Introduction- How to Prepare For Your First Gravel Race
Guest contribution by John Swanstrom, The Masters Cycling Channel
I finished my first gravel race a few days ago, The Rock Cobbler, in Bakersfield, California. It was a kooky, super hard day with 81 miles (130 km) ridden and over 8,000 ft (2,438 m) of climbing. We rode through someone’s house, hiked up steep muddy climbs, and got hazed by drunk people at a bar. I’ll tell you straight up; it was way more fun because I was prepared.
Here are some tips that will hopefully make your first gravel bike race a good one:
Tips to Prepare for your First Gravel Race
1. Plan well in advance.
Planning is important for several reasons. Gravel racing is a shiny new object, and a lot of gravel events sell out well in advance. So do a Google search like “gravel events in your geographic area” and sign up as soon as you can.
2. Get familiar with the terrain and prepare for the distance.
Before your first gravel bike race, it’s important to know the terrain you’ll be racing on and the distance you’ll be riding. Find out about the type of gravel, hills, and any other obstacles you may encounter. This information will be posted on the event website. You’ll not only be able to find the basic statistics, but you’ll also be able to see the course map.
For example, the RockCobbler website explains that the Cobbler course is roughly 80 miles long, with 5,500 – 6,500 feet (1,676-1,981 m) of elevation gain. The Pebbler course is about half of that length. It also emphasizes that participants will cross a river, encounter lots of short steep climbs, and do a lot of pedaling!
After I read that description, I figured I would need to plan on riding for at least 7 hours, and I would need to practice climbing really steep hills.
3. Come with the right equipment.
Having the right equipment and having it in good condition is another key to a successful day in a gravel race. Again, I would refer to the event site for clues and what bike setup they suggest.
The RockCobbler site suggested that both routes were designed to be tackled with a gravel/ cross bike fitted with FINE IRC tires. As for the tire width and tread, it would be up to each participant’s discretion. Furthermore, mountain bikes are ok for this route, whereas road bikes would be ill-equipped to handle the challenge.
My take on this was wide tires on my gravel bike running low air pressure. And some super high gearing to get up those steep hills. In hindsight, my hardtail mountain bike would’ve also been a good choice.
4. Make sure your bike is in good condition and ready for the race.
Check your brakes and tires. If you’re running tubeless, ensure your sealant hasn’t dried out. Check any other parts that may need adjustment or replacement. If you feel comfortable, you can do this yourself. If not, take your bike to your local bike shop for adjustments.
You should also carry an extra tube and the tools needed to fix a flat.
5. Dress appropriately for the weather conditions.
Check the weather the day before and wear the appropriate clothing. You’re better off being a little cold early than carrying extra clothes all day after the temperature warms up.
6. Eating and drinking.
A super common rookie error is blowing through the first few aid stations because you feel great. Only to run out of fuel at mile 60 because you’re dehydrated and underfueled. Staying hydrated and fueled up is crucial for any endurance ride. As a general rule of thumb, you want to drink at least a large bottle of water and eat one bar every hour. Gravel races have rest stops for a reason, so make sure you use them.
7. Set a pace so you can maintain the entire distance.
Another rookie mistake is to go out too fast. How do I know this? I’ve done it myself. I mean, it’s a race, right? The trick is to determine a pace that’s comfortable for you and that you can maintain throughout the race. Always err on the side of going out too slow. You can always turn on the gas at the end of the race if you’ve still got the power.
8. Know the rules.
Every event will have a set of rules which is always helpful. This includes safety requirements and passing protocols. Make sure you pay attention and understand them.
9. Stay focused
Stay focused during the race, focus on your goals, and keep a positive attitude. And most importantly, enjoy the experience and have fun!
Images: John Swanstrom and Unsplash/ Markus Spiske
John Swanstrom is an experienced Mountain Bike Racer from Oak Park, CA, and the creator of The Masters Cycling Channel. He enjoys riding on the roads and trails in the Santa Monica Mountains.