[ blog » 2024 ]Hardennes Gravel Tour (by Philipp Gesang, location: somewhere dry and warm)


Quite tellingly it was raining when I rolled onto the start and finish area of Parfond’Ry near the town of St. Hubert in the heart of the Ardennes. The event I had signed up for months earlier was the 2024 edition Hardennes Gravel Tour and I was yet to find out that the H in Hardennes made all the difference. A briefing was held about the race during the afternoon by organizer Olivier who assured us the trails would dry out over night and the debacle of last year’s edition wouldn’t repeat itself. That of course was a bit too optimistic.

It kept raining throughout the night and in the morning hours when we gathered at the start line the parcours was properly soaked and muddy. At that point there was no turning back, it was scratch or survive for the next 700 km in the hills of Belgium.

Tracking for the event was provided by FollowMyChallenge.

Day 1

Olivier also claimed the first hours of day one would be easier than the rest of the circuit. That one was a plain lie. Right off the bat we tackled single trails some of which were barely even recognizable as trails. A muddy 5 cm line in shoulder high grass and shrubs? Apparently that’s a trail. Knee deep, murky water? A trail as well, obviously. Mud puddles in every direction? Somewhere in there there’s got to be a trail.

During these early hours when most of the field was close together and one would still meet riders more or less regularly it became sort of a running joke what surfaces still constituted “gravel” and which didn’t. Apparently the Belgian definition of the word is more inclusive than what we were used to. Unsurprisingly the first couple riders scratched already during that brutal morning.

After a sightseeing break at the magnificent Durbuy castle the roads got significantly more “rideable” and gravel-like. On that ground my choice of 40 mm low-profile tires finally paid off and I managed to catch a few riders on heavier gear who enjoyed the advantage all morning. I rode for a while with Maxime, a local guy from Neufchâteau, who entered the race on a mountain bike with 60 mm or even bigger, nobby tires. That turned out the right choice for the track at hand.

In the late afternoon I had to deal with my on and only puncture. Maxime helped out and stayed for another while with me before the difficulty picked up again and he rode off into the night.

After dusk the final challenge before checkpoint one awaited me, the ride up almost to the Signal de Botrange, with 694 m altitude the highest point of Belgium. Thankfully the road leading up there were mostly smooth gravel, a welcome change from the muddy forest paths. Not that it was anywhere near warm during the day but up there temperatures dropped. In that chilly, humid air I followed the track on the edge of a bog almost in a state of trance. The descent again was packed with nightmarish sections where the roads were almost completely eroded through woodworks and the relentless rain of the past week. Eventually though I made it to Stavelot where some cold but energy dense food was served. I even managed to give the bike a good wash before I fell onto one of the matresses to grab a few hours sleep.

Day 2

By the time I woke up about four hours later most of the other guys that slept at the checkpoint when I arrived there were already back on the road again. I took it easy and indulged in a minimalist breakfast before I left, eager to tackle the first section of the day from the checkpoint to Sankt Vith. This was my first time visiting the tiny German language speaking corner of Belgium which is a bit surreal with its clearly Belgian road signage but German text on it.

This morning was all about climbing. With the first day in the legs this turned out quite the chore but I made it to Sankt Vith around 10, in time for a lavish second breakfast with waffles and coffee.

On a muddy path near the Luxembourg border it happened: when rolling through a puddle of mud my rear derailleur caught a piece of wood. After I removed it I noticed instantly that the derailleur wouldn’t shift properly. I bent it back approximately in shape so I could use at least half the gears on the sprocket so for the time being I could at least continue on the track, albeit with a reduced choice of gears. Later in Houffalize I visited a bike shop to get it straightened but the mechanic there – visibly disgusted by the thick layers of mud that were sedimented on the bike – failed to do it properly and I rode the rest of my race unable to shift to the smallest cog.

In a complete change of road surface the segment from Bastogne to Libramont was one continuous smooth gravel road built on the remnants of a rail track, thus the gradient was evently around one percent. Finally a stretch where my 40 mm tires excelled in! I rode that segment in one go without stopping pretty much in the aerobars all the time except for that one time when I had to carry the bike over a fallen tree. After a relatively dry noon the weather kept getting worse again though so what I remember from Libramont-Chevigny and Neufchateau is mostly the dreary weather.

After nightfall conditions didn’t improve. I hadn’t yet dropped my hopes of reaching the second checkpoint that evening still but that changed when all of a sudden a rotund furry critter leaped out of the bushes and started running along. Before I realized what was going on it was joined by a larger version of the same animal, it could have been its sibling. In the silent night their squeaking evoked answers from behind the bushes – I couldn’t see mama boar but I inferred she must have been close when I realized the two young hogs were actually trying to get past me on the other side of the trail. I stopped for a moment to let them pass ahead of me, which they did, and then bolted into a steep but thankfully mostly dry downhill. Which was immediately followed by another thoroughly muddy hike-a-bike sections where I came to a grinding halt again despite being supercharged on adrenaline. By the time I was on a ridable gravel road again I was soaked in sweat and panting.

