By Chris Carmichael,
CTS Founder and Chief Endurance Officer
Whether you are planning on racing SBT GRVL or preparing for another gravel event, here are some tips from my gravel racing experiences at SBT, Unbound Gravel, and others:
Eat your breakfast
Take the time to figure out what kind of pre-race breakfast works for you. There’s no perfect formula, but I think one of the keys is to avoid overeating. Even though the day is going to be long and you’ll burn a ton of calories, stuffing yourself with a huge breakfast isn’t going to give you the energy to make it through the day. That comes from the glycogen in your muscles, the fat you’re carrying around, and the food you eat during the race.
Keep breakfast to a moderate size. Personally, rice and eggs works well for me, with some toast and coffee. I prefer to start events on the borderline of feeling hungry. That way I can start eating right away on the bike without overloading my system. If you have food in your pockets and feed stations, you can easily consume more calories if you underestimate your needs. But if you overestimate and end up bouncing down the road with a full stomach, there’s not much you can do but feel nauseated and wait until it digests.
It’s tempting to roll slowly off the start line of a long gravel event that’s going to take 8+ hours, but it pays to go out hard – at least for a little while. With the pros leading the way, gravel race starts are fast. You want to use the speed of those groups to put some good miles behind you and stay with people you can work with later. If you start too conservatively, you’re likely to be the strongest rider in the groups you’re with, meaning the other riders aren’t much help.
… But keep your ego in check
As the front groups start to split up, it’s important to avoid burning too many matches trying to ride above your level. It’s going to be a long day, and digging too deep too early will come back to haunt you several hours later. As an old bike racer, my instinct is still to do whatever is necessary to stay on the wheel, but a number of times during gravel races I’ve had to consciously decide to let the wheel go. It’s a balancing act; going out hard enough to get into good groups, but then knowing when to back off to conserve strength for later.
Top up at feed stations
If your finishing time is important to you, don’t spend a lot of time in feed stations, because you’re just giving back time you earned on the way there. To keep my stops short, I fill and drink a bottle of plain water, and then fill one bottle with sports drink and one with water, grab food like gels and ProBar Bolts, and leave. I eat on the bike while rolling rather than standing around eating at the feed station, but I drink a full bottle because it’s kind of a way to leave the feed station with three bottles (one in my gut and two on the bike).
Separate hydration from energy
The speeds in gravel racing are sometimes relatively slow because of the loose surface. The climbs can get very hot. By separating hydration (water and electrolyte drinks) from energy (gels, chews, other foods) you can adjust your fluid intake based on intensity and temperature without overloading your gut with calories. This dramatically reduces the chances for gastric distress during long endurance races.
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The variable road surface in gravel racing demands your constant attention, and there will be some sliding and drifting going on. The more tense you are, the more the gravel will beat you up, and the more likely you are to overcorrect for a slight drift or bobble and make it worse. Let the bike find the line, stay nimble in the saddle, and keep your upper body loose and relaxed.
The handling skills for gravel take practice, even if you’ve been riding the road or mountain bike for decades. The more experienced you are on road or trail, the faster you’ll pick up the skills for gravel, but you still need practice. This is particularly true for SBT GRVL, because of the longer descents. You pick up more speed than you do in the shorter, rolling hills of Kansas or other gravel events.
Do your homework
Long gravel races are not something you want to just sign up and show up for. Each race has different logistics to consider, and there’s less standardization in the gravel racing community compared to road, track, and cross-country mountain bike racing. Races have slightly different rules, different philosophies on feed stations and mechanical assistance, and of course, different terrain.
For SBT Gravel, CTS organizes a recon camp in Steamboat the week of the event. We ride parts of the courses, learn as much as we can about the race, practice skills on the terrain we are going to race on, and talk strategy. These camps include an entry to the race, too. Although the 2023 camp is sold out, here’s information on the 2023 SBT GRVL camp so you can plan ahead for 2024.
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