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It started with a bet: Thomas Dekker back in the saddle for Unbound Gravel

Thomas Dekker
Thomas Dekker (Image credit: Thomas Dekker)

He hasn’t raced competitively in over five years but on Saturday Thomas Dekker will saddle up for the 200-mile Unbound Gravel event in Kansas. 

Such a challenge is daunting enough for even the current crop of WorldTour riders on show this weekend but Dekker’s arrival in the US is entirely of his own making after he bet friend and fellow competitor Laurens ten Dam that he could beat him.

That claim looks somewhat unlikely given that Ten Dam comes into Unbound Gravel on the back of a convincing victory in Gravel Locos last month but the two Dutch friends are traveling through the US together and rekindling a friendship that dates all the way back to the late 1990s and their first forays into racing as kids.

“I hadn’t ridden my bike in four years but I made a bet with Laurens in a podcast and I said that if trained for a while then I could easily beat him,” Dekker told Cyclingnews from the passenger seat of Ten Dam’s van as the pair hurtled towards Kansas.

"We were just talking shit but I was 90kg at that point and back in the day I was around 68kg. I'd become a big guy but then last year we had lockdown and started to ride my bike more and more," said Dekker. "I lost weight and we had a nice group of friends riding around Amsterdam.

"Laurens was already preparing for some gravel events in the US and Europe so I started to train. It all started as a joke and now we're here, together again, just like the old days. We started in 1998 together, in the same small club and now we're in America and riding our bikes."

Dekker's last outing in race kit came with a failed attempt on the UCI Hour Record back in 2015 – a year after he hung up his road wheels at the 2014 Tour of Beijing.

"So it's been over six years since I've done something like a race. I feel healthy. I mean I won't be 68-69kg but we'll be riding our bikes and having fun. That's the most important thing."

Dekker is looking to balance a friendly competitive spirit with the fact that this is his first race in over half a decade. Not a gravel specialist, he will rely on his natural ability, enthusiasm, and perhaps a bit of luck considering the obstacles that lie ahead in a 200-mile race of this nature. He does, however, have a faint hope of finishing inside the top ten. One certainty is that the 36-year-old knows that he is going to suffer.

"Saturday is going to be a race, and it's going to be hard. There's a really high level but I think that I can do a top-ten spot. I think that the level that's in my body but those WorldTour riders have a lot more miles in their legs. I've never ridden my bike for ten hours, so I'm curious to see how my body reacts. There's going to be suffering, just like back in the day," he told Cyclingnews.

"Even if it's going to be the hardest ride of my life it's still going to be fun. It's still a luxury to be in a position where you can do the things that you love. People can see that there's so much passion for this sport and they have been very welcoming towards me."

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Daniel Benson

 Daniel Benson is the Editor in Chief at both Cyclingnews.com and BikePerfect.com. Based in the UK, he has worked within cycling for almost 15 years, and he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he has reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he runs the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.