Gravel racing: cycling’s thrilling new speed challenge

A flat-out mix of cyclo-cross and road racing makes gravel cycling a heady challenge, says James Henderson

Rattling and humming through the Danish forest
Rattling and humming through the Danish forest | Image: Martin Paldan

Gravel racing, a hybrid of speed and rough-track riding, is on the rise in Europe. Like its cousin mountain biking, it came out of California, but instead of focusing on the technical skills required to climb and descend rocky, precipitous, twisting slopes, gravel racing took to the state’s dusty tracks and unmade roads, combining the frenzy of cyclo-cross with the graft of the determined road-cycling rouleur. The UK now hosts events, but I’m heading across the North Sea to Denmark for Hansens Cykelløb. Organised by the two Hansen brothers, ice-cream makers and cycle fanatics, it’s a 130km ride, a single‑day race held in August.

People turn up to gravel races with hybrids, mountain bikes, the occasional fat wheeler, even road bikes. But there is, indeed, such a thing as a gravel bike for the purist – it combines the familiar shape of a road bicycle with increased flexibility for the rough surface. Canyon loans me one of its Grail gravel bikes for the race. All matte-black composites, it’s sleek, with 40mm tyres that glide over the terrain, and weighs in at a light 8.8kg. Its double handlebar looks a bit like the wings of a biplane: drop hand grips below allow control in extremis and the upper bar has more flex and comfort for the arms.

For training I head to Richmond Park, ploughing around the outer, gravel track, dodging walkers and prams. It’s harder work covering the ground on the gravel, but it’s fun too, careering along, reaching for purchase on folds in the trail, the inside of the camber and the rim of watercourses and puddles. After two weeks of practice, I am ready.

The author relaxes before his ordeal
The author relaxes before his ordeal | Image: Martin Paldan

There is a light-hearted air when I arrive on the Saturday morning in Lyngerup, northwest of Copenhagen, as 500 riders and their families gather in the shadow of a classic Danish dairy building, now the ice-cream factory. The 1920s façade has been given a whimsical 1950s makeover – an elegant nod to an age when the Tour de France itself was run over gravel roads – so the posters, milk-shake stalls and cycle jerseys all lead on soft colours: chocolate, strawberry and creamy vanilla.

But if the backdrop is slightly soft focus, the cyclists themselves are not. Most are not here for a leisurely ride. Once released, their competitive fire will ignite and they will blast it. Anders, one Hansen brother, says with a grin, “Gravel riding is fun because you’re off the main road, but you can still ride fast”.

First though, we join a parade behind the Hansens’ milk truck, in a peloton half a kilometre long. It is partly about marketing and partly to get us safely across the Roskilde Fjord, from the Hornsherred peninsula to the town of Frederikssund. We warm up our legs and chat. We are all sorts: some locals, many from Copenhagen, and a scattering of foreigners. I fall in with Rob, a regular gravel rider from California, and Oliver, an English architect living in Denmark. The easy atmosphere is hygge on two wheels, we joke. Until, after 15km, the milk truck pulls aside and the frontrunners hare off.

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The course, which is about 60 per cent off road, covers every sort of surface: cycleways, of which there are plenty in Denmark of course (the Grail hums happily and chomps up windfall cherries and apples scattered on the path), compacted gravel tracks (which elicit a crisp crunch and an occasional ping) and footpaths and farm tracks. The field of riders begins to stretch out, so outside a few bottlenecks we’re mostly cycling in clear space.

Soon we enter the wooded heartland of the race, the luminescent green underworld of massive deciduous trees. We hurtle down tracks, some straight as a die, others meandering, hissing over earthen sections, diving into humid hollows. Then we rattle along on graded forestry roads, where stone chips and chunks protrude, to the clatter, crump and agonised bangs of the wheels and spokes. Re-emerging into sunlight, we reach the first of three checkpoints, where agreeably the stopwatch is switched off. I refill with water and chug an energy gel.

We restart with a hill climb on sandy gravel. The Grail’s tyres bite and bounce, but then begin to spin, and I grind to a halt. I’m not the only one. Most of us hop off and push… Down the other side we round a lake, thrumming over duckboards. The various wooded sections of the course are linked with footpaths, across fields, even along the side of a disused railway track. Steadily riders appear by the wayside – there are many more punctures than you’d find in a road race.

Few cyclists manage to ride up the sand and gravel of the first proper hill
Few cyclists manage to ride up the sand and gravel of the first proper hill | Image: Martin Paldan

After the second stop, by a lake, we pass holiday homes and boathouses. Fredensborg, a waterside palace, flashes past. But soon we re-enter the forest (to more crackle, bang and crump, and juddering hands and arms), flying through dells where sunlight flashes, along sunken lanes and even over a spooky mound under the outstretched limbs of an enormous oak.

On the few sections of single track, we need to call upon our mountain-biking moves, tilting the bikes beneath us to turn, hopping mud ruts, slapping bushes aside, even the occasional bramble. In the end, though, what counts in a gravel race is the rouleur robustness, the willingness to keep the pressure up, to get moving again and again, through the stop-start of the irregular terrain.

If the word fjord evokes mountains, remember this is Denmark and it’s pretty much flat. So logic dictates the land’s characteristic challenge for cyclists: wind. And having benefited from the unnoticed prevailing wind on the way out, now we’re headed for home. At the third stop, the other Hansen brother, Rasmus, raises an eyebrow and says, “We have had our fun. Now for the headwind…”

Even on the flat, the going is tough
Even on the flat, the going is tough | Image: Martin Paldan

I grind it out, swearing at the oncoming blast. Mostly gravel races are an individual effort, because it is impossible to ride close enough to draft. This road section is the one moment when riding in company can help – as I realise when a disciplined team of four ploughs past me.

Back across the fjord, we are scenting home, but in the final few kilometres there is another challenging hill and the toughest surface so far, the broken tarmac of a farm track. Even on these tyres it’s enough to shake your fillings loose. Goodness knows what a metal frame would be like. Finally, though, we’re back on smooth tarmac and almost done.

The leaders manage the 132.5km in four hours dead, and I am just past five. A turn marks 3km back to Lyngerup, and I face down the headwind with relish, cranking it out. For 2km… and then, for the first time in my life, cramp strikes. Urgently I dismount and hop about, despairing at how to stretch out both hamstring and quad at the same time.

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Determined to finish, I climb back in the saddle and battle through the final kilometre home, where I find cheers and a milling crowd, stalls, retro caravans offering a burger and chips and a (local) beer and a milk shake or ice cream – a bit of real hygge.

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