Home > Gravel

Meet Katja Verkerk: Canadian gravel national champion

Victoria racer thrived in muddy conditions to win Ghost of the Gravel

Elite women's gravel national championships podium at Ghost of the Gravel in Alberta Photo by: Cody Shimizu

In just its second year, Canadian gravel nationals is proving to be an event that reveals new talent. This year, Katja Verkerk emerged from frosty temperatures and thick mud to claim the elite women’s national title at Ghost of Gravel.

The 20-year-old from Victoria finished just shy of three minutes ahead of Haley Smith after 4:37 of racing through rain and then rapidly thickening mud in the Alberta foothills. Verkerk was un-phased by the adverse conditions on race day.

“Racing is racing. The weather doesn’t really care!” Verkerk shared. “I guess it’s just the same as training. If I have a workout in my Training Peaks it doesn’t really matter what the weather’s like, you just do it until it turns green.”

Gallery: Wild weather and brutal mud at the 2024 Canadian gravel championships

On Sunday, Verkerk’s ride turned gold, winning her first national title in her first season of racing. But along with the mental toughness was a good bit of preparation.

“The forecast said it was going to be that weather for a week leading up to the race. So I brought a lot of layers with me. Like, so many options,” Verkerk says, admitting with a laugh, “I think some people would have looked at my bag and said I had too many options, but I wanted to be prepared.”

The planning paid off. On the morning of the race, Verkerk was wearing two jackets and a sweater and says she was still shivering.

Verkerk, barely recognizable in the middle, with Kelsey Dunfield (right) during Ghost of the Gravel. Photo: Cody Shimizu

“I was wondering how I was going to throw on a gilet and a couple layers and be OK,” she admits. “But I know that I heat up pretty quickly when I start riding. It actually turned out to be fine and I even shed some layers off. [Organizers] also had hand warmers on the start for us, which was nice.”

When the race did start, Verkerk found herself in a group with a steadily diminishing group of elite women. She was marking pre-race favourite Haley Smith’s wheel when DNA’s Sara Poidevin attacked up a short, sharp rise into a long descent. Smith didn’t follow and, when one other rider started to chase, Verkerk decided it was time to follow.

“I just full-on chased Sara for five or 10 minutes. I passed the other girl, but she hopped on my wheel until we caught Sarah.”

The third rider eventually dropped off the pace, leaving Verkerk alone with Poidevin.

“It was just Sara and I until 75-ish, when she dropped me,” Verkerk says. “Five minutes later, I saw her on the side of the road looking at her derailleur.”

Poidevin would finish but be stuck in a single gear for much of the last 50km. As rain turned to sun and the mud started to thicken, Verkerk was working hard to manage her own mechanical fortunes.

“For the last two hours, I had to punch my shifters to get them to shift on the left side, that was a little crazy,” Verkerk shared. “I was definitely scared my gears were going to stop working. I was a little afraid to shift sometimes. I tried not to shift too much when I was putting down a lot of power.”

Sun might have seemed like a relief from the morning’s cold rain but it quickly caused mechanical mayhem for Ghost of the Gravel racers. Photo: Cody Shimizu

Verkerk’s bike survived the race and the Victoria rider went on to win her first elite national championship title.

That win was just the start of a busy week for Verkerk, though. After driving back to Victoria, a quick turn-around had her flying to Quebec for her first road national championships race the following day. First, though, came dealing with the aftermath of Ghost of the Gravel’s mud, which was far more real than the event’s spectral name might suggest.

“I spent four hours cleaning my bike out on Tuesday morning,” Verkerk says. “It’s still not… I mean, it’s shifting now, which is good. But it’s still not ready.”

First, though, nationals. Verkerk’s racing on her own, as her Physical Culture / Straight Up Cycles team is more focused on cyclocross in the fall. It’s also mostly masters men.

“The team is a group of old guys, basically,” clarifying quickly, “When I say “a group of old guys,” its not meant as an insult. They’re all super sweet and nice.”

How did the now-champion end up on a master’s men’s ‘cross team?

“They wanted me to get points for them during cyclocross season,” Verkerk explained, not adding that she landed numerous podiums at Cross on the Rock all fall. The team landed another woman, too, who is a pro disc golfer outside of ‘cross season.

That leaves Verkerk flying solo in Quebec. After a 10th in the under-23 women’s time trial, she’ll see what she can do in the women’s road race on Sunday. Her teammates may have been hunting for cyclocross series points when they recruited her, but, in just her first season of racing she’s already delivered much more.