It has been a long time since I raced gravel (Trans Iowa, Almanzo, Dirty Kanza, etc) but last weekend I had the opportunity to race gravel again – the Dirty Lemming gravel race. This wonderful experience was exactly how I remembered gravel grinding. I love it so much that I would like to share a few tips with those who might consider getting into gravel riding/ racing but might wonder how it is different from road or just look for a few pointers to take the step onto the dirt side.
Here my 10 tips for the gravel grinders:
- Your energy expenditure is way higher than road cycling. You have to work for every pedal stroke. With rough or sandy terrain you go through your glycogen storage in no time. If you love food (like me) this is great news, because you have to eat AND drink a lot more on a gravel ride. But it is easy to forget because the attention is on taken the right line. So, make sure to constantly check in with yourself if you are short on energy.
- Everything takes a lot longer. It might be “only” a 100km ride but this is not like 100km on the road. It will take a lot longer and you never know what type of gravel expects you. If there are stretches of deeper gravel, that could all of a sudden increase your lengths of riding. Rather have too much food and drinks with you because…
- …there are often not many resupply options around. Gravel roads means roads less travelled which means there is not a lot of habitation around. I remember crossing the Canadian province of Manitoba and there were very long stretches without anything. And even what looked like a “town” on google maps was compromised of a farm and a 10 cows. Moooh! …ok, this might not be a tip, but rather a point of awareness.
- Although preparation is key and taking a good amount of supplies with you is a good thing, it is literally impossible to be prepared for everything so I would advise against taking your entire workshop with you. I am a minimalist and might even take too little stuff with me but instead of worrying of all the worst-case scenarios I pack for the probable-high chance cases (like flat tires).
- Gravel is rough on you and your bike. Constant bouncing can lead to a lot more chafing than road cycling. So, be aware of if something starts nagging you and try to fix it early on because after 6 hours of gravel grinding, this could become a serious issue. (And yes, as much as I hate stopping I always ask myself if this rubbing or certain pain could potentially inhibit me from finishing or cause long-term damage. If so, I know I have to stop to fix it).
- You are exposed! Especially in the Midwest. With so many beautiful cornfields to ride around ;), there are no trees for shadow or shelter from wind. Being aware that this is just part of the challenge is very important. There are often stretches of HOURS heading into the same direction (oh hey, the Day Across Minnesota!) if you have headwind during that time, make it your friend instead of fighting it. I always tell myself how many more cinnamon rolls or BBQ chicken pizza slices I could eat because I am using so much more energy in the headwind. (And an hour is spent thinking of where I am getting that pizza from! Yummy!)
- Be in good company. I am a very social person and kinda famous for talking for 8 hours straight if necessary. The time flies when you are in good company with the focus on “good” – meaning there are no Debby downers or other mental or physical energy suckers in your group. If I find myself around them, I prefer riding alone. So make sure, you surround yourself with the right people. (PRO tip: If you want to keep the people around you, have a few cold pizza slices in your pocket and hint to your fellow riders that you are willing to share them with you in a few hundred miles. It works! They will stay with you!)
- Gravel cycling for me means camaraderie. Yes, competition is good but I see all fellow cyclists as companions and teammates because often the sheer distance, weather and the terrain are competition enough. So, go out and make friends. 🙂
- Gravel cycling means adventure. Five years ago, in the good ol’ times when there were no gravel bikes yet and we had to ride cross or MTB bikes on gravel (imagine that!) we got just cue sheets handed and had to navigate to the finish. And if the race was 300 mi (aka Trans Iowa) well, then you have a big stack of paper with you which you guard sacredly as this is the only way back out of the maze of cornfields. So, check out the entire spectrum of what gravel racing has to offer – from the big to the small, grass-root races.
- Say thanks to the volunteers and to the race director, especially if he hosts the post-race party in his backyard. (Like in Dirty Lemming). How awesome is that! I think that’s the true community spirit and why I love gravel racing so much!
I hope these tips have helped you. Give gravel racing a go. It is such a great way to ride a bike!
I will be racing the Day Across Minnesota next week, 240 mi …well…. across Minnesota. 🙂 I hope I find a few new friends who love sharing stories. I will try to include updates on my Instagram before and during, so make sure to follow: www.instagram.com/rad_monika
If you have any gravelly question, you can always comment below or shoot me an email!
With a lot of RAD love,
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