Seven Things You Should Know Before Your First Gravel Grinder Or Epic Gravel Ride

Gravel racing is booming in popularity…it’s not quite mountain biking and it’s not quite cyclocross or road riding. This might leave you with some questions on how best to prepare for your first big gravel grinder. And there are quite a few coming up like the Belgian Waffle Ride. While this list isn’t all-inclusive by any means, it has some solid tips and answers some common questions you might have.

Please note, that training and fitness are given necessities for a successful gravel cycling race or epic gravel ride! If you have a race in a few weeks or even tomorrow check out these seven points to aid in your preparation.

1. What bike choice is best for gravel grinders?

Gravel racing, similar to cyclocross, has some major demands on your equipment. Take a look at your race or ride course. You’ll want to be sure your bike is suitable to go the distance, balancing speed and ability to handle the technical sections.  For example, I recently had a client that did a gravel race and he did not really look at the course in full. 80% of the course was extremely well taken care of treated dirt roads. 10% was paved, and 10% was a single track section with a rocky climb in it. This athlete, let’s call him Jim, figured that his road bike would be the fastest. Jim thought he could put minutes into the field on the well maintained dirt roads and sail to the finish. Jim flatted three times and was forced to walk most of the short single track section causing him to be almost last in the race. The lesson is to choose wisely. Most of the time, an “over-built” set up is the safer choice to pure speed.

2. What tires should I use for gravel grinders?

Tire choice is a big part of these races. If you have a bike that can handle any gravel course in the country, change your tires selection depending on the course. If you are competing in the Land Run 100 in the rain, a mud tire will save you hours. Whereas, if you are doing Dirty Kanza, a mud tire will drag you down the whole race. Know your event and choose your tire accordingly. Just like in cyclocross there are different tread patterns for different conditions. Same principles as bike choice apply, choose a tire that can clear the course and over-built set up is usually safer.

3. What tools should I carry with for me for the event?

Tools are a necessary evil for gravel racing. Make sure you have your accessories lined up and a packing list. Gravel races are usually pretty long and time intensive. It’s smart to make a packing list and carry some things with you that you may not in a road race. Most of these gravel events are self-supported. Besides food and water, make sure to pack a good multitool, tire levers, multiple tubes and/or sealant, and a pump. A chain tool of some kind is also recommended. With this type of event usually being self-supported, it adds a different factor to the race where you may need to bring more on the bike just in case. You won’t win a gravel race because you saved weight by leaving your multitool at home, but you will lose if your saddle slipped and you couldn’t tighten it.

4. I worry about mechanicals on the gravel, how can I best prepare to avoid them?

Test your equipment beforehand. You have already selected your bike of choice. It is designed to handle everything and clear that quick single track section and be as fast as possible on the smooth or paved sections. Make sure you have logged some rides on it before the race. Time after time we see rider’s saddle slip down, their bike’s fail to shift, or their brake cable stretches and have no brakes. Make sure your equipment is race-ready in the most fun way possible, by riding it before your event. Take care of your equipment so it can get you through your adventure!

5. What is an appropriate tire pressure for a gravel race or epic gravel ride?

While this point seems quite specific it is way more important than what people think.  Tire choice and pressure, especially in gravel riding and mountain biking, has a huge effect on your ride. We touched on tire choice above but pressure is a whole new animal. There are a few things that you take into account for pressure. You and your equipment’s weight, your tires width, how supple your tire is, tubeless ability (hopefully yes), and terrain.

On a rough course too much tire pressure can leave you rattled and working way harder than you have to. Lower tire pressure can lower rolling resistance having you float over small rocks. Too low of tire pressure can have you pinch flat even a tubeless tire.

A quick starting point can be to put your thumb or a thumb size stick on the tire and when you firmly press your thumb or stick on the tire, can you touch the rim? For gravel races you can run a bit more pressure than a demanding cyclocross course and your tire will make this trick have varying results but your tires pressure should leave you just barely able to touch the rim though your tire or even just barely not being able to feel the rim. If you push your thumb across the tire and press down and instantly hit the rim bottoming out the tire you likely need more pressure.  In general, cyclists tend to over inflate their tires which means less traction and a bumpier ride.

6. How do I handle nutrition and hydration for a gravel event?

Day of nutrition is key but also very personal. It’s not a good time to experiment with new foods your one friend recommended. Have a nutritional plan set out that does not cause stress the morning of the event…mental stress or gut stress. If your event is early, foods like oatmeal with peanut butter and banana or eggs and toast sit well for many people.

During the event, be sure to pack enough food to eat about 100-200 calories an hour. A mixture of carbohydrate and fat should be the focus of your food’s macronutrient makeup. While that may not sound very scientific, for your first gravel event, just make a plan to eat and then commit to doing it regularly. Plan to eat something every 30 minutes to an hour instead of waiting until you are hungry. You’ll probably find it’s quite challenging to get to your food, much less open a package on a gravel road!

Staying on top of hydration is essential for a successful race! On long, hot rides and races, a hydration pack is the best tool for the job. Many can also fit those essential tools and fuel we previously mentioned.  If the race or event is shorter and there are feed zones or aid stations available, you may be able to get away with just bottles on the bike and good feeders in the feed zones if needed. Most people choose a mix of water and electrolyte in their bottles. Keeping your electrolyte balance is important so drinking water alone is usually not enough. In an event with nice weather, you should consume a bottle or more an hour but hot events do require much more. Drink early and often!

7. How should I handle pacing in a group versus riding solo?

Tactics and pacing are not unlike a road race. Less aerodynamics are involved in a gravel race or gravel event so you should find there to be less drafting and also fewer cat-and-mouse games. You’ll likely have personal time-based goals and goals based on results in your field. Work hard to stay with riders you think are on the same level as you and draft when possible, but be careful to not go out too hard at the beginning and blow yourself up. It could make for a very long day!

Because you are staying on top of your nutrition and hydration, try to get faster throughout the event and focus on your own pace. If the ride starts out on a long paved section, do your best to stay with the group, conserve, and draft until the harder dirt sections. Most of all, enjoy the experience! 

Reprinted with permission from author Zack Allison and Source EnduranceZack Allison is currently a coach for Source Endurance, rides for Team Clif Bar, and recently rode his way to top 20 at the Belgian Waffle Ride and 9th at Dirty Kanza 200 this year.