There’s a whole world of adventure on the other side of that “pavement ends” sign. More cyclists than ever are riding and racing on gravel roads. Registration for 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.
The most important thing to know about gravel racing is that everybody shows up to have a good time. Yes, there’s serious racing at the front of the pack, but plenty of riders are there to pursue personal goals, challenge themselves, ride with old friends and make new ones. So, if you’re wondering if gravel racing is for you, it is.
Our goal is to break the preparation process into smaller, more manageable pieces, with links to additional resources to help you succeed in each area. It’s time to blow past that “pavement ends” sign with a huge smile on your face and discover the world that awaits on the other side.
What is Gravel Racing?
Gravel racing encompasses a wide range of events, but they all have certain things in common. As the name implies, the courses are predominantly gravel roads and trails. Events often feature multiple surfaces, typically using paved roads or single-track trails to connect gravel sections.
Gravel races differ from traditional road races and criteriums in that all riders start together. A mass start means riders are not separated into categories by competitiveness, age, or sex on the start line. Similarly, riders in different competition categories can work together during the race.
There are no standard distances for gravel races. The oldest and most prestigious gravel cycling events are very long. For instance, Unbound Gravel started with a 200-mile event and has since added 100-mile and 350-mile distances. SBT GRVL’s longest route is 140 miles. Most events feature a course length of 100 miles or more, with shorter routes available.
The level of support riders receive on course differs greatly by event. Like gran fondos, charity rides, and endurance mountain bike races, gravel races feature aid stations where riders can stop to replenish food and fluids. However, self-reliance is part of the ethos of gravel racing, so aid stations are often few and far between. In some events, there is no neutral support; racers must bring their own crews.
Why Gravel Bikes and Gravel Racing are so Popular
When you try explaining gravel racing to non-cyclists, they may look at you like you’re crazy. To them, riding 140-200 miles on rough gravel roads through rural Kansas or Colorado sounds like a great way to ruin a bike ride. However, there are several reasons cyclists have fallen in love with riding and racing on gravel:
- Community: The environment at gravel events is more a festival atmosphere than a high-pressure competition. Mass starts foster an “all in this together” mentality compared to races where categories start at different times. And although some at the front of the pack are seriously racing, many riders are there to pursue personal goals, ride with new and old friends, and challenge themselves.
- Safety: Many cyclists prefer riding on gravel roads to reduce exposure to distracted or aggressive drivers in cars and trucks on busier paved roads. By utilizing low-traffic gravel roads in rural areas, gravel race organizers reduce exposure to car traffic. This also makes gravel races easier and less expensive to organize because there’s less need for road closures or police for traffic control.
- Versatility: Gravel bikes are highly adaptable. Athletes can create routes that include pavement, gravel paths, and light single-track in one ride. Many gravel bikes also feature mounts for frame bags and up to 3-4 water bottles. This makes them suitable for bike packing and commuting.
- Comfort: With wider, higher volume tires and frames designed to absorb bumps, gravel bikes can be more comfortable to ride than road racing or cyclocross bikes.
Bicycles for Gravel Racing
In the very beginning, cyclists used touring bikes and cyclocross bikes to race on gravel roads. As the sport grew in popularity, manufacturers created a new category of bicycles designed specifically for gravel riding. These bikes feature more relaxed geometry compared to road racing and cyclocross bikes. This means the wheelbase is longer to provide more stability in rough or loose terrain. Similarly, gravel bikes were made more stable and comfortable through slackened head tube angles and increased fork rake.
Tire clearance is the most recognizable difference between road and gravel bikes. Traditional road racing bikes may accept tires up to 700x28c. Cyclocross bikes typically allow for tires up to about 700×35-38c, although UCI regulations limit tire width to 33mm for competition. Gravel bikes typically feature clearance for tires up to 700×45-50mm. For more information, read our complete gear guide for gravel racing.
Training for Gravel Racing
Training for gravel is unique because there are so many different facets to gravel riding and racing. 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!
