Gravel racing has taken the cycling world by storm over the past decade. Events appeal to a broad range of cyclists from former pro tour roadies to novice riders wanting a massive physical challenge paired with a fun event experience.
Is gravel racing simply a road race on a dirt road or is it a more aligned to Marathon (XCM) mountain bike racing? Our team rider Justin Maddog Morris has been hitting up the Michigan Gravel Race Series in the USA recently and took some note of the unique challenges gravel races throw at their competitors. He has put together 5 of the biggest takeaways from gravel racing. If you are considering signing up for a gravel race or you are already an aficionado of the grav keep reading for some insights into the hottest discipline in cycling right now…
Wide is where it’s at
In my first gravel race in 2018 I was convinced that narrow tyres and bars similar to a road set up would be the fastest set up to run. ‘More aero’ I cunningly thought as an ex roadie. However, in that race and since I have accepted that the opposite is actually true in gravel racing. Most racers at the pointy end of the fields are now running 40c-44c tyre widths with wide bars that flare out in the drops. With the correct pressures for the conditions and horse power to keep the big tractor tyres rolling the faster riders in the gravel races would float over terrain that was kicking me around like a bucking bronco with my 32c CX tyres. On the descents, having now trialled some of the new gravel style bars with the flared drops, they do indeed add an element of stability over unpredictable traction/ terrain compared to the traditional road bars. In gravel racing going wide is where it is at!
Hold the wheel!
Gravel racing attracts a bit of a motley crew of racers with differing levels of experience and skill. One element that appears to be not well understood by many competitors but can have a huge impact on one’s performance is the nuances of group riding. Unlike in mountain bike racing where you have little benefit in riding in a group (especially in singletrack) in gravel racing the skills that emanate from road racing are a massive benefit. Staying with a group can make your energy output 30% more efficient for the same speed when compared to riding solo. Hence, finding a group of similarly paced riders and encouraging a bit of teamwork through the more tame terrain or windy sectors will be of big benefit to yourself and your gravel comrades. Most races seem to have a selective section be it a hill or sandy sector early in the race and again later in the race where those daring solo moves are wise to be undertaken.
Train those glutes
This is especially true for many of the races I have been doing in the Mid West USA. Compared to a traditional XCM race a lot of time is spent in the saddle. So the need for those seated power muscles to be strong is even more noticeable in gravel racing. A flat parcours can be deceiving, to the naive eye a low elevation gain can mean an easier day in the saddle. However, little climbing more often than not also means little descending. So being ON the pedals the whole time is something some mountain bike racers could find to be a shock to the system. Spending time strengthening those upper leg/ glute muscles will help make those long grinds in the saddle a little more tolerable.
To SPD or to SPD-SL?
This appears to be quite the quandry in the gravel scene. Most racers seem to opt for the dual sided MTB version of clip in pedals (SPD is Shimano’s offering). However after 5 weekends and nearly 500km of gravel racing I unclipped mid race a total of 0 times. This suggests to me that a road oriented single sided pedal (SPD SL is Shimano’s offering) will be a more efficient and comfortable option. The larger pedalling platform on a road pedal means you have more of a contact point to press your power into the bike. However, if you do ever have to unclip in sand/ mud etc. this would make road pedals a questionable option. Also, if you have fancy road shoes you may be precious about not a good idea to slip on for a gravel race. EVERYTHING comes back filthy.
Hang around for a brewski!
After a road race, apart from those awaiting some prize money most riders seem to bail asap! The finish line of XCM races usually resemble a morgue with absolutely shattered shadows of human beings struggling back to their vehicles usually via a food truck, if they haven’t left yet. In many gravel races, especially here in the USA the race is seemingly accompanied by a town wide festival. Most of these events are hosted by small/ medium towns who are eager for the economic stimulation an event can bring to the town. Hence, many locals appear to really get behind these races and the thousands of people they attract. I have found the vibe is often a healthy mix of competitiveness and joviality at these gravel races (sometimes called fondos), many competitors will congregate after the finish (suggest changing out of kit first) and share stories about their duels out there in gravel land! Local business’ put on stalls and seemingly every gravel race appears top be sponsored by a brewery or distillery so recovery beverages are never far away!
Bonus point – Showbags
Each gravel event in the USA appears to have what they call a ‘race packet’. This is a race oriented ‘showbag’ filled with some very handy goodies often including nutrition, chain lube, discount codes for other races, free drink vouchers, tyre levers and so much more! So more than just a grind on the gravel for your entry fee. I won’t need to buy chain lube for a year now with all my gravel race show bags!
Gravel racing has been in my opinion a refreshing injection for the cycling culture in the USA and beyond. It has captured the imagination of people who would otherwise have never contemplated pinning a number on. Judging by the most important measure- the amount of smiles at an event, these races are here to stay, so get your wide tyres and your napi san ready and get yourself to the next local gravel event!