Introduction to Gravel Racing

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You’d be hard pressed to find another sport that is exploding in popularity the way gravel riding/racing currently is. The popularity of gravel riding is akin to what mountain biking was in the US back in the late 80’s and early 90’s. To the casual observer, gravel riding/racing is just like road riding, but on gravel roads. While this is sort of true, there are a lot of differences between the two sport disciplines. Some of these differences include the rules, training, tactics/strategy, bike/equipment considerations, etc… Hence, the purpose of this post – an introduction to gravel racing!

UESCA partner and pro triathlete, Angela Naeth just finished up a big block of gravel training and racing with some impressive results at some of the biggest gravel races in the US. She recently placed 6th (out of 127!) at Unbound Gravel, arguably the most prestigious gravel race in the world. She also placed 6th at Gravel Worlds! So while technically a rookie at the gravel scene – Angela clearly knows what she’s doing when it comes to gravel and this post is focused on some key aspects of getting into gravel riding and racing.

So without further ado…

Introduction

As a triathlete, I ventured into the world of gravel. Unbeknownst to me, the term “Gravel” means more than just a nice smooth gravel road. Gravel riding can be anything from class IV unmaintained roads, to single-track trails, to rock covered dirt tracks and pristine maintained gravel roads.

My first race was the infamous Unbound Gravel 206 mile event. I learned a lot in that one race and since then have raced a few others – Steamboat Gravel 144miles, Rooted Vermont 78miler, and Gravel Worlds 150miles. To say it’s been a steep learning curve is an understatement. And I still have a lot to learn!

Gravel racing and riding has become a main event and venue for many athletes. Heck, it caught my attention after being in triathlon for over 12 years. Gravel is something different in every region of the country. Living outside of Boston, there aren’t many gravel roads, but we do have trails with roots, rocks and single-track. Vermont, a few hours drive away, has the roads and hills one dreams about for gravel. After doing a solid week up in Vermont, I was loving the varied terrain.

“Gravel” as mentioned can be many forms of road/trail from: dirt roads, paths, single-track, farming roads, jeep trails, mud, packed dirt, sand and pebbles/rock. Gravel bikes are geared toward handling all of this with the right tires. Gravel events are everywhere and vary in distances from 20 miles to 350 miles!

Much like mountain biking, gravel riding let’s you explore off-road. Events are similar to the standard cycling races, but from my experience, more social and community-oriented. In these events, professionals and amateurs start and ride together; all genders start together. Start lines can have up to 1500 riders at times.

As the culture of gravel is explained – racing in the front, party in the back. There are a variety of reasons riders get into gravel. Some are there to challenge themselves and race to the finish as fast as they can, while others are there to finish and have fun along the way. Inclusivity is the name of the sport and is welcoming to all levels of riders. I do have to say, as someone more in the front pack and racing, it’s just as competitive as any competitive sport out there – and tactical!

The Gravel Bike

A gravel bike is similar to a road bike or cyclocross bike with a few differences. You can use a road or cyclocross bike though by just adding durable wider tires that can go on different terrain. A gravel bike has larger tire clearance than a road bike, allowing for wider tires. Additionally, gravel bikes have a frame geometry that is relaxed and with a longer wheelbase and lower bottom bracket and clearance for wider tires for stability and comfort on a wide array of terrain. Disc brakes (versus rim brakes) are ideal for a gravel bike as they offer quick and great stopping power.

For those of you that go for the long haul, you can put use clip-on aerobars. Many gravel riders have these on their bikes for longer events, for comfort, increased speed and for a change of position. Due to the nature of the gravel bike being in a more road position setup, you just want to ensure that the bars are comfortable and you have good hip range of motion. 

Tire Choice

To not get too technical in tire choice, wider is always better, and the more technical the riding, the more knobby the tires you’ll need.  Tubeless is the best option as it decreases the chance for flats tires.

Size of tires make a big difference! Slick and skinny tires only have so much traction and the smaller/thinner the tire, the more difficult it will be to ride all different terrains.  Wider tires allow for more varied riding terrain.

A 35mm tire is a typical width for most gravel riding. Wide tires with lower pressures (26-40 PSI) help with traction on varied terrain and are faster than high pressure tires on technical terrain such as rocky and unstable surfaces. “Slick” tires without knobs are fast but only really applicable on gravel that doesn’t need a lot of traction. Going tubeless allows you to ride with even less pressure and less chance of flatting. If it’s possible, a simple dart tool and CO2 can fix a flat in a pinch.

Tire pressure can make or break your race. Too low and you risk losing energy and flatting. Conversely, too high and you chance losing traction and a very uncomfortable ride. A good place to start is around 30-35 psi depending on the tire choice (refer to the tire itself as well). As a 125lb rider, I like 28 psi on size 40mm (width) tires. 

This is not to say you can’t use a road bike with thicker tires. A road frame can handle the gravel however, the clearence of tire can be an issue as the terrain gets more rocky and technical. A gravel bike is slightly more comfortable due to it’s geometry compared to a standard road frame – making it much nicer to ride for a long day on dirt!

