The times are a-changin and Europeans are infiltrating the pro gravel scene at rapid pace.
With his gravel success, Laurens ten Dam has been promoting gravel racing pretty hard in the Netherlands and it’s catching on.
Leading up to Unbound Gravel on June 4th, a whole posse of Dutch racer travelled to the United States for a month long training and racing trip with Gravel Locos in Texas and Unbound Gravel in Kansas being the standout events.
Nicknamed “the Dutch Mafia,” the group was made up of Ivar Slik, Jasper Ockeloen, Thomas Decker and Laurens ten Dam — all of them pro road racers turned gravel riders.
“Laurens is a billboard from gravel racing [in the Netherlands]. Ivar and I were kind of done with road racing and we do like an adventure so that’s why we started racing gravel as well,” Ockeloen told Cycling Weekly after he came through the finish in 20th place at the Unbound 200.
“It’s a nice challenge and I like that it’s a combination of a pro race and amateur races and that it’s such a big event in which everyone can have fun. On the road, it’s more narrow and a bit more tense with the racing only. And I think in the Netherlands, a lot of people are talking about gravel now and showing interest.”
Ockeloen and Slik grew up racing together as juniors, were part of the Rabobank Development program and have been making the rounds in various Continental Teams. A generation ahead of them, Decker and Ten Dam are longtime friends and former WorldTour teammates and competitors.
Ten Dam said that he and Slik train together 2-3 times a week in winter and that likewise, Decker and Ockeloen ride together. The bond is close, but the competition is serious.
While the countrymen might train and travel together, come race day, there’s no such thing as a 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 that seems to be working out just fine for the Dutch Mafia.
In May, Ockeleon won Gravel Locos while Slik took second. In 2021, it had been Ten Dam on the top step of the Gravel Locos podium before he missed out on the Unbound 2021 victory by inches to Ian Boswell. This year, it was Slik who won the Unbound 200 after a thrilling four-up finale. And while Ten Dam gave a tremendous solo effort, he finished fourth.
“For sure, our American campaign couldn’t be better,” Slik told Cycling Weekly.
“First Gravel Locos and now this. This is the biggest gravel race in the world. That I could win it right away at only my second appearance, I never would have imagined.”
“My whole season has been going super, and I get so much support from everyone, especially my partners.”
Aside from gravel, Slik has a mountain bike background and still races beach races in the Netherlands while also competing on the road for UCI continental team ABLOC. For gravel, Slik is on the Wilier Triestina factory team.
Slik seems to be learning from Ten Dam quickly.
“I choose the gravel route because it suits me better than road racing because I come from a mountain bike background. I trained for the long distances and I’m getting on well. I am so very happy with this win. It’s very special for me,” he said.
Boswell, unseated from his Unbound throne, accepted his defeat graciously and welcomingly.
“Him being the first non-American to win this race is a sign of the times,” he said.
“My wish for this race is that a super strong rider with the panache of Unbound wins and he did. He’s always racing his bike you know, he rides hard, he pulls through and he was second at Locos as well so I’m super happy to see him win. I mean it was a stacked field.”
Ten Dam was happy for his country mate and training partner, but also pleasantly surprised by his own performance at Unbound. His daring attack may have left him chasing and with little energy for the final sprint, he said that his legs felt super strong today. Stronger even than in 2021.
“I thought that I wouldn’t be able to [race] for much longer,” the 41-year-old acknowledged. “But perhaps I can if I’m still getting stronger.”
All four riders said they’ll be back in 2022, and one can only guess how many more are coming.
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