Gravel Racing: The Nitty Gritty

Gravel Racing: Equipped with the bare essentials for a self-supported competitive event on minimally serviced gravel and dirt roads. Ideal bicycles are designed around randonee, brevet, cyclocross, or gravel racing geometries and specifications. Races can range from 50 to 300 miles.

Before you send in that first postcard and get psyched for 100 or more miles of gravel racing, there are a few crucial things to consider. Proper nutrition, savvy tire choice, and choosing the right bike can make the difference between comfortably crossing the finish line and getting picked up at the halfway point.

Rubber Side Dirty - Gravel Bike Tires

“What is the perfect gravel tire?” Now that is somewhat of a loaded question—one that everyone has varying opinions on based on their personal experiences and preferences, as well as where they ride. A tire that’s perfect for dealing with the sharp, jagged flint rocks encountered during the Dirty Kanza, for example, will probably have too much rolling resistance for the mix of pavement and gravel found at the Crusher in the Tushar. There is one thing that every gravel racer can agree upon when it comes to tires, however: Puncture protection is key. No matter what kind of gravel you’re riding on, your chances of puncturing are greatly increased compared to riding on pavement.

The type of tread you use is really only the beginning when it comes to tires. Deciding between a tubular, a traditional clincher, or a tubeless compatible tire is another situation-dependent call. Each one has its own set of advantages and drawbacks. Tubulars are great in that they’re light and eliminate the worry of pinch flatting at low tire pressures. But what happens in the event that you do end up flatting? Gluing a new tire—if you have a spare with you—on the side of gravel road generally isn’t an ideal circumstance to find yourself in. Traditional clinchers offer the benefit of having the most tire options available but limit how low your tire pressure can be before you risk pinch flatting. Many gravel racers have begun to gravitate towards tubeless compatible tires. Tubeless is a great option because it completely eliminates the possibility of pinch flats at low pressures, which are important for riding gravel. The drawback of tubeless tires is that there are fewer options available; you’ll also need an upgraded rim if your current wheelset is not tubeless ready.

Not Your Grandpa’s Gravel Bike

As gravel continues to grow in popularity, so do the number of gravel-specific bikes. While these bikes aren’t crucial to complete a gravel race, they do make things a little easier and a lot more comfortable. With a geometry that is somewhere between that of a cyclocross bike and a touring orrandonneuring bike, gravel bikes are built to be ridden comfortably for hours at a time. Typically, they have a slightly longer wheelbase and lower bottom bracket height than cyclocross bikes—drastically different than what your grandpa rode back in the day. Other features, borrowed from the touring and randonneuring side of things, include fender mounts, wider tire clearance, and extra water bottle mounts, all of which make these bikes the perfect steeds for an entire day on dirt roads. Disc brakes allow for a little extra confidence on the multiple steep descents that many gravel races feature.

Eat Your Heart Out

Nutrition is one of the most important and most difficult things to prepare for. Since many events are self-supported, it’s up to you to make sure you have the proper amount of food to avoid bonking at the midway point of the race. Luckily, there are many viable nutrition options available as well as resources to make your own ahead of time. Pre-made snacks like Epic bars, Clif Organic Energy Food, and Kind bars are just a few of the options that offer endurance athletes an alternative to gels and chews. While gels and chews are great options for shorter rides, nothing compares to real food when you’re in the saddle for six to 16 hours.

An alternative to pre-made snacks that some riders choose is to simply make their own on-the-bike food. Cookbooks like The Feed Zone (MA3415) and Skratch Labs Portables (MA3417) make cooking delicious, portable foods easy. Using whole foods helps your body be properly fueled so you can make it to the finish line. Generally, you can estimate that you’ll need 200 to 300 calories per hour during gravel races. If you happen to miscalculate how much food to bring and need a quick pick-me-up, you can usually find a gas station along the route to save the day. With any luck, a quick stop will fill your jersey pockets—and your stomach—with oat bars, peanut butter cups, and the tried-and-true secret weapon: the banana. While there are more things to consider when preparing for you first gravel race, tires, type of bike, and nutrition are the three most crucial to get dialed in.

Catch The Gravel Fever

As gravel racing continues to grow in popularity, more races pop up every year. Several events have helped pave the way (pun intended) for newer events. These established events have been running for several years—more than a decade in some cases—and have only been growing in size and popularity. They attract both seasoned veterans as well as gravel racing newbies looking to see what all the hype is about.

The following events should be on every gravel racer’s bucket list. They test riders’ limits and are filled with challenges not often encountered in other disciplines of cycling. While you may have missed your chance to sign up for some of these this year, it’s never too early to start planning your 2016 gravel season!

Land Run 100
March 14, 2015 / Stillwater, OK
100 miles / $45

Barry Roubaix
March 28, 2015 / Hastings, MI
24, 36, or 62 miles / $55

Trans Iowa v11
April 25–26, 2015 / Grinnell, IA
320+ miles / Free

May 16, 2015 / Spring Valley, MN
100, 162, or 400 miles / Free

Dirty Kanza
May 30, 2015 / Emporia, KS
50, 100, or 200 miles / $110

Crusher in the Tushar
July 11, 2015 / Beaver, UT
70 miles / $145

To find a race in your area, check out

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