For many of you, this may be the year you decide to try out a gravel race or ride. They are a great way to get out and see an area you may never ride, or terrain you typically don’t experience. Plus, most are still free! Whether you’re a first-timer or a veteran, I have a handful of tips that may help you out this year.
Mailman and Eki are smiling because they don't know what's coming…but they're ready for it…
Be prepared for varying road conditions
Gravel races usually offer up the “most adventurous” roads of your area. These can be forest roads, Iowa B-roads, Minnesota minimum maintenance roads, old wagon trails in Kansas, or some crazy abandoned jeep road. Don’t let this intimidate you if it’s something you don’t typically ride. Most of these roads lead you to something pretty cool, like an old farmstead, bridge, a beautiful hidden valley or grand vista. The gravel promoters aren’t completely evil, they just want to show you areas you typically wouldn’t explore. So the best thing to know is that these roads are coming, conditions probably might be tough, but you’ll be fine. You might have to suffer through it a bit but it will be worth it. Even if you are physically prepared, you may face a mental battle slogging through a tough section of the course. Even if it doesn’t lead you somewhere cool, at least it’s something you shared with the other riders out there and will probably make for an interesting story.
Bring a variety of clothing
The current offering of gravel grinders around the nation continues to grow, and many of them take place in the spring or fall. At this time of year, temperature swings and storms can come up quickly. You’ll want to be prepared for the weather on your ride, so I recommend dressing in such a way that allows you to easily adapt to the ever-changing conditions. For me this usually means starting my layering with a wool undershirt, bib shorts and knee warmers. Instead of a long-sleeved jersey I usually try to do a warm short-sleeved jersey and arm warmers. Finally, I always carry a thin nylon windbreaker shell and lightweight wind vest. I find these two options give me a large temperature range in which I can be comfortable. If it does rain, I can never really stay dry, but I can stay warm. This lightweight selection of clothing allows me to stay warm and adapt to the conditions, plus they don’t take up much space if I’m not wearing them.
I'm not gonna trust that they know where we're going…and if they're smart, they won't necessarily trust that I know either!
Navigating during a gravel event is another thing that I believe intimidates people. It’s really not that hard once you understand the system the organizers use and know how to mount the cue sheets on your bike. There are lots of ways organizers have found to write cue sheets, but one of the best is the “TULIP system” (as seen here). However the information is presented, you’ll want to be sure you understand it before you hit the course. You also need a good way to hold the cue sheets and there are a variety of methods for that. Here is one option from Banjo Brothers. But watch for a blog next week from our friend Joe Meiser on a DIY one that has proven to work well for him. On the cue sheets you’ll notice turns and directions organized by mileage, meaning you’ll need a good, accurate computer or GPS to tell you where you are and how far you have to go until the next turn. Finally, don’t rely on others to know where to go. Instead do your own calculations and route keeping. I’ve seen race leads won or lost because the group mentality kicked in and the blind were leading the blind. I’ve also stood in the middle of nowhere in Iowa at 3AM trying to figure out if we should take a left or keep going straight. When you are tired and hungry the last thing you want to do is get lost.
Use a frame bag or Tangle Bag
Keep the weight off your back! Having weight on your back when you’re 80 miles into a gravel grinder trying to keep up with the group on a climb just stinks. Your sore back will constantly remind you it’s there. I highly recommend getting a Revelate Designs Tangle Bag and/or Gas Tank to carry the extra water, nutrition, clothing, and gear you’ll need for the ride. Being able to easily carry and grab food on a rough gravel road or having that extra jacket or wool hat carried in your frame bag can be a lifesaver. Remember that gravel events will take you longer than you riding the same distance on paved roads so you’ll want to be able to carry more food and water. The more remote and longer the event (think Dirty Kanza 200), the more important it becomes to have enough food and water to see you through large stretches with no available support. Plus, once you go to frame bags like these you’ll soon realize you never want to go back to overstuffed jersey pockets.
Finally, don’t stare at the gravel! Look around!
Believe it or not, there are many types of gravel roads. Veterans will know what I mean, and you first-timers will soon discover this. There are old worn roads, super-smooth hard-packed roads, freshly “graveled” sketchy roads, gravel roads that are barely roads, ones that feel like bricks were thrown into the middle of them, and the freshly graded type. Because of this, and the nature of riding in groups, you’ll often find yourself looking down for the best lines and making sure you are holding your line. After awhile you may realize you’ve just been staring at the road for the last 20 miles. Sometimes this is all you can do to stay safe, but when you can, look around and notice what’s around you. You’ll see some pretty cool stuff out there and I guarantee the organizer worked hard to provide you with some cool views. Enjoy the ride!
Every gravel grinder won't end with a finish chute of high fives so take 'em when you can get 'em!
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Sean 'Mailman' Mailen
I was born and raised in the hills of Tennessee. I decided in high school I wanted to design the best bikes and parts possible; I’ve been following my dream ever since. I love about every possible mode of cycling, mountain biking is the most fun, but if I’m on two wheels I’m happy.