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Shimano vs LtD Gravel Raid

Shimano rider Nas-Raddine Touhami joined Shimano to check out the inaugural LtD Gravel Raid, held in Germany at the end of September. Read his thoughts here:

With the tail end of summer slipping through our fingers we expected Laurens Ten Dam's first Gravel Raid to either give us the first icy blast of winter riding or a sunshine ride through September's falling leaves. To our surprise it gave us both!

A heavy afternoon rain shower hit on the journey from the Netherlands, quickly putting paid to any ideas we had for a shake down ride, but by the time we were unpacked the rain clouds were clearing to reveal a stunning sunset over the Eifel hills of the German/Belgian border region.

We extracted our bikes from a mountain of weekend camping gear and gave them a quick check up. Both me and my riding partner had made some last minute adjustments, swapping stems for more control, picking more climbing friendly cassettes, and choosing tubeless tyres. The last thing we needed was a tech error ruining the ride so we asked the guys from De Mechanieker, a Shimano Service Center on wrenching duty for the weekend, to double check our handiwork.

Whilst that was being taken care of we gathered around the campfire to share a beer with the other riders. We were in illustrious company with not only Laurens but Niki Terpstra and Haimar Zubeldia joining us. It’s not every day you’re shoulder to shoulder around a fire with the pro’s the night before a race!

Something well-articulated by the LtD Gravel Raid team was a focus on the overall experience as much as on the riding so we were well catered for that night. It wasn't your standard pre-ride pasta party, the gourmet delights included flavoursome curry, juicy burgers, and huge slabs of cake from De Bisschops Molen, washed down with bottles of Kwaremont or warming cups of Il Magistrale coffee.

Talking of which, hot steaming cups were definitely called for the next morning as campers awoke to a crisp frost covering the tents. The first of the season and somewhat of a rude awakening for the local riders who'd been experiencing 24c daytime temperatures just days before.

Sunshine was forecast though so it was just a matter of deciding how much we could brave those near-freezing early kilometres. We chose to rock winter gear with overshoes, leg warmers, jackets, buffs, gloves and a great new base layer from Shimano’s Evolve line, knowing we could ditch them half way through the race.

After Ten Dam dropped the figurative chequered flag we rolled out in a relaxed fashion with seemingly no-one fussed on clocking fast times for the entire route. Our plan was to go hard when it mattered, on the timed segments, and spend the rest of the time enjoying the ride.

The most surprising thing out on course was the variety of bike styles: MTBs, Road bikes, Gravel bikes, fat bikes, anything goes it seems, with every bike being suited to a particular type of terrain found on the course.

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With farm tracks, sand, fire roads, tarmac, river crossings, loose stones, leafy paths, this was a course that made no concessions on its meandering route through the hills. It kept you guessing the whole time with its twists and turns. The only thing that was consistent was the changing gradient - a rollercoaster of ups and downs meant we felt the kilometres by the time the first stop arrived.

Despite the sun now showing its face the wind was whipping across the exposed plateau and through the feed tents so we didn't stop for long, diving back into the cover of the trees for a steeper second half with, for some almost unrideable ascents, and for others almost unrideable descents, depending on your bike and tyres of choice.

Shortly after the rest stop we had our first spill of the day. Along a fairly innocuous rutted track one bump dislodged Ben's hands from the hoods. His hands grasps aimlessly for his bars for a second before he regained contact if not control. A fairly comical swerve into a ditch scrubbed his speed and caused an ungraceful dismount, reminding us that gravel riding ain't no walk in the park.

Once Ben regained his composed the kilometres quickly ticked by as we took every opportunity to keep off the quiet roads in the region, time being somewhat distorted by the constantly changing terrain and scenery. But the sting in the tail came with the three challenge segments, adding an element of competition and the chance to open up the legs and lungs.

With the first two challenges out of the way it wasn’t long before we were heading back into the festival area in Hellenthal with the first half of the day's riding complete.

The route was designed in two with the first half covering a southern loop of Hellenthal and the second half covering a steeper northern loop. The ethos of the event was as much about enjoyment as it was hard riding, so no-one was racing through their lunch. A relaxed atmosphere and pleasant weather meant many riders were happy to take their time over hot pancakes and Lau’s scrambled eggs.

By the time we hopped back on our bikes for the second loop we had around 100 metres to warm up our legs before the climbing started. We quickly reached the Crazy Climb, which was so steep were practically chewing our handlebars. To top things off we had to conquer the fearsome Eifel cobbles. The morning’s efforts were beginning to bite so we switched to ‘shut up legs’ mode and kept pushing, eventually finding ourselves in good company. Laurens Ten Dam himself was just ahead. It was fun to hold his wheel for a while and experience a little of his Live Slow, Ride Hard philosophy, or Live Slow, Ride Gravel as it became this weekend.

A persistent slow puncture eventually meant we lost Ten Dam’s wheel shortly before the end of the day. My tubeless tyres were a great choice to avoid pinch flats but I noticed a decent sized gash in the tyre, one too big to be sealed with the sealant. I patched the tyre and stuck an inner tube in. Luckily it held long enough and as the sun was going behind the hills we hauled ourselves over the final 2km Uphill Challenge and rolled back in around 5pm. After some 130km and a whopping 3000m of altitude the smell of burgers grilling at the finish line was like a beautiful meaty dream!

As the sun set and the beer tops popped, we had an awesome selection of tunes to relax with, firstly from a vinyl DJ and then from two cover bands including none other than former Dutch pro rider, the 1986 world TTT champion Rob Harmeling. A man of many talents!

Although the event continued until the Sunday with a Hangover Ride and a chance to watch the World Championships men’s road race for us it was already over with work schedules dictating our return home. We’ll definitely be back next year though.

In case you missed it, the second edition of the LtD Gravel Raid will take place Hellenthal from the 27 – 29 September. Be prepared!

Pictures by Brian Megens: © Brian Megens Photography

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