The Scoop on Getting Ready for Gravel Races
By: Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach and 2x Dirty Kanza 200 finisher
The growth of gravel and mixed terrain events has opened up a whole new avenue for fun and adventure for cyclists. If you are getting ready for a long day on dirt roads, here are some tips for having fun and finishing strong.
The general rule of thumb with extremely long events lasting 12-24 hours is to start easy. Everyone in the event will gradually slow down as the hours go by, and the riders who perform the best are often the ones who slow the least. Burning a lot of matches in the first 2 hours can come back to haunt you for the final 6 hours.
If you know your lactate threshold power or FTP, you want to stay below that power output. This is why raising threshold power is huge priority when training for gravel and ultra-endurance events; raising threshold power increases the power and pace you can sustain all day below threshold. It can help to reduce the number and cost of your efforts above threshold, too.
If you are competing in a gravel race like the Dirty Kanza 200 there is an important exception to the advice above. In this case it's worth the effort to stick with a larger, faster-moving pack for the first hour or so. You don't want to crush yourself, but you want to use the collective strength of the group and riders who are faster than you to cover miles more quickly and leave slower traffic behind. The other benefit to this strategy is that even after you settle into your own pace or a smaller group, you'll be with athletes who can continue helping you. If you start too conservatively you'll end being the strongest of the riders around you, and that means you can help them but there's not as much they can do to help you.
Drafting vs. Best Line
On smooth pavement it is crucial to find and stay in the best drafting position possible. On gravel you have to weigh the benefits of drafting versus riding a smoother line. At Dirty Kanza, for example, there is typically a relatively smooth but narrow line or lines packed down by truck tires. Riding in this track saves a lot of energy and significantly reduces the risk of flat tires, but it often means making a choice between a smoother line in the wind or a rougher ride in the draft. Take a draft when you can get it – and give a draft when you can, but prioritize the best line over the draft. Riding a rougher, slower line to stay in the draft will increase your workload, which eats into the benefit of being in the draft in the first place, and increases your risk for flat tires.
Fueling and Hydration
Gravel events have varying degrees of support and adventure is in the DNA of the sport, so events typically slant more toward self-reliance. As a result, aid stations may be few and far between. You will also cover distance more slowly (often 3-5 mph slower) than during a paved road event, so plan accordingly in terms of how much fluid you'll need to carry. The most flexible way to handle this is to separate your calories from your hydration: food in your pocket and hydration in your bottle/pack. This strategy enables you to adjust your hourly calorie and fluid intakes independently, for instance increasing fluid intake in response to higher temperatures without overloading your gut with calories.
If you do end up with a sour stomach, frequently the cause is related to reduced blood flow to the gut, which slows or halts gut motility. This can result from increased core and skin temperatures because your body shunts blood to the skin to aid in cooling and sweat production (the sweat on your skin was recently the fluid component of blood plasma). To get your gut moving again, follow these steps: slow down, cool down, sip plain water. Slowing down reduces workload, and therefore heat production and the muscles' demand for oxygenated blood. Cooling off by dousing yourself with water and shedding or soaking clothing layers reduces core and skin temperature. Together these steps can enable blood flow to increase to the gut so you can get it moving. It may take some time (30+ minutes), but be patient and keep working the problem.
Keep Moving and Stay Positive
If you are coming to gravel events from shorter road or XC mountain bike events, understand that it is common in long endurance events – even expected - that you will experience a rough patch that makes you want to quit or makes finishing seem impossible. The key is to keep moving forward, even very slowly, and continue working through it. Identify the issue, assess what you can realistically do about it, make decisions, and take action. Focus on the next step, not what has to happen three hours or 50 miles in the future. And keep that narrative in your head positive. Get frustrated, yell into the wind, get it out of your system, and then focus on the positive. There is a very good chance you'll ride yourself out of the rough patch and feel good again. As CTS Athlete and Dirty Kanza 200 Champion Rebecca Rusch told me once, "There will be times when you feel great and times when you feel terrible, and it's important to remember that neither will last very long."
Jim Rutberg is a Pro Coach with CTS and the co-author of 8 books on training and sports nutrition, including “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”. He is also a 10-time finisher of the Leadville 100 and 2-time finisher of the Dirty Kanza 200 gravel race.
For specific questions about riding the gravel section of RTR, you can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Curious about the world of gravel? Our own gravel enthusiast and Chief Design Engineer, BJ Bass, provides a beginner's guide to gravel riding.