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Gravel adventure through Luxembourg

Exploring new places can be done in several different ways. Some travel to the other side of the world and others find it closer to home. On this trip I did the latter. Truth is that I don’t have to complain with the Ardennes in my back garden. This opens up so much oppurtinities close too home that each year I’m exploring new places. My gravel bike plays an important role in this. If you ask me, the gravel bike is the ideal all-rounder: fast enough on the road and with the right bike it is also surprisingly capable on forest trails.

This was once again illustrated during a challenging gravel ride across Luxembourg where I had the chance to test Shimano’s new GRX groupset and PRO’s new Stealth saddle and Discover dropper post in the wild.

For me, the anticipation started as I began imagining the route. Armed with GPSies and Google Streetview I spent hours meticulously plotting a route. For this occasion I devised a number of principles:

-       from A to B instead of a round
-       the Luxembourg region of Mullerthal with its technical trails could not be missed
-       and neither could France

The result: 160 km and 3200 meters of altitude from Bettembourg in the south to Clervaux in the north.

I told my friend Wim Reynaerts about the plan with enough enthusiasm that he jumped at the chance to join me. And so it was that early on a summery Monday morning we picked up our bikes, a pair of Orbea Terras, and drove from the Netherlands to Clervaux where we took the bicycle-friendly train to the south.

We disembarked at Bettembourg and rolled through some easy kilometers towards France so Wim could ease his way out of the stiffness from his race the day before. After crossing the border the first gravel paths came with aplomb. In fact, they were so rough that we jumped off the bikes simultaneously to reduce tire pressure.

With a bit more comfort coming from our wheels we were still able to ride swiftly on country roads and we stopped in the abandoned village of Halling where only the chapel seemed to be still in use. It looked picturesque but in reality this is a sad consequence of the urbanization that is increasingly manifesting itself in France.

After a 26-kilometer French interlude, we entered Luxembourg again. From Mondorf-les-Bains the route went uphill steadily and the height profile became more and more erratic. Via rolling hinterland over the typical meandering Luxembourg roads and gravel paths we set course for Mullerthal. On this varied terrain we were able to thoroughly test the various setups of our bikes. I rode the GRX 1x11 set up with a 42T chainring in combination with a 40x11 cassette. In general, I am quite skeptical about 1x single ring set up on a gravel bike because of the smaller range. That is precisely why I wanted to experience it. And I have to say that I generally enjoyed it. Although it wasn’t entirely perfect for me. For climbs above 18% and at higher speeds when the chain is slightly slanted to the right, and therefore runs less smoothly, my preference is for the double. But such a thing remains personal and in my opinion is very dependent on your riding style.

Luxembourg is a sparsely populated country. We had already been postponing our coffee break for 3 hours because we simply did not come across a cafe or bakery. Then our water bottles had been squeezed to their last drop. Fortunately we saw an elderly lady sitting on her terrace and in my best German I asked her if we could fill the bottles. Apparently tap water wasn't good enough because she came up with ice-cold bottles of water. She explained that she could do nothing else in this warm weather, especially after I told her which route we were riding. She could not understand it but appreciated our courage.

With a moisture balance brought back to normal just in time, we came to Müllerthal, popularly known as Little Switzerland. This vast wooded area is characterized by huge rock formations, thus living up to its nickname. It is well known amongst hikers and trail runners for the 112 kilometer Müllerthal trail. Mountain bikers also love it here. Whether the gravel bikes would survive was questionable.

In addition to simply skills, having confidence is essential when looking at the limits of a bicycle on technical trails. That confidence quickly came on the Orbeas, especially due to the ergonomics of the shifters and the feeling Servowave brake lever. The difference between traditional STI road shifters is considerable. Shimano made use of its mountain bike technology in the development of the GRX shifter and that is clearly bearing fruit. In combination with the PRO Discover handlebar with big flare, the dropper post and the robust GRX wheels you can almost imagine yourself on a mountain bike. Without suspension forks and wide tyres we knew we were not, but by winding in our enthusiasm just a touch it was clear that we had a capable setup for the terrain.

The phenomenon of gravel bikes has increased strongly in recent years. But just as with cross-country mountain biking, the dropper post remained taboo for a long time. Yes, it makes the bike heavier and you have to handle the remote somewhere on the handlebars. And yet it is becoming more and more established because the gain in time and trust and the associated pleasure in descents is worth it. We also experienced that and saved us some stubborn falls. Getting used to it takes time, but once you find the pattern, you don't want anything else.

The mighty Müllerthal scenery continued towards the North but unfortunately all the beauty had to end for us. Our reserves were running down and we’d been in the saddle for 7.5 hours. Fortunately, Ettelbrück appeared on the radar and we eagerly devoured a much needed snack.

With 52 off-road kilometers left, time was beginning to run out. On unknown terrain and with only 2.5 hours of daylight, we were up for a challenge. Propelled by the sugar kick we set course for Bourscheid in time trial mode. The Stealth saddles gave us a good low aero position until the moment that the Garmins told us that the climb was about to start: 374 climbing meters over 3 kilometers. We rode steadily uphill on a steep goat path, doing our best to avoid the sapping bumps. Just before the summit we emerged from the forest and saw the breathtaking view of several valleys. An instant remedy for the burning pain in the legs.

After a long descent we had the vain hope to start the Kautenbach climb quickly. When building the route, it turned out that a hill was overlooked and that was one that can’t go unmentioned. With a snail's pace we climbed the steep forest path with percentages above 20%. I was jealous of Wim's double chainrings there.

A little later than hoped we arrived in Kautenbach. Here was a climb that I had been looking forward to for a while. Due to the hairpin bends and the wide view at the top, it looks like an alpine col.

Once we reached the top we saw the sun slowly setting. With 16 kilometers and 2 climbs still ahead, time was our greatest enemy.

No matter how hard we rode the inevitable became reality. The last climb we rode in the dark. And to be honest, we were not sorry about that. It was a wonderful ending to an amazing drive through Luxembourg. This cycling paradise can expect more visits from us!