Gravel, a word that’s becoming increasingly popular among cyclists worldwide. A new discipline that is taking the world by storm. A pursuit that intrigues and excites, as the possibilities are endless.
In a South African context we are so spoiled with the abundance of gravel roads that meander through the country. Whether you’re an endurance maniac or a weekend leisure seeker, there’s a road for you out there. Follow these steps to make your gravel experience all that it’s chalked up to be…
Training for gravel is unique because there are so many different facets to gravel riding and racing. Gravel events may vary in length from 40km to something like the Munga which is 1000km. You may encounter 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 tar 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. For instance, if you decide on a race the Maloti 100, expect to ride terrain that is often more suitable for a MTB and then there are events like Race 2 the Sun which is just perfect for a Gravel Bike.
Gravel Bike Handling 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. The terrain can range from sharp rocks to chunky and loose gravel, 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.
Gravel 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 do this as well), 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.
Gravel Event 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.
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.
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 the crises can be managed or avoided with some solid forethought and a little bit of practice beforehand.
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. 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 water/seconding 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.