gravel race

How to Create Your Best Gravel Race Performance This Season

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By Nina Laughlin,
CTS Expert Coach, 2019 Land Run 100 Champion & 5th place SBT GRVL

There are 2 types of cyclists in the world: those who become giddy at the sight of a “Pavement Ends” sign, and those who curse and turn around. Whichever you camp you fall into now, I believe gravel riding can appeal to everyone, and I would encourage you to forge ahead when the asphalt ends and see what kind of fun awaits when the rubber meets the rock.

Whether you are trying to finish or beat your time in an epic event like SBT GRVL, or you just want to test the waters by hopping into a local event, gravel racing may seem intimidating at first. Registration for many of the more popular gravel events sells out in minutes, so committing to show up at the start line can often take 10-12 months of planning. The training, equipment, and preparation for gravel can be very different from what you may be used to if you come from a road or mountain bike background, or if you are new to cycling altogether.

In this 8-article series covering all things gravel in the leadup to SBT GRVL, my aim is to eliminate the intimidation factor for novices and upgrade experienced gravel grinders to Jedi status. My goal over the next 8 months is to walk you through a step-by-step plan that ensures your next gravel event is your best one ever.

Here is a synopsis of the topics we will be discussing over the coming months:

Training

Training for gravel is unique because there are so many different facets to gravel riding and racing. Gravel events may vary in length from 30 to 300+ miles. You may encounter high altitude, extreme heat or cold, long climbs and descents, or courses that are more rolling or flat. Some gravel races may have gravel that is almost smoother than pavement and could be raced on road bikes, and other races may be so gnarly that you may even consider riding a mountain bike!

The events you choose and the accessibility and terrain of the gravel roads and paths where you live will be major factors in your training. We’ll talk about choosing events and the training needed to prepare for them. For instance, if you decide on a race like SBT GRVL Black or Dirty Kanza, expect to dedicate long hours in the saddle getting your body, mind, and equipment ready for an epic day on the bike. If you choose a shorter event like Rasputitsa or Hilly Billy Roubaix, you may expect to focus more on intensity and bike handling skills rather than volume in your training. More recently, gravel stage races like Rebecca’s Private Idaho and Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder have started to become more popular. If you decide to target one of those, you will have to focus on a good mix of intensity and volume to get your body ready for back-to-back days.

Skills

While good bike handling skills are beneficial for every type of cyclist, having confidence in your skills is imperative for being fast and safe while riding and racing on gravel. Terrain can range from razor sharp rocks in the Flint Hills of Kansas to chunky and loose gravel in the Appalachian Mountains, and everything in between. You may encounter mountain bike trails, mud, sand, hard-packed dirt, or likely a mix of all of these conditions. Practicing your bike handling skills on different types of terrain is crucial to success in whatever gravel event you choose, and it can be a decider between two otherwise well-matched competitors if the terrain is technical enough. We’ll talk about specific skills you need to master and how to practice them. These skills are often overlooked by many cyclists preparing for gravel races, and if you dedicate time to hone your craft in different types of terrain, you will definitely have a leg up on the competition.

Equipment Choice

Many gravel races are won or lost at least partly due to equipment choice. Your bike, tires, tire pressure, suspension, gearing, and more are crucial parts of planning for gravel events. The process of selecting your bike and tires, to deciding if you want to add aero bars to your bike (yes, we are going to go there), can all seem a bit overwhelming. The course and weather are huge considerations that will help you look at equipment choice objectively, and certain events may have rules that influence your equipment choice as well. My main objective will be to help eliminate analysis paralysis when choosing your equipment and also to teach you how to make the equipment that you have work best for you in different types of courses and conditions.

Mental Preparation

After the dust settles from the chaos of a mass start, the people who are the most successful in gravel events tend to be the ones who can stay motivated to keep pushing on without anyone in sight to chase. Regardless of how long your event may be, you will need to have a plan for what you are going to do when those “why am I doing this?” thoughts start to arise. Techniques like mindfulness and visualization can be as beneficial as on-bike training (if not more) in ensuring your success in gravel racing. Whether you need to calm your nerves at the start line or help yourself get through a part of the course that you are particularly nervous about, having a plan for what you are going to do when your thoughts go negative can be what makes or breaks your event. I absolutely advocate building mental training into your overall training plan, and you may be surprised by the immense difference it can make in the outcome of your goal event.

Nutrition 

A lot of gravel events trend toward very long days on the bike. Most people aren’t used to riding their bikes for 8+ hours at a time, especially at a high intensity, so testing your nutrition and hydration strategy in training is imperative so you know what works for your body and what doesn’t. A nutrition strategy that is based on sound science and that has been tested in training is an important building block for your confidence. Of course, there are many ways that a solid nutrition plan may falter after many hours on the bike, so we’ll also provide tips for preventing and dealing with gastric distress so you can keep moving forward. My aim is to give you tips backed by science and experience in the field in the hope you can test and develop your own game plan for events of any length.