My Bike Build and Setup

My Obed Boundary is built with Shimano Dura Ace 9170 Di2 and Pro components, including a Vibe stem and seatpost, Discovery bars and Missile Clip-on aero bars. The bike has two front chainrings (50 and 34 teeth chainrings) and an 11 speed gear cassette with a range of cogs from 11 to 30 teeth. The kit on the bike included a spare tube, tire levers, CO2 inflator and Stans dart tool. I use a Pro saddlebag and Bento Box on the top tube of the bike to hold additional supplies. My tires are 700 x 40 Maxxis Ramblers with Silk Shield Protection. They provided the right mix of grip and rolling need for the unique surface of Unbound Gravel.

Gravel Riding Skills

Gravel surfaces range from loose gravel to hard paved roads. You’ll want to practice on all types of terrain. As they say, the more you practice the better you’ll be and naturally learn how to handle the bike.  Avoiding sharp turns and deep gravel (find a smooth line) will help you navigate smoothly through tricky terrain. A key technique is to think of steering your bike with your hips and slight leaning (shifting your weight) in the direction you want to go. If you’ve ever been on a motorbike, it can have the same feeling. When descending, be sure to squat back so that your weight is toward the back of the bike to increase stability and minimize the chance of going over the handlebars. Additionally, standing so that your butt is slightly above the saddle and with a slight bend in your knees (pedals at 3 and 9 o’clock) allows for your knees to act as shock absorbers and reduces the impact on your body when descending rough terrain.

Typically there is one best line to take on a gravel road/trail. Look ahead and try to find the best line – smooth, less rocks, puddles, etc. Building your skillset with more technical parts – including turning, spinning a little faster, and being in groups all take time to learn. The best way to learn, is literally just to start. 

Bike handling skills are a key component when riding outside, regardless of the riding medium. Remember that a relaxed posture and holding a straight line is important when riding with others. When cornering, be sure to keep a smooth line and avoid heavy braking. A tip for this is to change to an easier gear and brake before the turn. If the turn is on an unstable surface like rocks or dirt, take a wider line so that your bike does not have a substantial lean angle to minimize the chance of your tires losing traction and sliding out.

Group Riding Tips

When riding in a group, the key is to position yourself to take advantage of riding behind someone and thus, be protected from the wind.  If the wind is hitting you diagonally from the right, you’ll want to position yourself slightly to the left of the rider in front of you. Similarly for when the wind is hitting you from the left, you’ll want to be slightly to the right of the rider in front of you. One big rule for all riding is never overlap your front wheel with anyone’s rear wheel.  You’ll want to give some space but still take advantage of the draft.  A good rule of thumb is roughly 30 centimeters (or 1 foot to 2 feet back). When you want to pass someone, be sure to change position in the group correctly.  In general, you pass on the left and warn the rider in front of you by saying, “on your left.”

When you ride in a group, the goal is to keep a consistent, predictable effort for everyone. Try to stay off the brakes. A good tip is to be in one to two gears easier than the rider in front of you.  You’ll find you’ll be able to spin and ride consistently when doing so. When pulling in the front of the group (the lead rider), try to keep the pace of the group the same. This will take some practice but using your speedometer and maintaining the groups’ speed is a good place to start. If you find yourself having a difficult time staying with the group, opt to pull in the front for a shorter period of time.

Be sure to start in the back and see how the group works in terms of pulling and sharing the front. Be sure to pace the climbs as well, do this by shifting to an easier gear and trying to maintain the same power as you were on the flats. Prior to standing up on a climb, be sure to shift up at least gear. This helps to prevent the bike from kicking backwards slightly – as commonly occurs if you shift when standing. Half-wheeling (having your wheel slightly in front of the rider you’re riding beside) is never a good idea. Maintaining a steady effort and working as a group are the most important aspects when it comes to pacing and group dynamics.

Nutrition Pointers

Nutrition is a game changer for the longer rides. Carbohydrates, salt and fluids are the biggest needs for any endurance athlete. Using a variety of products like energy bars and gels will help keep you energized. My go-to plan is a sports drink with at least 500mg of salt per bottle, and a gel every 45 minutes.  There are a variety of nutrition products out there with the most important thing being consistent fueling and trialing fueling strategies in training.

Choosing an Event

There are a few things to look at when getting into gravel riding/racing. Since terrain varies so much, looking at the event info is the first step in deciding the equipment you’ll use, and what you’ll need to carry for nutrition. Some rides are fully self-supported (meaning, you alone need to bring all your own nutrition, gear, etc…). Most events though do have water stops, and most races do have aid stations. Aside from these aspects, outside support is not allowed.

The vibe of gravel events is a mix of competition, and those who are out there for fun and adventure. It really is a unique community.  Check out some local events in your community! The key is to just get out there and start exploring! Lots of events can be found on bikereg.com searching gravel grinder.

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Angela Naeth is a professional triathlete, cyclist, coach and partner at United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA), a science-based endurance sports education company. UESCA educates and certifies running, ultrarunning and triathlon coaches (cycling coming soon!) worldwide on a 100% online platform.

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Rick Prince

Rick Prince

Founder/Director of United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA).

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