Don’t miss out on the latest CyclingTips updates.
Life tends to settle down once a rider leaves the WorldTour. They get to spend more time with their family, life becomes less regimented and more relaxed, and the world opens up in an exciting (and sometimes scary) way.
All of those things are true for Laurens ten Dam, but the Dutchman also seems to be busier than he ever was before. The 39-year-old left the WorldTour behind when he retired at the end of 2019, but he seemingly hasn’t slowed down a bit. He’s racing gravel, running events of his own — when the world isn’t on lockdown at least — working as a Specialized ambassador, spending time with his kids, helming a successful podcast, and more. In short, he’s a busy man, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Leaving the WorldTour
Ten Dam spent 16 years racing as a professional. He got his start at the highest level with Bankgiroloterij in 2004, before stints with Unibet, Rabobank and its successors, and Giant-Alpecin/Sunweb, before rounding out his career with CCC in 2019. When he hung up his wheels, he did so as one of Dutch cycling’s favourite sons — a true hardman as well-known for his grit and photos of his crash-mangled face as he was for his results. And he had some impressive results along the way, not least ninth overall at the Tour de France in 2014, and eighth at the Vuelta a Espana in 2012.
Looking back now, several months after his final race as a pro, Ten Dam is happy with the career he had, but doesn’t miss the rigours of WorldTour racing.
“Last year at Paris-Nice … I wrote a column about it, PTSS — post traumatic stress syndrome, that the soldiers have,” Ten Dam told CyclingTips at the launch of the new Specialized Diverge earlier this year. “Because the echelon stages were like hell for me and I didn’t forget. So people ask me, did you miss it? And here I am riding my bike in the sun and gravel … and then we have lunch with a beer. No, I don’t miss it.”
He hasn’t left the world of pro racing behind entirely though. He still speaks regularly with fellow Dutch racers like Sam Oomen, Ramon Sinkeldam and Niki Terpstra, and he keeps a close eye on the results sheet “to see what my friends are doing”. And then there’s his podcast, Live Slow Ride Fast, which among other things, is “also about road racing still, because I love it.”
Into the podcast world
Ten Dam’s venture into the world of podcasting began in 2017 when marketing consultant Stefan Bolt suggested the idea. Ten Dam had been a special guest at a client function, riding with guests and doing an interview about his time as a pro racer. That interview suggested there was an audience for Ten Dam’s insights.
“We had a barbecue with craft beer and we went on a terrace like this and then we had some kind of an interview after the ride,” Ten Dam recalled. “It took 45 minutes and everybody was still laughing with us. So he [Bolt] phones me two months later. It was September 2017. ‘Why don’t we do a podcast?’ It was kind of early for podcasts, you know, but I was already listening to one of Lance Armstrong — then it was called The Forward. I said ‘Heck yeah. Why not?’
“We both invested to make the first 10 [episodes].”
It went well, and attracted a significant audience. It appeared that Ten Dam and Bolt were onto something.
“I think part of the success was I was really in the peloton still in 2018,” Ten Dam said. “I did five episodes right from [inside] the Giro and right from [inside] the Tour de France, even on the rest days before breakfast or after the mountains stage. And that’s what people loved because I was embedded in the peloton instead of a reporter outside. I did the race. It was like a one-hour podcast straight after, for example, the Froome stage, when he took the pink jersey.
“So basically it took off from there. When we record in Dutch it’s a steady 50,000 downloads each episode.”
Ten Dam and Bolt were set to work with Flanders Classics this year, doing podcasts from the likes of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Tour of Flanders. But then coronavirus intervened.
Thankfully, Ten Dam has had other projects on the go, not least his foray into gravel riding.
The surging popularity of gravel racing, particularly in the US, has been well documented. Ten Dam isn’t some last-minute convert to the scene — he’s been there, plying his trade for a few years now. In fact, it all began when he moved to the USA in 2016.
“I always had the dream when I was young, to have kids late, and then travel with the kids before they had to go to school,” Ten Dam said. “And then cycling got me and then I got better and better and got ninth in the Tour. And then I had a bad year and I broke my back and stuff like that. And I was like, ‘Oh fuck, where did the dream of 12 years ago [go]?’
“Riding the Tour de France maybe, but also traveling. I was not dreaming of being top 10. I was not dreaming of making big money. I was not dreaming of all that. So then I said to my wife ‘we still can go to the US, you know?’ And so basically I phoned my manager, Joao Correia — a Portuguese guy living in the USA — I told him, ‘Stop all negotiations in Europe. I go to the US. I ride for a domestic team.’ And then he said, ‘Whoa, whoa, not so fast — what if you live in the US and race still the Tour de France, [and a] small program in Europe?’ I said, ‘OK, but I don’t think it’s possible to pull it off with a team because it’s the other way around.’ But he did.
