating the professional gravel scene at a rapid pace.
Building on its success on earth, Laurens Ten Dam has been promoting gravel racing pretty hard in the Netherlands and it’s catching on.
Leading to Unbound gravel on June 4, a whole group of Dutch riders traveled to the United States for a month of training and racing with Gravel Locos in Texas and Unbound Gravel in Kansas being the highlight events.
Nicknamed “The Dutch Mafia”, the group consisted of Ivar Slik, Jasper Ockeloen, Thomas Decker and Laurens ten Dam – all professional road racers turned gravel racers.
“Laurens is a gravel racing billboard [in the Netherlands]. Ivar and I were done with road racing and we like adventure, that’s why we started running on gravel as well,” said Ockeloen. weekly cycling after finishing in 20th place in the Unbound 200.
“It’s a great challenge and I like that it’s a combination of professional racing and amateur racing and it’s such a big event that everyone can have fun. On the road, it’s narrower and a bit tighter with running only. And I think that in the Netherlands a lot of people are now talking about gravel and are interested in it.
Ockeloen and Slik grew up together as juniors, were part of Rabobank’s development program and toured various continental teams. A generation ahead of them, Decker and Ten Dam are longtime friends and former WorldTour teammates and competitors.
Ten Dam said he and Slik train together 2-3 times a week in the winter and Decker and Ockeloen ride together. The link is close, but the competition is serious.
Although the compatriots can train and travel together, on race day there is no Dutch gravel team.
Each rider has their own team affiliation and sponsors, and when racing “it’s every man for himself,” Ten Dam said.
And it seems to be working well for the Dutch mafia.
In May, Ockeleon won Gravel Locos while Slik took second place. In 2021 it was Ten Dam on the top step of the Gravel Locos podium before missing out on the 2021 Unbound win by inches to Ian Boswell. This year it was Slik who won the Unbound 200 after a thrilling final four. And while Ten Dam put in a huge solo effort, he finished fourth.
“Of course our US campaign couldn’t be better,” Slik told Cycling Weekly.
“The first Gravel Locos and now this. It is the biggest gravel race in the world. I never imagined I could win it straight away on just my second appearance. »
“My whole season has gone super well and I get so much support from everyone, especially my partners.”
Besides gravel, Slik has a background in mountain biking and still competes in beach races in the Netherlands while also competing on the road for the UCI continental team ABLOC. For gravel, Slik is part of the Wilier Triestina factory team.
Slik seems to be learning quickly from Ten Dam.
“I chose the gravel road because it suits me better than road racing because I come from a mountain bike background. I trained for long distances and I get along well. I’m so happy with this win. It’s very special to me,” he said. “
Boswell, thrown from his loose throne, accepted his defeat graciously and warmly.
“To be the first non-American to win this race is a sign of the times,” he said.
“My wish for this race is for a super strong rider with Unbound panache to win and he did. also finished second at the Locos so I’m super happy to see him win I mean it was a stacked field.
Ten Dam was happy for his teammate and sparring partner, but also pleasantly surprised by his own performance at Unbound. His audacious attack may have left him running and with little energy for the final sprint, he said his legs were super strong today. Even stronger than in 2021.
“I thought I couldn’t [race] for much longer,” admitted the 41-year-old. “But maybe I can if I get even stronger.”
All four riders have declared they will be back in 2022, and how many more will come is anyone’s guess.