The right equipment and gear choices can be the difference between a great gravel race, a miserable death march, or a dreaded DNF. Personal preference plays a big role in the brands and options individual riders choose, but it’s wise to trust the fundamentals to riders and coaches with experience and expertise in the field. Rather than provide a list of products to buy, we’ve designed the following guide to help you make decisions about the features and options that match your goals.
The right bike for SBT GRVL
Do you need a gravel-specific bike to ride SBT GRVL? Let’s just say, a gravel-specific bike will provide the best overall experience on race day. The course is rougher and looser than most cyclists would want for an endurance road bike. Although a cyclocross bike would work, they are designed for short, high-intensity racing, have less tire clearance than gravel-specific bikes, and may prove uncomfortable for an event as long as SBT GRVL. Similarly, a flat-bar mountain bike is typically heavier and more heavy-duty than necessary for long gravel events.
Tire choices for gravel racing
Tires, including type, air pressure, and tread design, seem to be the most-discussed aspect of gravel racing. At SBT GRVL, the conditions are mostly hard-packed gravel roads, with some softer areas, and not much pavement. Wet conditions are possible, but mid-August in Steamboat Springs, Colorado is typically a dry period of the year. Day-long soaking rains are unlikely, but anything is possible. If there is any precipitation, it would most likely be from afternoon thunderstorms.
When making tire choices for SBT GRVL, therefore, consider the following:
- Tire width: Minimum 35mm tire width. Common tire setups for the event are 38-40c tires. If you want an even smoother ride, try rocking 45c tires.
- Tire tread pattern: You’ll want a fast-rolling tire that can grip softer corners. A textured center area will roll fast but provide enough grip for braking and for traction on hills. More pronounced shoulder blocks will provide confidence in corners.
- Tire pressure: This depends on tire width, personal preference, and whether you are riding tires with tubes or a tubeless setup. Generally, lower pressures help with traction and smoothing out the bumps. Going too low can lead to a squishy feeling and the potential to slam your rims into rocks.
- Tubes vs. Tubeless: Either works and neither is foolproof. You can obviously puncture or pinch flat a tube. You can also tear a sidewall or burp a tubeless tire. Whichever you choose, be sure you have the equipment and knowledge necessary to fix a flat and get rolling again. If you choose tubeless, consider tire inserts (like Cushcore) that allow for running even lower pressures while protecting rims from impacts.
Wheels for gravel racing
In 2022 almost all gravel bikes are equipped with disc brakes. There’s nothing wrong with running a bike with cantilever rim brakes, but almost everyone at SBT GRVL will be riding disc brake wheelsets. One benefit of disc brakes (besides stopping power, modulation, and great wet-weather performance) is that they allow for wider rims. Again, there is no perfect rim width, but wider rims (i.e., 23-25mm inner width vs. 19mm) provide greater support for tire sidewalls at lower tire pressures.
What about deep aero wheels for gravel racing? Aerodynamics certainly play a role in performance during gravel racing. At times the speeds are high enough for aerodynamic wheels to offer an advantage. The event is also long enough that small advantages can add up. Of course, small disadvantages can also add up. Generally, prioritize strength and durability above all else. And then, unless you’re at the pointy end of the field, aim for the middle ground in terms of weight and aerodynamics.
Gearing and drivetrain options for gravel racing
The single vs. double chainring debate is about as popular as the tire discussion, with strong opinions on both sides. They both work great. A 1×11 or 1×12 setup eliminates the front derailleur and reduces the number of parts that can potentially break. The cassettes for 1x and 2x setups provide similar maximum and minimum gear ratios and ranges. With the amount of climbing – and the altitude – in Steamboat Springs, you will most likely use every cog you have. You will need both climbing gears and high-speed gears.
Electric vs. cable-actuated drivetrains
Modern drivetrains feature either electronic shifting (using wired or wireless options) or cable-actuated shifting. Gravel racing is a great application for electric shifting because it eliminates the risk for dry or gritty cables. Internally wired or wireless electronic drivetrains also make attaching frame bags and accessories easier. And they can include options for multiple buttons so you can shift from different hand positions. Just make sure your battery(s) are fully charged!
The advantage of cable-actuated drivetrains is their simplicity. There’s never a battery that can run out of juice and stashing an extra derailleur cable in a seat bag is easy and lightweight.
Space and accessibility are the two big considerations when choosing storage options. If you want to be able to quickly access something while on the move, consider a top-tube mounted bento box or maybe a handlebar bag. For items you are less likely to access on-the-go, but still want to get to easily, think about a frame bag that mounts inside the front triangle of your bike.
