Five Tips For The First-Time Gravel Grinder

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!

This post filed under topics: Gear List Gravel Sean Mailen Skills Ultra Racing Warbird

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Sean 'Mailman' Mailen

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.


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ArkyKenny | April 24th, 2013

Good article.  Better weather is coming…..

I’ve told you before how much I love my Vaya….and I still do…..but it’s heavy.  It’s perfect for me for both on and off road touring. but I just don’t see it as an ideal gravel grinder bike.

I’ve asked before, and now I’m asking again:  Please consider making a Vaya-ish steel, mechanical disc, fairly light, drop bar, gravel road bike.  Just like you have the steel El Mariachi and the aluminum Mamasita to compliment each other, why can’t you do a steel Vaya-lite-ish gravel bike to compliment the aluminum Warbird?  My speck sheet for such a bike calls for a flexy frame that takes the buzz out the gravel roads, a relaxed riding position, and lots of tire/mud clearance.

Or what about making a carbon forked, drop barred El Mariachi variant into just such a bike?  700 x 32 tires?  I’d love to get an engineering perspective on such a bike.

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Kelly Fraser | April 25th, 2013

There is something exciting happening in #MTBiking - a race through the trails of Madagascar! Check out our intro video -

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John Osborne | April 27th, 2013

Salsa has only a handful of dealers in the gravel rich state of Iowa. As one stands at the start line the nationally renowned trans-Iowa 340 mile all gravel event that attracts riders from across the country one realizes there are salsa sponsored riders who are scratching their heads at the fact that the start line is in front of the legendary BIkes to you bike shop owned by the local cycling Icon Craig Cooper. They are scratching their heads because Craig is a gravel nut himself and has a booming business, yet he is mysteriously NOT a salsa dealer. Based on the fact that I had seen him on a fargo in the past makes me wonder why he isn’t a dealer ...but perhaps salsa failed to do their homework and missed the boat on a bike shop that is deeply connected with the Iowa cycling community.. especially gravel endurance events. If I were a bicycle company and I wanted a firm foothold in the Midwest state of Iowa the very first thing I would do is get on my knees at bikes 2 you and beg for Craig to carry my brand.

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Tim Ellsworth | June 19th, 2013

Absolutely agree w post re:Craig Cooper/Bikes 2 You. I personally know of 3 Warbird sales that were lost due to his not being a Salsa dealer. You only have to look at his incredible Ragbrai support to see the quality of his service and enthusiasm. His knowledge and love of gravel is first rate. Though I live more than an hour away, I use him for all my local bike shop options. Plz make him a dealer so I can make my next bike a Warbird. See you in Emporia.

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Trina Ortega | July 2nd, 2013

Thanks for this, Sean. Been exclusively mountain biking for years and years but signed up to do Rebecca Rusch’s 95-mile gravel grinder in the Sawtooths! So this is good reading for me. What is your opinion about disc brakes on these types of bikes?

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Clint Whitehead | September 4th, 2013

Im am new to gravel riding… i just sold my Spearfish so that I can get a nice gravel bike ... I was thinking about the Warbird Ti any thoughts??

Kid Riemer

Kid Riemer | September 5th, 2013

Clint - I think you’d be getting the best bike on the market for that type of riding. Seriously.

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Clint Whitehead | September 5th, 2013

Thanks Kid.. I was really excited about the 2013 just because i liked the Ti look but will have to settle for the painted 2014 version. Im heading to my local store now to get one ordered. Thanks again for the response.


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_____ seo | November 25th, 2013

Hello! I realize this is kind of off-topic however I had to ask.
Does building a well-established blog like yours take a large amount of work?
I’m brand new to blogging however I do write in my diary everyday.
I’d like to start a blog so I can share my experience and
feelings online. Please let me know if you have any kind of recommendations or tips for new aspiring bloggers.
Appreciate it!

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