In just a few years, the Malteni Bootleggers has emerged as one of the premier gravel events in France. With a challenging distance of nearly 250km, uncertain weather conditions, technical gravel on spoil tips and some of the most infamous paved sections of the flemish spring classics, it’s no wonder it took little time for the race to assert itself as one of the go-to events in both the French and Belgian gravel calendar.
Born out of the passion of three locals for cobbles and gravel, it attracts riders from all over with a friendly atmosphere and the welcoming vibe the Northerners are famous for all over France. The race gets its name from its main sponsor, a local brewery, and the fact that it crosses the Belgian border, where more than half of the course is, before coming back to France. Luckily you don’t really have to carry beer bottles on your bike while riding the Koppenberg or the trouée d’Arenberg.
After two canceled editions due to the pandemic, it was time this year to get back in business. So with my 2020 subscription in hand, I showed up early (5.30am!!) at the start willing to test myself on a distance normal people consider very long while I, as an ultra specialist, find it really short.
To avoid having a big peloton on narrow paths, we started in waves. I was in one the last one. With good legs, I started by pushing a strong pace for the first 10km. The flats are not my strong suit and I was quickly caught by a powerful belgian rider. Unwilling to dig deep so early in the race, I chose to keep pacing in myself and save energy for the second third of the course which promised to be the hilliest.
Slowly but surely, I started catching riders that had left before me. A little bit before one of the three strategically located checkpoints, I caught decorated ultra cyclist Ben Steurbaut who had just finished fixing a flat tire. Following the code of competitive bikepackers, we chose to ride together side by side rather than drafting each other. We caught the leading group at CP1 and soon it was just three of us pushing the pace in the lead, climbing the steep hills of Flanders.
By the time we got to CP2 it was just Ben and me going to toe. I was testing him in the hills while he was making me sweat on the flats. It was a beautiful day to ride a bike. A sunny spring morning with a slight tailwind. Nice blue skies and no clouds to be seen on the horizon. I was thoroughly enjoying our battle and for 90% of the course, Ben and I were evenly matched. It was only in the last kilometers of the race, during the climb of the last spoil tip, that I managed to open up a tiny gap. I gave it my all to the finish, almost cramping up in the last 2km, and managed to hold on to my lead. Ben crossed the line a couple minutes later and she shook hands like two gentlemen.
I stayed in the venue that was hosting the event (a small hotel and restaurant) waiting for the other finishers. We all had dinner there after a small podium ceremony. Drinking Malteni beer of course and exchanging stories of the day.
The next day I stayed in the North to watch Paris Roubaix, enjoying my rest day in the sun while it was the pro peloton’s turn to suffer.