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EMPORIA, Kansas (VN) — Laurens ten Dam has fajitas on his mind.
The Dutch cycling legend has returned to Unbound Gravel, one year after he finished a close second to Ian Boswell in his debut at the race. Sure, ten Dam, 41, would love to win gravel cycling’s Super Bowl. But improving his barbecue skills before he flies back to The Netherlands on Monday morning appears to have equal importance.
“I’m hosting a big party, my friend Fabian will teach me how to barbecue fajitas, and we will have a crap load of IPAs,” ten Dam told VeloNews. “If I get first or I get 20th I’m going to have a good time. Let‘s kick ass and rock and roll.”
Fajitas, craft beer, and rocking and rolling are all part of ten Dam’s attitude toward gravel racing, which errs heavily on the side of fun. When VeloNews spoke to ten Dam prior to Unbound Gravel, he seemed just as giddy about the post-race festivities—he plans to drink beer at the finish line and cheer on participants well into dark—as he did the race.
Sure, ten Dam is on the shortest list of men’s favorites to win the race. And his 19-year WorldTour career, which came to a close in 2019, makes him among the most experienced cyclists in the bunch. But at age 41, ten Dam says he’s far more interested in having fun at gravel races than in simply winning them.
He’s retired, after all.
“I’m 41 years old. It would be pretty bad if I had a great month in America and then got on a plane grumpy because I had a bad race at Unbound,” ten Dam said. “I would need my wife to kick me in the head and say ‘stay real, man!’ It’s about having fun and riding bikes and I feel very lucky.”
Indeed, ten Dam just completed a monthlong road trip across the United States with fellow Dutchmen Ivar Slik, Jasper Ockeloen, and Thomas Dekker. The four raced Gravel Locos in Texas in mid May. They also spent a month training and camping in rural Oklahoma, where they soaked up midwest American food and culture.
“We went to a casino in Oklahoma—that was pretty strange,” Dekker said. “We did a six-hour ride in 100-degree heat the day after Gravel Locos and Thomas almost collapsed. It was one big and nice road trip.”
The Dutchmen are hoping to import the spirit of U.S. gravel cycling back to The Low Countries, where smaller gravel events and mass-start beach races are becoming more popular. These events are somewhat similar to the gravel races you find in the U.S., ten Dam said, only with a few key differences. Some of the events are held on shorter dirt circuits. And the elite riders don’t always stay to mingle with the age groupers.
That’s something that has to change, ten Dam says.
“I want pros to stay after they finish to cheer on the people,” he said. “The guys at the pointy end of the race—you can have a big impact on people, and you can make their day seem better.”
So, does ten Dam have what it takes to win Unbound Gravel? Despite is laid-back attitude, ten Dam says he’s fit and motivated. And if luck is on his side, he should be able to ride into the front group and contend for the victory.
“I know I have the engine. When I was 31 or 32 I was top-10 in a grand tour, so I have a lot of trust in that,” he said. “I don’t fear the distance. I don’t fear the climbs. I don’t fear anything, really. I can just go for it and race hard and I know I should be there.”
“It’s a 10-hour slugfest,” he says. “You should be relaxed all day and not worrying about that marginal gains stuff.”