This year, admittedly bored with a Virginia/Maryland road racing calendar featuring a dozen races I had done at least a dozen times already, I decided to focus on a gravel grinder. The 72-mile Gravel Race Up Spruce Knob (GRUSK) over in West Virginia promised to be a real test.
I’ve done training rides with gravel roads sprinkled in for years. My favorite road race in the mid-Atlantic has a 1.5-mile stretch of gravel. Just to the west of DC there are miles and miles of unpaved roads that the locals wish to keep that way. Plus back in January I bought a cyclocross/gravel/road bike from a friend. I suppose all of that made me gravel-adjacent, a perfect candidate for a switch to the unpaved side of cycling.
A couple of questions occurred to me as I began making my plans: Why do gravel races have to be so long? As a criterium guy, anything over an hour seems too long to me. (Though honestly, I’m much more likely to drive 3.5 hours to the middle of nowhere for a 70-miler than a 20-miler; at least you get a good day of riding out of it.) I decided to embrace the long day in the saddle and go for it.
How do you get ready for 70, 90, or even 125 miles of climbing, gravel, and pavement? There are some obvious answers and some not-so-obvious ones. Here are some aspects to consider when training for a long event like a gravel grinder.
Efficiency = Endurance
I’m all over my clients to improve pedaling efficiency. I try to make everyone learn to spin 100 rpm without thinking about it. (See Head Coach Scott Saifer’s blog post for some specific cadence drills). When you can use the combination of higher cadence and lower force, you’ll find that you have a lot more endurance and feel fresher at the end of a 70-mile ride. This actually applies across the board in cycling; even on the track or in a cyclocross race; improving your cadence and efficiency pays off.
Get in the Zone (2)
I’ve always focused on one-minute power in my criterium training. I’ve got a target numb
er, and if I can hold that for 60 seconds, I know I’m hitting good form. If I can hit that target 8 or 10 times in a criterium, I know I will do well. In a five-hour gravel grinder, however, this isn’t really going to be the focus. Instead, I had to change my training to focus on endurance and tempo, the effort I’d need to be able to maintain all day. Some extra effort would be required on climbs, but not big one-minute power numbers.
To Race on Gravel, Train on Gravel
Ideally, you should practice on terrain similar to what you will race on. From DC, we have to drive west about an hour to find many unpaved roads, but it is definitely worth it. Luckily my main riding partner loves riding on unpaved roads (and in fact planned to do GRUSK), and he offered to plan several routes to mimic the terrain and distance of our race. We picked three weekends to knock these rides out, starting about six weeks prior to the event.
We ended up with three excellent rides, each over 60 miles long. Data from these rides proved very valuable. They gave me a pretty accurate picture of the power I could sustain for 4+ hours, both on the flats and on longer climbs. I knew what tire width and pressure I liked (38mm @40 psi). The experience also gave me a good idea of how much I’d need to eat and drink while on the bike for that length of time.
Gravel Riding Technique
Gravel requires a different skill set than riding crits. Even with big tires you have to be a little careful in turns, especially if the gravel is loose or rutted. Don’t lean the bike as you would in a criterium. On climbs, stay in the saddle and spin as much as you can. If you have to stand on a steep bit, keep your weight towards the back of the bike so you don’t lose traction in the rear. On descents, keep your elbows bent and your butt a little up off the saddle – especially when the road is bumpy – and towards the back of the bike. Give the bike room to bounce around underneath you. I like to descend in the bar drops so that if my hands slip, they don’t come off the bar entirely. Good technique smooths out the ride and makes it a lot easier to keep going for 5 or 6 hours.
Equipment and Gearing for Gravel
It certainly helps to have the right tools for the job. For a long gravel race, you’ll want an appropriate bike, whether that’s a gravel-specific rig, cyclocross set-up, or even a hardtail mountain bike. You’ll also want to be sure you have it set up properly by a knowledgeable shop and/or bike fitter. The emphasis is on comfort and power, not aerodynamics. I can’t say enough about disc brakes! They offer more braking power and less wear and tear on your hands. No more death-grip squeezing the lever on cantilevers… A week or two before the ride is a good opportunity to put on new brake pads if the old ones are worn. Adjust your tire pressure (chart), and if possible, go tubeless. (Pack a spare inner tube or two, just in case…) I recommend full-finger gloves, even in the summer, since they are less likely to slip off the bars.
Consider your gearing. I have a standard road compact crank in the front (50×34), and in the back I go pretty big with an 11-32. That 32 has come in very handy on steep climbs with loose gravel. It’s also nice to have the 50 up front when you get onto pavement — a big advantage over the single-ring setups that are so prevalent. (If you are on a single ring setup, go for as much ratio as you can, such as a 40 up front and a 10-43 on the back.)
Not a Pack Mentality
In a gravel race, there isn’t going to be a 50-rider peloton to hide in. In fact, you don’t necessarily want to be right on the wheel in front of you. Leave a little distance on the gravel so you can keep an eye out for potholes, ruts, loose gravel, and other surprises. This is not to say you want to ride by yourself; if you get in a group of riders rolling about the same pace, it’s a huge benefit. Just don’t put yourself in a risky position.
Nutrition During Gravel Events
Don’t forget to eat and drink! I use the rule of one bottle per hour with electrolyte tablets, but you need to figure out your own sweat rate at different temperatures. You want to finish a ride about a pound lighter than you started but not more. I also try to eat every 90 minutes or so. Most riders will do better with more frequent eating, perhaps every 15-20 minutes. I avoid gel (I always seem to end up getting more on me than in me) and prefer actual food. My favorite is peanut butter crackers in those little packs of six; they fit perfectly in a jersey pocket, have extra salt, and are a lot cheaper than energy bars. Most gravel races have at least a couple food stops, so take advantage. If you need a fueling stop, don’t skip it just to stay with a group that doesn’t stop.
Put It All Together
I’ve given you a big list. The most important thing is to practice all of the above before race day. Here’s how it turned out.
After the training rides, I thought I could probably do it in less than 5 hours. I missed my target time by 11 minutes. Guess I could have pushed harder here and there, but overall I was pretty happy with how I rode. The 20-mile climb to the top took a lot out of me, the road surface was poor (even for gravel), and I suffered by myself pretty much all the way to the finish.
Will Gravel Grinding Be on My Calendar Next Year?
Yes. But first, I’ve decided to take another crack at cyclocross after a few years off. It isn’t quite like gravel grinding, but I like the short races!
Coach Peter Lindeman considers himself a recovering criterium racer. He has been working with athletes both on and off-road since 2008 and enjoys working with all levels and ages of racers and recreational riders.