A bag under your saddle is a great place for tools, tubes, and CO2 because you’ll only need to access them if something goes wrong. Some bikes also have room for tool/tube storage inside the frame. If you have a dropper post, just be sure there’s clearance between a saddle bag and the rear tire with the saddle in the lowest position.
Tools and Spare Parts
Part of the storage space on your bike can be dedicated to carrying tools and spare parts. You want to do your best to be self-sufficient on course. Tools and parts to consider carrying include:
- Multitool with chain tool and any specific bits that fit your bike. Having a spoke wrench included is a nice touch, too.
- Inflation devices: CO2 cartridges are fast but a hand pump works for multiple flats. If you don’t want to carry both, just carry a pump.
- Tire repair tools, tire lever, and a tube: Torn sidewalls and punctures that are too big for sealant are possible, so if you run tubeless bring a tire plug kit, a tube, and a tire boot.
- Small parts – It’s often the little things that are your undoing. In a small plastic bag, pack one set of brake pads, a derailleur hanger, a quick link, and 1-2 pedal cleats with screws. Put a few zip ties and a length of duct tape into your pack. They can be useful for a wide range of unanticipated trailside repairs. If you are running cable-actuated derailleurs, include a rear (longer) derailleur cable.
Hydration Pack or Water Bottles?
Staying hydrated is a major challenge during long gravel events, particularly during summer. There are aid stations on the SBT GRVL courses, and some athletes opt to use 2-3 frame-mounted water bottles only. Others choose to fill 1-3 liter bladders in hydration packs. The tricky part is knowing how long it will take you to ride from one aid station to the next. The distance is known, but the elapsed time depends on your speed, wind direction, heat, and the potential for mechanical problems.
Hydration packs offer a greater margin of safety and security for riders because you can carry more than enough fluid to account for slower-than-expected progress. On the other hand, some riders find it less comfortable to carry a pack on their back or waist. Bottles also offer the opportunity to vary fluid intake between water and sports drink. The choice is yours, but despite the weight penalty it’s wise to err on the side of carrying more fluid than less.
Clothing Choices for SBT GRVL
Big temperature swings are the hallmark of summer in the Rocky Mountains. The mornings are likely to be chilly (40s and 50s F) with afternoon temperatures riding into the 70s and 80s. A passing thunderstorm can also drop the temperature by 20+ degrees in a matter of minutes, and rain showers at higher elevations are invariably cold. The weather changes quickly, so layers are your friends.
Start with the basics, and if it’s hot, stick with the basics: a lightweight jersey, your favorite bibs or baggies, and full-finger summer gloves.
Want a free jersey? CTS is giving away a free special edition 2022 SBT GRVL jersey to anyone who is participating in the 2022 event and commits to wearing the jersey on race day. The special edition jersey is the high-quality, race-fit Giordana Vero Forma jersey which normally retails at $130. All 2022 SBT GRVL athletes are eligible, whether you’re a CTS Athlete or not. The only catch is that we ask you to wear it on race day.
For cool weather and adverse conditions, bring:
- Vest + arm warmers + knee warmers: Not only are they great at the start, but they are small, packable, and may come in handy if temperatures drop in the afternoon.
- Rain jacket – Can replace everything above, and keep you dry if it rains (make sure it’s a rain jacket, not just a wind jacket). A rain jacket is not as adaptable as separate warmers and a vest, but on the other hand it’s one garment to manage instead of multiple.
Pack an “Uh Oh Bag”
It may sound silly to pack winter cycling gear for a race that’s more likely to be hot and sunny, but Rocky Mountain weather is very unpredictable. Most likely, you won’t even open it, but if you need it, you’ll be glad you have it. Include warm gloves, a thermal base layer, long-sleeved jersey and/or winter jacket, thermal skullcap, warm socks, and insulated shoe covers.
The Gear CTS Coaches Use for SBT GRVL
CTS Coaches have ridden and performed well at SBT GRVL over the years. The gear they have used includes:
- Canyon Grail and Endurace bikes
- DT Swiss Wheels
- Shimano Ultegra 8000 Di2, Shimano GRX, and SRAM Red AXS
- Kenda Flintridge Pro 700x40c
- ESI Grips RCT bar tape
- Giordana Scatto Pro jerseys and bib shorts
By Jim Rutberg,
CTS Coach, co-author of “The Time-Crunched Cyclist” and “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”, 10x finisher of the Leadville 100 MTB, and 2-time finisher of Unbound Gravel.