Could an Indian Summer and VOTEC’s third edition of their Gravel Fondo be a winning combination..? We went to the Black Forest to find out.

Summer is slowly drawing to its conclusion, with the shorter days belligerently making themselves felt known. Mornings are fresh and cool, awakening to a light frost and mist over the fields. On this Saturday in October, the sun burns through by midday, sending waves of excitement through the group of gravel riders, volunteers and locals who’ve gathered here.

It didn’t appear that daybreak’s less than welcoming start deterred any of the 200 riders, as a palpable eagerness emanated around the Reinertonishof in the Black Forest’s town of Schönwald. Some riders, we learn, had travelled several thousand kilometres to this event – nǐ hǎo! Hej! Bonjour! Clearly this event’s appeal went much further than Germany’s borders.

There were tough climbs and a lot of laughter on the agenda for the VOTEC Gravel Fondo, which largely shirks the competitive element, priding itself on a great atmosphere instead. In VOTEC’s words, it’s a ‘social ride in a sublime location’. For the third edition, the brand had settled on the western fringes of the Black Forest, somewhere between St. Georgen and Furtwangen.

This event is yet further confirmation of a scene that’s growing away from the tarmac, turning its back on aggressive traffic and air that’s thick with car fumes. It’s about heading into the woods and going off-the-beaten track. Perhaps most significantly is how such an event has chosen to take away the competitive element and prioritize cycling’s more social side. The familiar scent of the woods stirs your inner kid, the one whose adventure starts right behind the garden gate.

The VOTEC Gravel Fondo isn’t your standard mass participant event; it’s put on entirely without any professional event organisation, and it’s all down to the graft of Stephan Geiß, VOTEC’s brand manager and his tight-knit team. There are two routes: 56 km with 1,560 metres of climbing or 88 km with 2,490 metres of climbing. Neither of them shirks from a challenge. “We want to show the best side of the Black Forest – I mean, that’s exactly what drew us to this place too,” explains Alexander Bethge, co-organiser and co-brand manager at VOTEC. “The Reinertonshof has exactly the sort of vibe that we wanted for this event; if we could we would bottle it up and take it with us for the next edition!” He grins, and we nod our head. Even since we set foot in this place we’d felt the same, finding ourselves moving at a more gentle pace. Without any light pollution in the sky, the stars on this Friday night before the event feel like they’re just for our viewing pleasure.

The mercury has just crept up to 8°C as we roll down to the start on Saturday morning. The yard, directly next to the paddock with curious horses, is already full of gravel riders. The format has been devised with small start groups to avoid bottlenecking on the singletrack. “The route isn’t marked so that we can ensure that we won’t leave any traces or disturb any other forest users,” announces Stephan to the expectant riders in the pre-ride briefing, “Please ride respectfully around the course and leave the forest exactly how you found it.” There’s no starter’s gun at the Gravel Fondo, just a casual “Ok, the first group can get started now.” A chorus of Wahoos beeped into action, and we were off. When I bump into Stephan and Alex at a refreshment stop later in the day, Stephan reiterates just how much effort it had taken to convince the authorities to allow the event to take place. As he gestures at the other riders and the well-stocked feed station, all the hard work looks like it is paying off.

The weather is on side; presenting the Black Forest in all its autumnal glory. From gravel tracks to pine needle-strewn singletrack and wide forest access roads, the sun illuminated the fiery reds, oranges and yellows, casting a golden haze and long shadows. Bike computers were also active with illuminations – alerting soaring heart rates and the Black Forest’s increasingly steeper climbs. The Gravel Fondo’s concept hadn’t fully eradicated the notion of competition, and those who wished could test their legs on three specific Strava segments. The rider who topped the virtual leaderboard wouldn’t just get the ultimate bragging rights, but also prizes from Brügelmann, Wahoo and WTB.

“Jeez, this is super steep! Anyone know when the next feed station is?” Other than rasping breaths and a shrug of the shoulders, there was no response from the group. The rider had vocalised exactly what we were all thinking. The gravel climbs carved their way up the mountainside, asking a lot from both rider and equipment. All around us, we noticed how many of the male riders were starting to suffer – significantly more than the female riders, who’d clearly paced themselves better. Kudos!

In the build-up to any gravel event a lot of talk revolves around tire choice and tire pressure. (ED: To make life easier for future events, check out the upcoming issue #011 for the definitive guide to gravel tires). For some riders, a familiar hissing sound in the middle of a rapid, rooty descent prompted them to ask the very same question… Too late unfortunately. That dreaded dawning realisation that you’ve punctured. Unlucky mate. We managed to get through the event without any punctures or mechanicals, but there were a lot of riders on the trailside who’d unwillingly found themselves riding the Tour de Deflation.

The triumphant KOM and QOM title winners were applauded at the evening’s BBQ, and as everyone recounted the highs and lows of the ride including feats of heroic DIY trail mechanics, the rest of us made new friends and cemented old friendships. The home brewed schnapps loosened tongues, but the chilled vibe was mainly due to the residual endorphins from the ride. As it came to its conclusion, the maths were simple: team a Black Forest Indian summer with the VOTEC Gravel Fondo and you get the ultimate combination for a late summer weekend.

For more information head over to: VOTEC Gravel Fondo

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Words: Photos: Noah Haxel, Falk Wenzel, Martin Donat