Get started with gravel grinding

Tips for tackling your first gravel race this season

The US is in the midst of a gravel-racing boom – and at the forefront of an international trend for bikes suited to riding on gravel. Once-fringe events are now drawing cyclists from around the world and from all different cycling disciplines.

Gravel riding is taking off in the US partly because of the extensive network of gorgeous country roads, which sprawl across most states. However, the gravel in each region varies in size and shape, which requires different equipment choices and offers up new challenges with each location.

Despite the ever-changing road varieties and conditions, gravel racing can be simple and straightforward with the right preparation. If you’re racing gravel this year, set yourself up for success by planning ahead with these tips on equipment, nutrition and training.

Equipment

Equipment choice plays a key role in gravel race preparation. Each event varies in distance, terrain, and the type of gravel surface, and this will change your equipment needs each time. Knowing what kind of gravel you’ll be facing helps decipher the equipment puzzle including the three main questions: what bike to ride, which tyres to use, and what gear range to run.

Bike

As gravel events gain traction throughout the cycling community, bike manufacturers are naturally taking note. Gravel bikes, commonly termed 'all-road' or 'adventure-road' bikes, are increasingly available from companies of all sizes – Norco's Search and GT's Grade are just two examples of the breed that have recently impressed BikeRadar team members. With more options available, finding a gravel bike that suits your tastes and needs is easier than ever before.

You don't need a gravel-specific ride – cx machines or road bikes with decent clearance will do the job just fine:
You don't need a gravel-specific ride – cx machines or road bikes with decent clearance will do the job just fine:

Gravel-specific rides, CX machines or road bikes with decent clearance will all do the job

However, a gravel-specific bike is not necessary to race a gravel event. Depending on the race, a road bike with clearance for big-volume tyres or a cyclocross bike will work well.

Part of the beauty of these events is the “use what you’ve got” mentality that makes entry into gravel racing more approachable and affordable. Whether you have a road, ’cross, gravel or even a mountain bike, the point of gravel racing is to simply get out there and ride.

Tyres

For hard-packed and smoother gravel roads, narrower tyres with minimal tread will get you to the finish line sooner. However, these faster-rolling tyres won’t protect against punctures quite as well as bigger items. They’ll also leave you feeling a bit more fatigued after a long day of bumpy riding.

Fat rubber can be a definite advantage in many gravel races, being sure-footed and harder to flat:
Fat rubber can be a definite advantage in many gravel races, being sure-footed and harder to flat:

Fat rubber can be a definite advantage in many gravel races

When the gravel is thick and loose, wider tyres really come into their own. Bigger volume tyres, 38 to 42mm in width, absorb more of the bumps and will help your body feel fresher later in the event. For even more comfort, try some fast-rolling mountain bike treads if your bike can fit them.

Gearing

Many of the big gravel events in the US are found throughout the Midwest in states like Kansas, Iowa and Minnesota. Rolling hills with short steep climbs are the hallmark of these events. Proper gearing can make the difference between walking and riding your bike up these hills.

Proper gearing will help with those hills – 11-32 or 11-28 cassettes are common:
Proper gearing will help with those hills – 11-32 or 11-28 cassettes are common:

Choosing the right gearing will help with those hills

Also, gravel creates more rolling resistance than pavement and packed dirt roads. Smaller gears will reduce the actual amount of actual 'grinding' you’ll have to do at these gravel grinders, and will keep your knees happier throughout the long day. Typical gear setups include running a compact crank with 50/34 chain rings (or even smaller) along with an 11-32 or 11-28 cassette.

Nutrition

Fueling for gravel events can be one of the biggest challenges of the day because of the long duration and general isolation of most events. Some events are even self-supported, meaning racers must stop at convenience stores along the way to refill bottles and buy food. Learning about your event and what support will be offered is the first step in planning your nutrition setup.

Next, decide what food and drink you’re going to carry between stops. For longer events, gels and sports bars can only take you so far. Many people experience debilitating stomach issues – often termed 'gut rot' – after consuming too many of these sugary snacks. Instead, try packing some real food items like a sandwich, banana or cookies to eat along the way. It’s always a good idea to eat these things in training to make sure your stomach can tolerate them.

It goes without saying that adequate hydration is essential – consider taking a hydropack for longer or hotter events:
It goes without saying that adequate hydration is essential – consider taking a hydropack for longer or hotter events:

It goes without saying that adequate hydration is essential

Once you know what you’d like to eat, the question becomes how to carry it all. Jersey pockets are an option but they can easily fill up with extra clothing, sunscreen, or other supplies needed throughout the day. Small bags that strap to your bike frame make for a convenient place to carry food. A top tube 'bento box' bag keeps your food easy to reach and serves as a constant reminder to keep eating throughout the day.  

Carrying enough water or sports drink can also be challenging especially for hot or humid races. Many gravel events take you on quiet country roads with limited access to water. Carrying a hydration pack for longer and more remote events is a safe way to go. Another option is to use a bike with three water bottle mounts – the third being on the underside of the down tube – to carry an extra bottle. Either way, try to pack more fluids than you think you’ll need. A flat or mechanical could extend your time on the bike and running out of water is dangerous in these remote locations.

Training

A few long training days should definitely be part of a bigger training plan. If your event is a 200mile/322km race, a couple rides of 100mile/160km will not only prepare you physically, but they’ll help you wrap your mind around the longer race-day distance.

You can expect long days in the saddle, in beautiful locations:
You can expect long days in the saddle, in beautiful locations:

You can expect long days in the saddle, in beautiful locations

However, just because your event will be a long, steady-paced effort doesn’t mean you should train at this pace all the time. High-intensity intervals will make you a stronger and more resilient cyclist across all distances and disciplines. Generally, a mix of long, steady rides with shorter, intense rides will prepare you to take on your gravel race of choice. Consult with a coach or a friend who has done a gravel event for their advice, or to build a training plan.

Get out and have fun

Beyond all else, gravel races should be a fun, encouraging and challenging experience. The gravel community is an eccentric group of cyclists who ride their bikes with passion and a sense of adventure. Don’t be afraid to ask experienced gravel racers questions about their equipment and their preparation for different races. However, be prepared for some long and meandering answers, as most gravel grinders love to share their many stories and experiences.

Kristen is a former professional triathlete, current elite cyclists, and lives for two-wheeled adventures the world over. She was one of six women to ride the entire Tour de France in 2012 as part of the women's Rêve Tour team. Besides riding and writing about bikes, Legan also coaches with APEX Coaching out of Boulder, Colorado.
  • Preferred Terrain: Dirt climbs and twisty mountain descents
  • Beer of Choice: Left Hand Brewing Milk Stout
  • Location: Boulder, CO, USA

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