I reached Martelange still agitated from the boar encounter and well after opening hours. Luckily one of the numerous gas stations was still open at that late hour so I refilled my diminished carbohydrate supplies. While stopped the adrenaline waned and I was left in a state of utter tiredness. I found an almost perfect place to rest right in Martelange: a wooden tower next to a bridge from where I had a panoramic view over the valley; I even spotted a pair of race participants rolling into Martelange from the other side. A bit windy but its roof kept me dry during the night and I woke up better rested than after the night in the damp of CP1.

Day 3

After dawn my first goal was to make it to the second checkpoint. Which took longer than expected due to a particularly tricky ascent on a sand road – another hike-a-bike for my 40 mm tires, sadly. I gave up trying to remount while on that sand after a comic fall in the roadside bushes.

At CP2 I met some old acquaintances, including Maxime with whom I had teamed up for a while during the first day. He actually reached the checkpoint during the night still. The food there was delicious and pretty much limitless due to the number of dropouts which left more for the few people who were still in the race at that point. Pastries, charcuterie, bacon – I was given a whole pile of delicacies and told not to bother with a plate. That’s the spirit! Thus I stayed for a while and even took a shower, improving my mood considerably.

When I rolled out of CP2 my first goal was to obtain some supplies for the upcoming sparsely populated region. It proved quite a challenge on a Sunday in catholic Belgium with most shops closed. I erred around south of Arlon for a while before settling for a disgusting McDonalds menu. I wouldn’t be able to even grab a coffee before Virton on the French border.

In Virton I actually located a night shop that was open! I filled my bags with enough calories to last the late afternoon and went on to cross into France. The following 30 km to Montmédy went surprisingly well. It had been mostly dry throughout the day and the trails started to dry out. What’s more, the gravel roads became less challenging while the scenery was utterly stunning with the Montmédy citadel as the backdrop.

For the first time in two and a half days it felt pleasant to ride a bike. I was finally confident that barring a race-ending mechanical I was going to make it to the finish line inside the time limit. The perfect moment for Murphy’s law to come into effect.

In the woods about ten kilometers after passing through Montmédy it happened: I realized the wallet wasn’t where I usually kept it in the frame bag. I unloaded the whole backpack to make sure I didn’t just misplace it. With cards, cash and travel documents all in there that would leave me without a means of purchasing food in the days to come. Optimistic I would still be able to continue I started backtracking, searching the roadside to no avail. That optimism lasted until that shop in Virton, the last place where I had used the wallet. Three hours and several laps through Virton later I was bordering on hypothermic so after 503 kilometers I decided to scratch. So much for my first gravel race.

The Voyage Home

Disappointed I rolled back 75 km to Mirwart through the cold and rainy night and had an underwhelming night in my tent. Luckily I could still purchase an early return ticket home through the app so I embarked on my long journey back home from Belgium to Bavaria.

What went completely past me however during the race was how severe the floodings in Southern Germany had been these past few days. So severe in fact that Munich was cut off from civilization from the north and west. Things were still unfolding while I was traveling so Deutsche Bahn staff too had no better idea of where it was still possible to travel that day. My original train connection got canceled pretty early on but so were the alternatives that the app suggested. Thanks to the help of some exceptionally friendly lady at the counter in Mannheim station I got a last minute reservation for the bike on an ICE to Stuttgart from where I reached Ulm with the last regional train of the day.

Deutsche Bahn paid for a night in a tacky Ulm hotel where I finally recovered a bit, hoping for the situation to resolve itself over night. At Ulm station the next morning I was told the railway tracks still weren’t usable and the replacement bus service wouldn’t be taking my bike. Turns out the first operable train station on the far side of the floodings was in the oddly name town of Dinkelscherben so I had little choice but to try and reach that place on the bike.

Rolling through the countryside I got a first hand impression of the extent of the damage. In the villages there was firefighters and THW everywhere, looking like they’ve been working around the clock. Entire roads were lined with furniture from residents who had cleared the ground floors and cellars of their houses after the water receded. Devastated, exhausted faces everywhere after what must have been sleepless nights. A few roads and bridges were still blocked, some I used anyways to avoid long detours. Here I was just two days after the Hardennes, rolling through knee deep water again!

The advice to try Dinkelscherben was correct though so the long journey home finally had an end.

gps tracks

[view GPS data in mapbox]


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