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Monuments of Gravel

Laurens ten Dam is fit and fast, and headed to Unbound Gravel to win

Laurens ten Dam belongs on the short list of favorites for Unbound Gravel after his impressive win at Gravel Locos.

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We can officially add Laurens ten Dam to the short list of potential winners at Unbound Gravel.

And nobody knows this fact better than ten Dam himself.

“I cannot deny that I’m in good shape,” ten Dam told VeloNews. “I was really happy with the [power] values I put out, and that after six hours I could push decent watts.”

The popular Dutch racer, who capped off his 16-year pro career at the end of 2019, is still extremely fit and strong on the bike. In fact, ten Dam is hitting top racing form just in time for next weekend’s Unbound Gravel, the race formerly known as Dirty Kanza.

Look no further than ten Dam’s decisive victory at Texas’ recent Gravel Locos race as proof of his form.

Ten Dam attacked in the closing hours of the 155-mile gravel race. Then, despite suffering a mechanical that reduced his bike to a single speed, ten Dam held off gravel strongmen Colin Strickland, Peter Stetina, as well as road pro Adam Roberge in the push to the line. Ten Dam won by 34 seconds over Strickland, with Roberge finishing two minutes down.

“I didn’t expect to kill those guys in the last hour on Saturday, that was a big surprise,” ten Dam said. “Strickland was second, which makes the win better, and Stetina was there. Those were the top guys at Unbound two years ago and I can beat them, and it’s two weeks until the race. I think I’ll be marked in two weeks. I cannot play the naive card anymore.”

The “naive card” that ten Dam is referring to is his newbie status in the growing scene of elite gravel racers. He’s the latest WorldTour pro to dive headfirst into the gravel scene, and his jump comes after a yearlong hiatus from any bike racing due to the COVID-19 shutdown. Gravel Locos marked ten Dam’s first true gravel race, and before the event he had to ask fellow WorldTour retiree some basic questions about gear and race craft.

“I had to ask Teddy about tire pressure and about how to use tire plugs,” ten Dam said. “Shimano asked me to use tire inserts and I was like ‘what’s a tire insert?’?

Things became even more confusing for ten Dam when the front group of riders approached one of the feed zones early in the race. Ten Dam wore a hydration vest, with enough liquids and fuel to take him through the entire race. He was surprised when all of the other front runners agreed to stop and refuel at the station.

Other riders kept going, but ten Dam decided to stop, which meant he had to chase with the other favorites.

That doesn’t typically happen in a WorldTour road race.

“At the second [aid station] I didn’t stop because I was with the guys who continued because I didn’t want to get flicked,” ten Dam said. “But I was like ‘no pulling’ so the guys who stopped could get back on. I didn’t know this is a thing. So, if we stop, then we stop.”

Ten Dam then faced another conundrum of gravel racing etiquette as the diminished front group hit the final feed zone, and he pulled off with the other riders, while one other rider charged on ahead.

When ten Dam eventually found himself in the front group coming into the final hour of racing, he decided to test the other riders with a few dummy attacks. When he noticed that the others were tired, he decided to lay down his move with 25 miles to go.

“I thought this is the moment so I went all in — for the first five minutes they were still 150 meters behind me,” ten Dam said. “And then lucky for me after 30 minutes they cracked and were not there, and basically it was a 35km time trial to the finish.”

Ten Dam hadn’t raced a bicycle since his WorldTour farewell at the 2019 Il Lombardia. But the legs and the motivation to win returned. Even if the gravel race presented some curious racing dynamics, ten Dam said he adjusted quickly. And the physical effort was much easier than that of a WorldTour road race, he said.

“It’s totally different and pretty mellow compared to a WorldTour race,” ten Dam said. “There is one big attack after 30km and then we are left with 15 guys, and then after 80km it’s down to 11, so the field is obviously less strong than in a WorldTour race.”

Ten Dam credits his strength in gravel racing to his experience with beach racing, and also to his post-retirement training regimen. These days ten Dam manages multiple business and posts-career projects, from a podcast, to a regular magazine column, to his role as a father. In retirement, he said, he’s cut back on his training volume by at least 30 percent compared to his WorldTour days, and instead focused himself on higher intensity rides.

“I was riding the bike so much that I was always fit — when you ride 30 hours a week and now it’s 19-20 hours a week it makes me think about intensity,” he said. “I do more structured training now because I have my three businesses, and then I have a wife and kids, and I’m still retired as a pro but I also have partners paying me to race, so I do not want to disappoint them.”

There’s plenty to learn about gravel racing in the final few days before Unbound Gravel, and ten Dam is driving his car through Texas and the midwest to glean knowledge from more experienced riders. He wants to learn how to use a Dynaplug, and he plans to ask more riders about the nuances of feed zone etiquette.

So, who does ten Dam see as the biggest competitors at Unbound? Sure, there’s Strickland and Stetina and other gravel pros.

Still, ten Dam says that WorldTour riders are definitely the ones to watch. And he has his eyes on one rider in particular: Quinn Simmons.

“I know Quinn Simmons will be there, and he’s doing big training, and I know his trainer Steven De Jong,” ten Dam said. “I like Quinn and I’m in contact with him on Instagram, so I don’t put myself on the same level as a WorldTour youngster like him.”

Ten Dam is 40. Simmons is 20.

Unbound Gravel could become the battle of WorldTour past and future.