It is hard to find a cycling brand, magazine or advertisement that isn’t talking about gravel cycling. Races like Dirty Kanza, Barry’s Roubaix, unPAved, Paris to Ancaster and Rasputitsa are among the popular races cyclists, with various cycling backgrounds, are adding to their bucket lists. With all these races and hype around the gravel discipline, you might just be wondering how to prepare for your first gravel race.
First of all, do some research about the event, then do the best you can to prepare and show up with a good mindset, ready to work hard.
FIGURE OUT WHERE YOU’RE COMING FROM
Your road or mountain bike experience will be valuable in gravel races, but since you will bias to one or the other, you will need to do some work to refine your skills and fitness for gravel. Mountain bikers often need to do more steady rides where their legs are moving for much of the ride since they’re used to pedaling up hills and coasting down technical descents. Since many gravel rides require an extended period of riding, they need to get out on the road to do more endurance and muscular endurance work (i.e., threshold intervals).
Road cyclists will find the variable, bumpy and lose sections challenging. If you are not used to fighting for traction on climbs and being cautious cornering on loose surfaces, this is something you want to include in your training. Don’t overthink it, simply take your usual ride and add some looser sections and gradually increase the speed and effort you put in to get used to working hard and going fast on loose surfaces. Doing at least one of your intensity workouts each week on steeper, gravel climbs that make you fight for traction and deal with lower cadences is helpful.
ENJOY THE BUMPY
The bumpy surfaces take some time to get used to as well. Some of it is disposition, the ability to be content getting bumped around, but there is also some technique to pedaling while it is bumpy. You may find a lower cadence, a gear harder, helps you move forward over rough sections. Specific bike technology, like Trek’s Isospeed Decoupler, can help to dampen the road chatter, but you can also improve your gravel setup with thicker bar tape, a carbon handlebar, bigger tires and lower tire pressures.
TRAIN WITH YOUR GEAR
Many races, like Dirty Kanza, are best done with a hydration pack so you can carry enough water and gear. Training with this pack is mandatory to be ready for race day and ensure you will not end up with a bad pack that rubs or moves around too much. This ‘Game-Play’ is critical and overlooked during the typical training plans that build up your ride distances over several months. Whatever bike, tires, fuel and accessories you will use need to be used a lot in training to ensure nothing surprises you on race day. This is less important when you are doing short road and mountain races where you can deal with discomfort or go to a tech-zone for help.
The allure of gravel is the self-supported adventure that puts you and your bike against a challenging course. Be as ready as you can be and then show up and work hard to overcome whatever bumps appear in the road.