Crisis Management

When skinny-ish tires meet chunky gravel, there is a lot that can potentially go wrong. Being prepared for any mechanicals (and biomechanicals) that may happen will give you peace of mind when you toe the start line at your next event. Being as prepared as you can be creates space to you have the capacity to handle the unexpected. Flat tires, broken chains and derailleurs, and cut sidewalls can be a major downer if you have no way of fixing them. In addition, knowing what to do when you hit the wall physically or mentally, or encounter a sharp change in the weather, can make or break your race. Even though this may sound intimidating, most of crises can be managed or avoided with some solid forethought and a little bit of practice beforehand.

Race Strategy

As events get longer, it becomes even more important to have a plan for how you want to reach your race goals. It may sound daunting, but there are tools that can help you come up with a few key things to focus on throughout your race to ensure success. This topic will be covered in the weeks leading up to the SBT GRVL event, when you’ve done the hard work of training and it’s time to figure out how you’re going to apply your fitness and strengths for success during your race. We’ll talk about analyzing course information, gathering insider and local knowledge, coming up with a game plan for clothing choices and planning how you’ll utilize the aid stations. At the end of the day, gravel racing is about having fun and pushing yourself, and having a solid race strategy should help you accomplish just that.

After reading all of this, you may be feeling a little overwhelmed. Have no fear, you have eight months to learn and practice and train. Yes, there are a lot of different considerations when it comes to gravel racing, but remember that the most important part is that everybody shows up to have a good time. No matter your fitness or experience level, you will at have a fun time and learn some things to make your next gravel adventure even better. My goal with all of these upcoming articles is for you to be able to break your preparation into smaller, more manageable pieces, with clear guidance for how to succeed in each different area. If you have any questions related to any of these topics, let me know in the comments and I will try my best to address them in a future article. But first, go out and blow past that “pavement ends” sign with a huge smile on your face and discover the world that awaits on the other side of the asphalt.

Nina Laughlin is a CTS Expert Coach with an extensive history in road, mountain, and gravel racing. Following two years away from competition, she returned to win the 2019 Land Run 100 and place 5th in the 2019 SBT GRVL race. Nina lives and coaches in Brevard, North Carolina. For information on coaching and camps, visit trainright.com.


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Comments 11

  1. Nina, my thanks to you and CTS for this series of articles and the training plans. The first SBT gravel was a class event and will be even better this year with the help you’re providing. The TrainingPeaks calendar says it’s 30 weeks off and I’m looking forward to this more than anything else I’ve done in years!

    1. Hi John, I’m so happy to hear that! I will see you in Steamboat, and I hope these articles can help you have an even more enjoyable race this year.

  2. Looking forward to the articles Nina – I’m signed for DK200 lottery and I’m in for SBT GRVL 144 this year so great timing for me. I’ve finished DK200 4 times, but the challenge I face in preparation for each year is the skills for the rougher B roads in DK200 as we just don’t have anything similar in South East Ohio and the closest gravel is about a 2 hour drive. Your thoughts on how to build handling skills in this situation would be helpful.

    1. Hi Steve, thanks for the feedback. I will see you at SBT! I will be giving some tips on how to best practice and simulate different types of gravel roads when you don’t have them in your area, so hopefully it will help you.

    2. How did you get into DK200 4 times!?! 🙂 I hope to get into it once, although I’ve yet to enter the lottery… I’ll be doing that race, hopefully, in 2020.

      This year is The Rift in Iceland, Crusher in the Tushar, and some MTB races to hopefully qualify for Leadville in 2020. I’m looking forward to this series from Nina!

  3. Thank you for the insight into the gravel world. Looking forward to your series of upcoming articles. And congrats on your return to the racing circuit.

  4. Nina, I look forward to future articles. I’ve spent very little time on my gravel bike, but as its gaining in popularity and year round events in Florida, I am going to spend more time off pavement. I’m sure you will address this down the road, but tire pressure is something that I struggle with even on the road bike. Most of the guidelines seem to be better suited for “average” sized riders, which I am am not. For example, if I run 85-90 psi in my road tires, a common recommendation, I pinch flat a lot. I am all over the place for psi for my gravel bike.

    1. Hi Dave! I will be talking about tire choice and tire pressure quite a bit in my equipment article, because it is so so important for ride quality and even 5-10 psi makes a huge difference in how your bike can corner and soak up bumps and obstacles. I’ll make sure to give some guidelines for riders of all sizes as well.

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