“He found Sunweb [then Giant-Alpecin in 2016] and I only raced Paris-Nice, Catalunya, Swiss and the Tour in Europe and the rest I raced in the US: the Tour of California and the Canadian races.”
Once embedded in the States, Ten Dam was keen to try his hand at his local crits. But the sport’s governing body had other ideas.
“I was living in Santa Cruz and USA Cycling said it’s not possible for me to do the crits as a WorldTour [rider],” he said. “That’s why I started to do gravel racing. So I was doing them already four or five years ago.
“And I did a shitload of gravel. So I did Grinduro, Grasshopper, I did Leadville — that’s where it started.”
To Ten Dam it’s the happy-go-lucky vibe of gravel racing that holds so much appeal. To him, that vibe is something of a tonic after the regimented seriousness of the WorldTour. He recalls one race — the wonderfully named Tainthammer 500 — particularly fondly for this very reason.
“I had only my road bike back then because I was only living there for [a little while] and Giant didn’t get me a cross bike yet, so I rode my road bike,” Ten Dam said. “It was pretty good on the gravel but then there were some muddy sections and I had not enough clearance. And then the race organizer, he jumps off his pickup truck, pulls off his shirt and he starts to clean my bike. No kidding. And he says to me, ‘I pull you back behind the car right after the [mud] section.’
“So behind the pickup, I go back into the front group of 25 people. Everybody’s laughing, but they were not angry with me that I was pulled back by the organizer. We stopped, all 25 to soak my bike in a canal — all 25 — then we did another few sections and there was another muddy part. Same happens. Then the organizer says to me ‘Look, Laurens, I wait for you again at the end of the section.’ But the section turns out to be 20 k long. So I was at the end of the section — no organiser. So I started going solo.
“There was five guys in front and I was like, ‘OK, this is it for today.’ Then after a few kilometres, I look back [and there’s] five guys coming — ‘hey, that might be the front group.’ And they went the wrong direction. So they caught me again, laughing. And then my chain was like *crunching noise*. One had chain lube with him — I was a newbie and didn’t know. So we did my chain, we stop all five, we stopped at the last rest stop all together.
“And then the organizer is a fan of whiskey bourbon. So we all take a shot and then we race the last 10 miles and I beat them. There was no money on the finish line — it was just dark with some beers. But me and a friend from Santa Cruz — we had a tailgate barbecue. We took a barbecue in the back of our pickup. And that’s gravel.
“I hope that spirit stays; I hope it doesn’t get too important to win races.”
It’s perhaps no surprise that Ten Dam has found himself so at home in the gravel scene. To him, it bears more than a passing resemblance to his early years as a road racer.
“Nobody was having a logbook, nobody was controlling you,” Ten Dam said. “When you want to go on the terrace for three hours you did, when you want to go for an eight-hour ride because you felt like it, you did. Nobody was saying ‘what are you doing?’ And now it’s more strict, you know? I’m more from the old school.”
Like many who love gravel racing’s irreverent, light-hearted nature, Ten Dam is worried that that charm will disappear; that it will become too serious. That the win-at-all-costs mentality will erode what makes gravel great.
“What I don’t understand is a lot of guys, like for example Ted King, they stop with the WorldTour [because] it’s too serious, but they still ride with a power meter,” he said, laughing. “The first thing I did was ditch it and just ride my bike.
“What I am a little bit afraid of is that if you win something like [Dirty] Kanza, it can change your life, you know? And then money is involved. When you are a young kid and you win Kanza it will change your life so you can be a pro as a cyclist. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing, but I hope the spirit of gravel stays the same.”
Back to his roots
Gravel doesn’t just remind Ten Dam of his early days as a road racer; it takes him back to his time as a kid. It reminds him why he started riding a bike in the first place.
“I like to explore — I started biking because of that,” he said. “I was a small kid and it made my world a lot bigger because I could go somewhere my friends couldn’t go because I had a bike, a real race bike.
“I did a 40 k loop when I was 12-13 years old on my own without a phone, so it made my world bigger. And that’s still the thing for me. It’s exploring. And that’s why I like to go to Kanza. Why would I go to Kanza without having Dirty Kanza? You have to have a goal. So that’s why I went to the US. That’s why I have such good feelings for Santa Cruz in the US because of the bike.
“The bike just made my world bigger. That’s why I’m here now on this terrace and that’s what I love about the bike. And that’s what I also want to teach my kids. You know, give them a bike and then just go and explore the world.”