By Sarah Kaufmann — So you want to grind some gravel? Gravel riding is the latest uber popular trend in cycling and for good reason – it opens a whole world of new areas to explore, it gets us away from cars, and off the beaten path, while still ‘road riding.’ Races like the Crusher in the Tushar, Unbound Gravel, and the original Belgian Waffle Ride have been around for a while and their popularity has exploded as this trend has taken off. Competition has gotten stiffer as Olympic and World Tour riders now regularly make appearances at these races.
But if you are gravel curious, where do you start? Whether you are coming from a road riding or MTB background, gravel takes all. It’s where everyone meets in the middle. I chatted with some elite gravel racers to get their input and tips and tricks for gravel riding.
From Lindsey Stevenson, ABUS Pro Gravel Team and a racer I get to coach;
- Even the smoothest gravel beats you up when you are on it for hours and hours. It’s a bit of an acquired taste for some and it takes some getting used to. Riding really rough terrain on a gravel bike has certainly made me love and appreciate the primo gravel roads that I’ve ridden.
- Practice fueling on the gravel. It’s definitely more of a challenge to get in enough calories when you’re on bumpy terrain all day. I have tanked in a few races because I waited too long to eat. I finally figured out a few ways to eat safely while on gravel. I keep unwrapped food in my top tube bag and in the pockets on my bib shorts for easy access. It’s much easier than reaching into the back of my jersey while trying to hold a straight line in loose gravel.
- Take it easy on sharp turns. This one is pretty self-explanatory, but I’ve seen several people wash out because they try to take corners too hot in loose dirt/gravel.
- Keep it fun. Gravel riding is about adventure! There are endless gravel roads to explore… sometimes they’re incredible and sometimes they’re a nightmare. But gravel rides always make for good stories!
From Neil Shirley, former professional road racer and current Marketing Manager at ENVE Composites in Ogden, UT;
- Go big on tires. Now that there are so many good tubeless tire options in a vast range of sizes and tread patterns, we’re definitely spoiled. The gravel conditions should dictate tire size, but never look to tires as the place to save weight or improve aerodynamics. Otherwise you are likely trading comfort, performance, and flat prevention for the sake of a handful of grams. 40c tires are the starting point for me and for Utah gravel I never have a need to go with anything smaller. Tire pressure is also key, which is why I always reference ENVE’s tire pressure chart to find the ideal recommendations based on rim width, tire size, and rider weight: www.enve.com/learn/tire-pressure/
- Spend time in front of paper maps, online maps, or whatever app you might have that can help you truly explore your own backyard. My favorite thing about gravel riding is finding new routes that I stumbled upon when pouring over a map and finding some connector road or trail that allowed an entirely new ride to come together. Don’t just settle for the same stuff you already know, dig deep and you’ll be rewarded.
From Hanna Muegge, DNA Pro Cycling Team
- Use drafting to your advantage. If you are coming from an MTB background, get comfortable sitting in the group and letting other people ride on the front and do the work. Just because you feel good isn’t a reason to attack or pull everyone around. Be patient and be strategic. Form alliances and share the work. It’s a transition from MTB to sit in and be patient but it will pay off in gravel racing. Those coming from a road background are familiar with these ideas but it may be new for MTBers.
- Let it rip on the descents. After years of riding pavement on half an inch of rubber, it’s so confidence inspiring to descend on wider gravel tires. Enjoy the extra rubber and open it up on the descents.
I enjoyed compiling this list from these elite riders. As an experienced MTB racer but newer to gravel, getting to pick the brains of these riders gives me some tools for my toolbox as I get ready to do my first gravel races this summer.
Sarah Kaufmann is the owner of K Cycling Coaching. She is an elite level XC and CX racer for DNA Pro Cycling Team. She is based in Salt Lake City, UT and can be reached at [email protected] or 413.522.3180.