Cittadella – On Friday the historic walled city of Cittadella played host to a memorable duel between two riders of the same appellation, nationality and designs on the crown of world’s greatest in the emerging discipline of gravel racing – and, in the battle pitting Vermeersch (Alpecin-Deceuninck) against Vermeersch (Lotto-Dstny), it was the latter, Florian, who narrowly prevailed over the former, Gianni, in the third edition of the Serenissima Gravel.

Second in the UCI World Gravel Championship last weekend and third in the Giro del Veneto, the first race in the Ride the Dreamland Series on Wednesday, Florian Vermeersch started Friday’s 149.4km race among the favourites – as did Gianni, the inaugural UCI gravel world champion on an almost identical course hugging the banks of the Brenta river in 2022. The two Belgians would each live up to that billing, finally overpowering and outmanoeuvring the six other riders who had started the last 37.1km lap with them and passing under Cittadella’s Porta Vicenza arc together. Gianni led into the final 200 metres but Florian came around him in the closing metres – an identical dénouement to the one which saw the same two riders finish first and second in the Antwerp Port Epic gravel race in 2022.

As he crossed the line, Florian celebrated by miming his lips being zipped – a ‘heat of the moment’ gesture, in his words, upon which he didn’t wish to expand. Instead, the 24-year-old echoed what he had said after the Giro del Veneto on Wednesday: his outstanding form this week is at least partly the result of outstanding motivation – to finish the 2023 season in style. Vermeersch’s performances this autumn are all the more impressive because he is a busy young man – a town councillor for the Open Vld party in Lochristi, East Flanders in his ‘spare’ time and also a History undergraduate at the University of Ghent.

“I was actually really focused on this week, including today,” Vermeersch said after the podium ceremony. “I knew that if I had no bad luck and I had legs like the last few days, then I would be able to compete for the win. Then it’s all about the mental strength to keep fighting. And in the end, it’s always suffering. But, yeah, in the sprint, I immediately had the feeling that I could beat him. So I’m happy it worked out.”

“I just like the variety of  the races the whole week here,” Vermeersch continued. “Like on Wednesday – it’s a mix between the sprinters and the puncheurs. Today it’s flat, so it’s more for the heavy guys and the rouleurs. But of course you also have to be technical because there’s a lot of single-track. And then on Sunday it’s really hard. So yeah, I think it’s a week where every type of rider can do well. And today was a nice parcours. There was not so much road, and there was a really long gravel section where you could make the difference. And that’s what gravel is all about.”

Seventy-six riders had set out from Cittadella just after lunchtime, with four WorldTour teams among the starters in what, in 2021, was the world’s first ever professional gravel race. Part of the discipline’s appeal lies in the technical challenges and also choices it offers up  – and, on the start-line, it was curious to note the majority of teams favouring a firmly off-road set-up, with gravel frames and aggressively knobbly tyres, alongside the likes of Arkéa-Samic and Lidl-Trek, whose riders were on normal road frames and slick tyres.

The two namesakes, countrymen and pre-race favourites, Vermeersch and Vermeersch, were among several riders to briefly gain a slim advantage on laps two and three, but eight men would ultimately take the bell together with 37km to go: G Vermeersch (Alpecin-Deceuninck), F Vermeersch (Lotto-Dstny), Louvel (Arkéa-Samsic), Delaplace (Arkéa-Samsic), Velasco (Astana Qazaqstan), Fiorelli (Green Project Bardiani CSF Faizanè), Donovan (Q36.5 Pro Cycling Team), Dversnes (Uno-X).

All eight remained in the hunt until a puncture deflated Donovan’s hopes – although a gutsy, breathless pursuit brought the Englishman back to the breakaway group with 20km remaining. On the final grass section encircling Cittadella, though, the gaps that began to open couldn’t be closed – and the Vermeersch show took centre stage.

Below are the reactions of second-place finisher Gianni Vermeersch (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Fredrik Dversnes (Uno-X), who was third.

Gianni Vermeersch (2nd): “I felt good today, but in the final 50 metres Florian was stronger. It was odd to be in a group of eight riders for probably most of the race until the last 10km. It was a strange day because actually before the race we were quite surprised the guys were there with road bikes and road tyres. We kind of didn’t expect them to be competitive in this race, but apparently they were really strong and they actually quite surprised us. There were maybe five kilometres with really rough stones and everything… And yet it worked out quite well for them, and then on the asphalt part for sure they were the strongest. So it was kind of difficult together with them because also in the finale there was still one guy from Arkéa, Delaplace, and in the last five kilometres there was a lot of asphalt. So he tried to to surprise us and attack. That was quite hard, but, yeah, in the end it was a sprint between me and Florian and he was just stronger.”

Fredrik Dversnes (3rd): “Well, I kind of made some mistakes in the first lap, so I was pretty far off in the start because we hadn’t done a recon of the course. So I had to chase for half a lap to get back to the front group and then it was like, ah, it’s going to be that kind of day. But guys kept getting dropped, I was coming back and finally I managed to stay in the front. I’m not the best technical rider, so I kind of struggled with the single-tracks and the gravel. But it was a very cool track – I just need to work a bit more on my technique back home. It was a really cool race, all in all. The fact that some teams were using road bikes – I also wondered about that choice at the start but it was also pretty cool by them.”

The Ride the Dreamland series continues on Saturday with the Social Ride VENEtoGO, which will see 450 amateur riders complete a 57km or 98km course through beautiful Veneto countryside, starting and finishing at the Villa Ca’ Cornaro in Romano d’Ezzelino (Vicenza).