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A Guide To Your First Gravel Race

This article series aims to enable cyclists to show up as prepared as possible for their first race. We’ll cover each of the primary types of events available; gravel, road, mountain, and cyclocross. There will be a fair amount of carryover for each of the disciplines, but each type of event has unique demands that need to be accounted for.

As we release additional guides we’ll update the links below.

Road Guide

Mountain Guide

Cyclocross Guide

Gravel Racing

Gravel races are endurance events that range from 25 miles for beginner/youth races to 350 miles for ultra-distance. Courses will utilize predominantly gravel roads and occasionally a mix of minimum maintenance roads (aka B-roads) and paved roads. 

Races are typically mass starts, meaning all riders start together regardless of age group, ability, or goal distance for the day. While prizes are often available for the fastest finishers in each category, many/most riders are chasing a personal goal. 

An often talked about perk of gravel racing is that it offers something for everyone. The professional racer and the weekend warrior are both treated equally and have the same opportunity for an awesome day at the best gravel events. 

Gravel Fundamentals

Tire Selection & Air Pressure

There is a myriad of choices when it comes to tire type and size. The suggestions below are meant to help you get started in the right direction.

  • Width – 38mm or larger is recommended. Some older bike frames won’t have clearance for wider tires, but it’s rare to find a cyclocross, gravel, or mountain bike that doesn’t allow the use of 38s.
  • Tread – A tire with a smooth or lightly treaded center line and larger knobs on the outside of the tire is best for gravel. This tends to be a good all-around tread pattern well suited for gravel riding. We recommend starting here for your first set of gravel-specific tires and then adjusting based on your experience out on the road.

The Specialized Pathfinder Pro is a popular choice.

  • Air Pressure – Using the wrong air pressure in your tires will hurt comfort and handling. Too low and you’ll feel the tire bottom out on fast descents. Too much and you will feel like the bike is trying to buck you off and you’ll also lose traction in corners. Please reference this chart to find your starting air pressure. 

Mechanical Skills

  • How to plug a tire (for cyclists running tubeless this is often all that’s needed)
  • How to remove the front and rear wheels
  • How to change a tube
  • How to fix a broken chain
  • Bonus Skill: How to convert to a single-speed when you’re derailleur breaks

The longer the event the more important the above skills become. In a 25-mile beginner-friendly course, there will likely be support staff or friends/family nearby that can offer a ride when your bike breaks down. In longer events, it may take multiple hours before you are saved from the side of the road. On that note, it’s always a good idea to carry a fully charged cell phone with you at gravel events!

Nutrition and Hydration

  • How much fuel is needed hourly to maintain energy
  • How much water is needed hourly to maintain hydration
  • What specific fuels work for your body? Pop-Tarts and Red Bull might be rocket fuel for one athlete and disaster for another. 

Week before race

Download the course as soon as possible and make sure it loads properly on your cycling computer or phone. Pay attention to the promoter’s website or social media pages as it is not uncommon for course changes to occur due to weather. 

As you review the course look for any tricky sections (rough roads, single track, weird turns). When developing your pacing strategy you’ll need to know the wind direction and the main climbing sections. In general, you’ll want to save energy on the tailwind and flat sections so that you can push harder into headwinds and climbs. The final part of your race day strategy should note SAG stations (SAG = stop and go). Some events will include a SAG every 20-30 miles throughout a course, while other events may only have a SAG every 40-50 miles. Plan accordingly with your food and water. 

Pay attention to the weather and pack your race day bag with everything you think you’ll need, plus a little extra just in case. Many veteran racers keep a race day bag packed with all their winter gear during the colder months.  

Hopefully, your bike is already in good shape, but if you need to make any final adjustments or replace any parts now is the time to do it. Don’t depend on a bike shop being able to get your bike ready at the last minute for repair. Plan by scheduling an appointment or dropping your bike off a couple of weeks before you need it back. 

Bike Review Checklist

  • Check all bolts
  • Check chain wear
  • Check tires for holes and tread wear
  • Check sealant levels
  • Clean and lubricate drivetrain
  • Make sure flat kit is stocked; 1-2 tubes, 2 CO2s + inflator or pump, tire lever, patch kit, multi-tool with chain breaker

Day before race

If possible, pre-ride the start and/or finishing miles of the course. Being familiar with these sections of the course can help increase confidence on race day.  

Set out all your equipment, clothing, and food the night before to help make the morning as smooth as possible. Many races start early in the morning and you won’t want to waste any time hunting for your lucky socks or zip-tying your race number to your bike. This is also a good time to make sure all your electronics are fully charged or on the charger before you go to bed. 

Make sure you’re eating plenty of healthy food and staying hydrated. Now is not the time to make any drastic changes to your diet. After dinner it’s time to relax, double check your alarm, and get to bed.

Morning of race

Estimate how much time you’ll need in the morning to get everything done and add 30 minutes. You’ll want some wiggle room in your time budget to accommodate a long bathroom line or an unexpected mechanical problem. 

We recommend sticking to your normal breakfast, or as close to it as possible. Again, this is not the time to make any drastic changes to your diet. Hopefully, you’ve been knocking out some morning training rides before today and have a general idea of what foods help you feel strong during a ride. 

The ideal warm-up will depend on the athlete’s preference and the length of the event. In general, long events (100+ miles) require minimal if any warm-up. If you know the race will start hard and want to try and stay near the front of the action then a 15-20 minute warm-up ride is a good idea. 

During the race

The start can be a little hectic or very calm depending on your race day strategy. If your goal is to race for the podium or stick with the front group then you’ll be riding in close quarters with a large group of riders all “fighting” to stay near the front. This can be stressful, especially if you’re not accustomed to group riding. If your goal is to finish at a certain time then you can avoid the action at the front and roll out behind them at whatever pace you feel is best. 

Trying to stick with a faster group of riders can be a great way to get a fast start in the draft but be careful! It’s easy to get excited and push yourself too far into the red without realizing it. Next thing you know, you’ll be popped off the group and in the hurt locker a long way from the finish. A good strategy is to start fast and then settle into your own pace within the first few miles. 

Don’t wait till you’re hungry or thirsty to eat or drink.  Your fueling plan should be started well within the first hour of racing. Also, consider how easily you can reach your food if you’re pushing hard in a paceline.  If it’s cold out can you reach your heavy gloves into your jersey pocket or is a top tube bag the better solution?

Finally, remember to smile and have fun. You’re riding bikes!

After the race

Start hydrating and get some food as soon as possible. If a celebratory beer is in your future just make sure you’ve had a couple of glasses of water first. You just put your body through hell and it will appreciate a little extra hydration. 

Summing Up

Gravel is hot right now and for good reason. The events blend competitive racing with a fun and relaxed atmosphere that makes everyone feel welcome. A strong finish at the longer events requires many months of dedicated training, but don’t let that discourage you from getting started. Many events will have shorter beginner-friendly distances with more support that are perfect for testing the waters. 

Kent Woermann

Kent Woermann is the owner/operator of Move Up Endurance Coaching. He is currently a certified personal trainer through the National Strength and Conditioning Association and holds a category 1 license in road, mountain bike, and cyclocross disciplines.

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