Although aerobic endurance is key component for success in long gravel events, your training must also address demands specific to the races you choose. For instance, if you decide on a race like SBT GRVL Black or Unbound Gravel, expect to dedicate long hours in the saddle. You’ll need the endurance, but these long rides are also necessary for getting your body, mind, and equipment ready for an epic day on the bike.
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.
For specific gravel cycling workouts and detailed information on this training for gravel racing, read our Gravel Training Guide.
Cycling Skills for Gravel Racing
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 these conditions.
Racing on rough and unstable surfaces with relatively narrow tires and little to no suspension requires specialized skills. Body position on the bike plays a large role in maintaining traction and staying upright. On steep climbs, you may need to lower your chest toward the handlebar and scoot forward in the saddle to maintain traction. In corners on loose gravel, you’ll need to keep the bike more upright, as opposed to aggressively leaning the bike into the turn.
To go downhill on a gravel bike, you’ll want to start in a “ready position. This means riding with your pedals level (3 and 9 o’clock) with your butt off and over the saddle, knees and elbows bent, your chin above your stem, your hands in the drops, and your eyes forward. This position allows you to keep the bike stable and in a straight line through soft surfaces and harsh bumps.
Better gravel cycling skills save energy, help you go faster, and keep you safe. For more instructions on gravel cycling skills, including braking and how to eat and drink on the move, read our Gravel Cycling Skills Guide.
Gravel Racing Equipment and Gear
Many gravel races are won or lost at least partly due to equipment choices. Your bike, tires, tire pressure, suspension, and gearing are crucial parts of planning for gravel events. As discussed earlier in this article, gravel bikes have some important advantages over using road, cyclocross, or mountain bikes in gravel events.
Tire choices and inflation pressures are hotly debated in the gravel racing community. There is no perfect combination for all riders in all conditions. However, there are guidelines for choosing gravel racing tires and tire pressures.
Gravel races feature limited support and place a high priority on self-sufficiency. As a result, riders must be prepared to carry tools (and know how to use them), water, and food on course. This creates a need for storage, either in a pack or with bags attached to your bike. This article includes a list of tools and spare parts to carry for gravel races.
Read our Gravel Racing Gear Guide for more information, including clothing recommendations for changing weather and gear for drop bags.
Mental Preparation for Gravel Racing
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 during a stressful part of the course. Or you may need strategies to maintain focus when you’re fatigued. Having a plan for what to do when your thoughts go negative can make or break your event. Read more about mental preparation for gravel racing.
Mental training should be integrated into your overall training plan. You may be surprised by the immense difference it can make in the outcome of your goal event.
Nutrition and Hydration for Gravel Racing
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 relatively high intensity. Testing your nutrition and hydration strategy in training is imperative. You must know what works for your body and what doesn’t.
A nutrition strategy based on sound science and 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 it’s also important to know how to prevent or deal with gastric distress.
For great resources on planning your nutrition and hydration strategies for gravel racing, read the following articles:
- Nutrition and Hydration Guide for Gravel Racing and Endurance Mountain Biking
- Nutrition Guide: What to eat to have a successful gravel race
- Cycling Nutrition: What to Eat and Drink During Bike Rides of Any Length
When skinny-ish tires meet chunky gravel, a lot can go wrong. Being prepared for mechanicals (and biomechanicals) provides peace of mind when you toe the start line. Being as prepared as you can be creates space so you have the capacity to handle the unexpected. For instance, 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. Many problems can be managed or avoided with some solid forethought and a little bit of practice beforehand.
Read Overcoming Common Gravel Racing Challenges for detailed strategies on handling adversity from mechanical failures, crashes, weather changes, pacing errors, and more
Gravel 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. After you’ve done the hard work of training, it’s time to figure out how you’re going to utilize your fitness.
Managing the chaos of a mass start and planning how you’ll utilize the aid stations are two big components of gravel racing strategy. 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. To create your race day strategies, here are 7 Performance Tips for Gravel Racing.
By Chris Carmichael and Nina Laughlin
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.