On Saturday 30th May 250 plus like minded people gathered in Witteberg for the inaugural Smugglers Path. A 156km gravel ride in the heart of the Limberg region between Belgium and The Netherlands. Why is it called the “Smugglers Path” I hear you ask, well going back to the 19th century smuggling between Belgium and The Netherlands was common business due to the fact that high import duties needed to be paid on various products. To avoid paying duties, smuggling by foot, horse or bicycle through small roads, forest paths and gravel trails was a lucrative business.
Fast forward to 2019 and you have folks from all over Europe in the same area tackling what I think are some of the best gravel, forest paths and single tracks you can find. Fast reasonably flat stretches that The Smuggles Path have managed to put together with very little tarmac.
From the outset the ride/race, depending on how you like to look at these things, set off at pace and bunches of people were left in clouds of dust. The route started off on sandy woodland tracks that kicked up into your mouth and gave you a clear taste of what was to come.
For those unlucky few punctures were fast coming as people rolled on trying to make their way up the pack and through the dust. As we settled down Tom and I found a few other like-minded folks who were there for a good time and not to worried about making it back within a certain time.
Add the fact that Cannondale were there as well as other ex-pro cyclists, various media outlets and less dubious characters all made for egos to be flared and people pushing themselves to stay ahead.
Rolling towards the outskirts of Pelt the route intertwines around farmers fields and back into woodland. The mixture of river crossings, switchbacks and tight rutted tracks keeps you on your toes and always seems to change as soon as you have become comfortable with your surroundings. Rides like these are never dull and the area allows for unadulterated fun. If you are really lucky as you pass by the Kleine Brogel Air Base you might see Belgiam’s 10th Tactical Wing operating F-16 Fighting Falcons, which are capable, among other capabilities, of delivering B61 nuclear bombs……Yay!
Towards the first feed station, which is also the second due to a loop but more on this to follow, the open gravel roads weave there way from Peer to Opitter. As you coming into the town this is where I had a major issue with my Garmin and after a couple of loops finally found the feed station.
Fueled up on waffles, jelly beans and water we set off once again. Only to have yet another Garmin issue and a loop which should have been 26km turned into 2.6km. That being said we ended up at the one of the main bridges where people had to climb and this gave me a huge vantage spot when it came to photographing. It turned out that what we had missed was a 26km+ single gravel section that ended up back where you started…..at the feed station. For those that are more technical minded there is probably something I could have done but it turned out that we were not the only ones to have this issue and for the track to miss out the entire loop and direct people back onto the main route.
Before we had known there was a real issue we were well underway and charging ahead full steam. Catching other riders who were on the shorter 90km route we soon discovered.
As we worked our way through various areas of outstanding beauty, canal paths and gravel sections we had made a plan to arrive at the end and then turn around to make up the km’s which would also allow me to photograph people coming the other way. “No more arse shots” Tom called out!
Through deep sand rutted woodland, large boggy paths and over small bridges we pushed ever further. Stop too long and you will soon be eaten alive by the mosquito’s that live in the area. Though saying that the hornets which were buzzing around while I tried to photograph seemed far worse and you would definitely know if you had been bitten by one of those as they were f**king huge!
Even though Tom and I turned round we still only managed 132km in total of what was fast, furious gravel fun. Friends started to roll past us and knowing there was a cold Belgium beer at the finishline I was more than happy.
The course is less technical than some others in the area but with Smuggler’s Path feeling more of a festival vibe than race, if you’re in no hurry there is a massive amount of fun to be had.
2020 will see the Smuggler’s Path return with a bigger and better event. Having spoken to them their aim is for a two day festival with the main ride on the Saturday and a recovery ride on the Sunday. We will be there once again.
If you want to find out more information visit: http://www.smugglers.be/