By: BJ Bass, Chief Design Engineer
Gravel racing has grown around the idea that bicycling is the most fun when we're able to go out and explore on our bikes, and every ride should be an adventure. This means that gravel races tend to be all-day rides, which are self-supported and self-navigated. While self-sufficiency is central to a gravel grinder, riders often assist each other with navigation and supplies. In fact, gravel events tend to focus on who is the most fun to ride with and place less emphasis on race winners.
For the event itself, the long distances and limited support during gravel rides are what defines each one and also determines how to prepare for each event. Below I outline some pointers that I've picked up along my adventures.
BJ (front right) and his fiancée (front left) are all smiles during Trans-Iowa.
1. Gear Choice
Choosing the right equipment is very important for gravel races. Most events don't have an official sag wagon or straightforward bailout option, so I usually err on the side of being prepared rather than trying to minimize weight. Remember that in some cases you could be 25 or 50 miles from the nearest town, so you should show-up prepared with a plan B.
2. Ride What You Know
The first rule of choosing gravel equipment is to ride with gear that's familiar.It's tempting to make last-minute adjustments or component swaps the day before a race in the name of optimizing your bike for gravel, but with that swap comes a risk. With something new the chances of experiencing an unforeseen downside is extremely high. The day of a gravel race is not a day for testing out a new frame bag, tires, or saddle. Be sure to put some time on your set-up before the event to avoid surprises when you're out in the middle of nowhere.
3. Bike Choice
While there are dedicated "gravel" bikes being sold now, the rule of riding what you know still applies. The compromises made in adapting road or cyclocross bikes are usually related to tire selection, while the changes in mountain bikes to gravel have to do with aerodynamic drag. Having a bike you're familiar and comfortable with is often worth a little tradeoff somewhere else.
Many types of bikes will do the job on gravel. You can ride anywhere from a new carbon mountain bike to a 40 year old road bike and have a good time. I raced Trans-Iowa V3 (a 300 mile event) on a 1974 Motobecane single speed and it performed beautifully. In the end, if the bike is comfortable on rough surfaces and reliable enough to cover the distance, then it will probably work well for a gravel event.
4. Tire Choice
Tire choice definitely depends on personal preference, however I should note that different events favor different tires. For most events I find a 700x38 or 700x42 semi-slick tubeless tire to be the best combination of comfort and speed. While 700x32 and 700x35c setups will generally roll faster, some courses include B-roads and ATV trails which can overwhelm a smaller tire if the conditions are muddy or dusty.
A few hardened racers have been known to race gravel with 28c tires, but their joints have also been known to swell to the size of cantaloupes afterwards.If the conditions are right, a 700x28c tire can be the fastest option, but you should be accustomed to the punishment those tires will transmit to your hands before signing up to a full day of riding.
And if you'd prefer larger tires, go nuts!They'll probably take you out of contention from a racing standpoint, but many people complete gravel races on mountain and fat bikes. I've watched fat bikers roll over a brutal section of washboards just smiling away like the road was buttery smooth.
Never run full coverage fenders for a gravel race. It can seem appealing, especially when the roads are wet, but full coverage fenders can pack with mud very quickly and lock your wheels up. If you feel that fenders are important, stay with clip-ons that have good clearance for mud.
BJ's bike 10 feet into a B-road, a perfect visualization to show why clip-on fenders are the way to go for gravel.
6. Getting To and From the Race
How to transport your bike to a gravel event is a piece of event preparation that often gets overlooked. However, the use of a frame bag for extra storage can affect the type of bike rack you use. If you have a tray style bike rack (the kind that holds the wheels) then frame bags are a good way to add extra storage. If you have a hanging style car rack (where the rack arms go through the frame) then you'll likely need to remove any frame bags before putting your bike on the car rack. Roof racks can also be hard on frame bags, since your bike will be exposed to 75 mph winds during your drive to the start line.
Since you can't pack a frame bag until it's attached to the bike, racers hastily trying to attach and fill frame bags at the starting line of events is a common sight. If you end up going that route, make sure that everything going into the frame bag is organized beforehand, as it's easy to forget essential food and tools when you're in a hurry.
Gravel racing will also get your bike dirty. At the end of a race the best case is that your bike will be covered in a thin layer of dusty powder, in the worst case it's more like a thick layer of cow manure. Both situations effectively coat your frame with sandpaper; so hanging a dirty bike on a hanging style rack post-race can scratch the paint and the frame. Tray style bike racks such as the Freedom and SuperClamp hitch racks minimize contact with the frame to keep your bike happy on the ride home.
A helmet, eye protection, and comfortable shorts are important. Beyond that, all bets are off.
When it comes to clothing, learning to dress for the weather is the most important part - especially knowing how to plan around the fact that you'll be sweaty when you stop. Events in the spring and fall can start at near freezing temperatures, and get up to over 75 degrees during the same ride. So be prepared to add and subtract layers as the day progresses. If you break at a convenience store to refuel and spend more than a few minutes off of your bike, expect to cool down considerably. If you plan to stop and relax during a gravel event, bringing a dry shirt to change into will help keep things comfortable.
8. Food and Water
Unsupported rides are all about knowing yourself. If you have a good idea of how much/how often you eat and drink, then it's easy to plan. I typically expect to drink around 1.5 oz. per mile when it's 65-70 degrees. That amount goes up or down depending upon temperature, but it's a good starting point.
In the same vein, I try to eat something every 10 miles or so. I usually don't watch calories, but just try to mix it up with some candy, granola bars, energy chews, Belgian waffles, and a banana. Bringing 10 GU packets for a 100 mile event is very efficient from a weight standpoint, but those packets will start to look really unappetizing before the end. Long distance riding is an eating competition as much as it is about fitness, so bring food that you'll want to dig into.
It's also really important to eat while training. If you can ride while eating the same foods that you race with, it will really help to make sure the event goes smoothly. Learning to digest something new during an event can make for a very uncomfortable ride, so be sure to train for eating in the same way you train for riding. Also, avoid raisins.
Training for gravel events is often more about getting accustomed to long distance riding than pure fitness. Make sure your bike is comfortable, even when you're tired and not pedaling hard. It's easy to make a bike comfortable for an hour of hard riding, but once you're tired and soft pedaling small things like handlebar height and saddle width become far more noticeable. I try to do at least 75% of the event distance during a single ride before showing up at the start line to make sure that everything is ready to go.
Navigation is the thing that new gravel grinders struggle with the most. Many gravel events don't tell you the course beforehand, so GPS isn't an option. You need to keep your wits about you and pay attention to mileage and road names. Before the event, practice by making up some cue sheets and riding in an area you're unfamiliar with to get a sense of how to navigate.
As I already mentioned, training to eat while riding is part of this process too. Being able to eat while rolling is a good skill to learn for gravel riding. If you need to stop every time you eat, it will be hard to eat enough during the event to finish strong. It is good to practice eating while on rough roads, particularly figuring out how you'll unwrap your food one handed.
Ready to Grind some Gravel?
You can check out event listings here for when you're ready to roll:
Gravel events are about having an adventure on your bike, meeting people, and hanging out afterwards. The culture surrounding gravel events is much more approachable than the enforced uniformity of road racing or the competitive solitude of triathlon. Riders who do these events are just glad to spend their day outside, and are always happy to meet other people who agree. Go out and find some people to ride with, say hi to other riders on the course, and have a good day on your bike.
BJ carries his bike over a flooded section of Trans Iowa V3 at sunrise.