Gravel Culture: Laurens Ten Dam - Live Slow, Ride Fast
Gravel Union On
21 September 2020
Back at the start of 2020 Olly had a long chat with former pro road racer turned gravellista Laurens Ten Dam. Although the bike race world is quite a changed place since we initially chatted, we thought you’d be interested to find out a bit more about what makes LtD tick.
It’s been raining for four hours. It’s cold. The riders flex their hands to try and coax warmer blood back into their numb fingers as they pedal. Morale plummets. There’s talk of bailing on the full route and heading home early. Save for one upbeat voice, chipper in fact, in the face of meteorological adversity. Somehow, despite the horrible conditions, this rider musters positivity in the situation. “It’s just like riding back home, really,” he says, “except there are a few more mountains.” That chipper voice belongs to Laurens ten Dam, a 39 year-old Dutchman who spent a large portion of his final professional years wandering around these soggy coastal mountains of Central California.
In studio photos, LtD, as he is known to his friends, can appear slightly uncomfortable and out of his element. But on the bike, he is focussed and driven - staring straight down the lens, caked in road grime, his tall frame and skinny physique fitting the stereotypical image of a hard-as-nails pro racer. Quite a few of the images show LtD dripping blood or swathed in bandages. In both the 2011 and 2015 Tours de France, he suffered horrendous high-speed crashes, going head first into a ditch in the former and coming down in a touch of wheels, dislocating his shoulder (and getting his team to pop it back into place) before finishing the stage in the latter.
The man is no stranger to suffering. It’s going to take more than a soggy California afternoon to ruin his day. A small store appears out of the gloom. How the store manages to survive in such a wild and remote location no one really understands. The Big Basin Redwoods State Park is California’s oldest state park and as its name suggests, it’s heavily forested with massive trees. The now shuttered logging industry has left a legacy of more than 80 miles of old routes and fire roads threading their way through the park.
The group stops at the store and piles inside. They leak sludgy, brown water all over the floor, riding glasses instantly steaming up as they head inside from the cold. Coffees are ordered, jersey pockets stuffed with calories for later. With a gentle rustle, one of the group plonks a pair of dishwashing gloves on the countertop near the cash register. “You planning on doing some housework?” says the chipper voiced rider. “Nope, but these should help get some feeling back in my fingers,” comes the reply. A few minutes later the group rides away from the store. Half of them are wearing purple rubber dishwashing gloves.
“Hey, I’m going to put a pair of these in my service course bag from now on.” LtD might not have been the most famous rider during his days in the World Tour peloton, but his tenacity made him beloved and respected by fans and peers alike. No doubt, they’d all reconsider the performance merits of purple dishwashing gloves had he arrived on a rainy start line wearing them.
LtD has an impressive racing palmarès – he had racked up 16 years as a pro by the time he retired at the end of the 2019 season. He finished the Tour de France ten times, with a personal best of ninth place in the 2014 edition. He was twice a key member of the winning team in the Giro d’Italia, first with Dennis Menchov in 2009 and then again with Tom Dumoulin in 2017. Initially, he focused solely on the road, but toward the end of his road career things began to change. LtD sought to expand his calendar, adding gravel, mountain bike, cyclocross and even beach racing into his schedule. This change came when in 2017, Team Sunweb agreed to a revolutionary-at-the-time deal - LtD wanted to move out to California for all but the Spring Classics and the Tour de France.
While racing in Europe is a dream for so many USA-based racers, LtD had spent his career grinding through the professional circuit and after a decade and a half became jaded with the ‘standard’ life of a pro. He needed something different. Santa Cruz, who’s unofficial slogan is “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” is different indeed. LtD first encountered this coastal city in Central California back in 2010 on holiday, while travelling down the west coast of the USA with his wife in a rented motorhome. He said it felt like home as soon as they first arrived and it obviously struck a chord with him - he’s returned almost annually ever since, raced in the Tour of California (which passes through the area) five times and moved his entire family there while racing for Team Sunweb.
The local cycling community welcomed their new WorldTour neighbour, and they took him beyond the road riding he was so accustomed to. He joined them for regular mountain bike night rides, cyclocross races, huge day rides and a bunch of non-standard events like Grinduro, a combination of two popular off-road disciplines, enduro mountain bike racing and drop bar gravel riding. Gravel riding may be the fastest growing segment of the cycling world at the minute, but locals from Santa Cruz say that they’ve been riding gravel for decades. The perfect combination of geography, history and climate combined with a local population of hardcore riders willing to push themselves to form a precursor of modern gravel culture.
The same phrases crop up in discussion with the Santa Cruz locals when discussing LtD. “He doesn’t take himself too seriously.” “He’s always happy.” “He’s down to earth.” “He’s genuinely engaging and would talk to anybody.” Then there are the local legends that have already sprouted about his superhuman abilities on a bike. He showed up to an infamous mixed-terrain race inspired by Paris-Roubaix called the Taint Hammer with his road bike and 28mm tyres. He crashed spectacularly at the half-way point, climbed back on, chased down the leaders and then forced his way off the front. Another time, one of the local riders, Brendan Lehman, was towed past LtD on a gnarly local climb whilst hanging off the back of a rubbish truck. Brendan let go at the top of the climb and expected to be waiting around for a significant amount of time for the rest of the group to arrive. A matter of a few minutes later, LtD screamed up the final pitch at full gas pace but barely out of breath.
But as his career has progressed riding full speed has mattered less and less to LtD. Over the course of his time in California, he developed the motto “Live Slow, Ride Fast.” He seems to apply this to the rest of his life too. He spends time with his young family, grows much of his own food, has become a coffee connoisseur and hones his BBQ grill skills.
When he announced his retirement from the pro-road race scene at the end of 2019, LtD explained to the press and his legions of fans that he wouldn’t simply be stopping, he was just going to be adjusting his race schedule somewhat. He was going to morph from “pro racer” to “pro adventurer.” He hasn’t given up on competition entirely, he has just recalibrated his calendar somewhat. In 2020 and beyond he plans to attend a number of alternative events like Dirty Kanza, Leadville 100 and the Cape Epic Mountain Bike race in South Africa.*
Ten Dam has expanded beyond pedalling as well. He’s now an event organiser and runs the LtD Gravel Fest in Holland at the end of March and the LtD Gravel Raid in Germany at the end of September. He records an award-winning audio blog that won him an award in the Sports Category at the 2019 Dutch Podcast Awards. He is also part owner in Il Magistrale, a high-end cycling biased coffee roasting company and has recently become a qualified cycling coach. Retirement just doesn’t seem like the right word to describe the next chapter for LtD.
While he misses the life of a pro and the everyday challenges of the pro peloton, he remains philosophical about the change. “It all started with a love for biking. I just loved riding, loved exploring, so training has never been an issue for me. And I always loved the racing, being on the road with the boys. Now, I enjoy life rather than trying to be like a monk or just resting all the time, doing what people think pro cyclists should do.”
*The arrival of CV19 on the world after we did this interview put quite a large spanner in LtD’s event plans for 2020. Instead of working his way down his adventure racing event list, he’s been tackling a V2 list instead – he has put on his own very select entry alternative Tour of Flanders, run a tribute to Dirty Kanza with his #DirtyKanzelled event, raced at Further and is imminently heading to the Gravel Union supported Bohemian Border Bash event.