Ten years ago, “gravel grinding” was a quirky offshoot of the sport: type II Midwestern fun, but not something most riders took very seriously.
Today, this once dirty drop bar niche has gone fully mainstream and has emerged as a new breed of distinctively American road racing, where the unbeaten path always beckons, the right balance of rugged individualism and teamwork is rewarded, and law and order meets controlled chaos just far enough left of center to be a rollicking good time for everyone from the pointy end to the back of the pack.
Thousands of riders who would never toe the line for a traditional road race are happily pinning on a number for gravel events: Even though it’s a race, you don’t need a license or an official team to participate. Plus, everyone gets to choose their own adventure, whether drilling it from start to finish for podium prize money or stopping for a few scenic selfies along the way. And everyone enjoys a big party at the end.
Nowhere has this been brought to more stark relief than SBT GRVL, the inaugural Steamboat Gravel gravel race in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, which I raced on August 18.
The race morning began like so many race mornings: up before my alarm—and the sun—brew coffee; top the tank with a little oats and yogurt, apply all the sports creams, and slip on the kit.
I slowly spin down the winding Yampa Valley Core Trail, hands already stinging in the damp, not quite 40-degree air, trying to feel the status of my legs, as the moon and sporadic street lights barely illuminate the way.
Four miles later, my nervous morning silence is broken by the gentle chaos of the 10th and Yampa street staging area in downtown Steamboat Springs, where riders in puffy coats and toss-away sweats are squeezing tires, sipping steaming coffee, and spinning their cranks in anticipation of the miles stretching out into the surrounding Rocky mountains.
The heavy hitters make their way to the front: Ted King, Colin Strickland, Alison Powers, Jake Wells, Lauren Stephens, Geoff Kabush, Brodie Chapman, and others in the pro ranks file in between stacked amps pumping race day hype.
Several hundred others stream in behind. The staging area is heaving with deep, calming breaths, flanked by arms outstretched like awnings, ready to grab shells, pullovers, and barrier layers as the minutes ticked down.
“10, 9, 8….”
A sudden cacophony of sirens, cowbells, whoops and hollers, and we’re off, a tightly tucked mass of 600 cyclists, jockeying for position as the police escort us out of town.
After a few brisk miles of pavement, we hit the gravel like a spooked herd of bison, and the rollicking stampede of tread over rocks and powder creates a dust cloud you could see from space.
At 7,000 feet of altitude with no acclimatization, I know I need to be judicious with my matches—twisting the throttle too far into the red early can mean dropping anchor later as your body struggles to recover in the thin air—but I also know I have to suck it up and push outside my comfort zone to get some free speed with the faster packs.
A long day lies ahead, and I’m going to want all the help I can get.
We’re the first wave of the day—the Black Course racers, tackling 140 miles and more than 9,000 feet of climbing and 70 percent gravel roads. Roughly 650 racers behind us will take on the 100-mile Blue Course, while 200 more get their toes dusty on the 35-mile Green Course.
There’s cash and prizes galore at the Black Course finish line: $5,000 for first place man and woman; $300 for age group winners, and swag a plenty for winners of the KOM/QOM segments scattered throughout the course. All told, SBT GRVL would be shelling out $28,000 in prize money split evenly between men and women.
Twenty-eight miles in, the first KOM/QOM segment—a 3.7 mile climb averaging 5 percent and maxing out at close to 12 percent at Steamboat Lake—strings out the field into a long train, which, once over the crest, churns over the rugged, rolling Routt County roads like a steam locomotive until the wheels grind to a crawl—or for some, come clean off—about 75 miles in, when the next 30 miles turn mostly up, up, and more up, including a grueling 8-mile KOM/QOM segment up Trout Creek.
My one set up blunder of the day comes back to bite me a few times as the hours pass. I knew there’d be well-stocked aid stations every 20 to 25 miles, so I planned to just pocket a bit of nutrition, and grab and go at the designated pit stops, rather than bring my top tube “bento box.”
But the gravel was looser, deeper and sketchier for longer stretches than I’d anticipated, which kept my hands on my bars and out of my back pockets, during times I would have liked a bite. I also could have used a third bottle on the back-heavy part of the course where the sketchy endless climbs under the beating afternoon sun at 8,000 feet left me as parched as the moon dust beneath my tires.
The late hilly hot miles get hard for everyone. But the panoramic snow-drizzled mountains and lush pastures embracing glistening lakes illuminate the pain cave during these dark stretches when you wonder why you do this to yourself.
Look up and you’ll remember.
During the final 8-mile descent down the Cowcreek, inarguably the chunkiest, lumpiest, rockiest strand of the day, riders hover over their saddles while sending up prayers not to flat in the last 10 miles.
In the end, Ted King, formerly of UCI ProTeam Cannondale-Garmin nabbed the men’s win in 6:34:50; Brodie Chapman of Team Tibco-SVB crossed first among the women in 6:56:40. Yours truly rolled in 25th in the pro field at 9:06:36, having to slow down my overheated engine three-quarters of the way through the course.
As I watched dust-caked cyclists exuberantly crank down the final—blissfully slightly downhill—finishing straight on Yampa street for the next four and a half hours, it was clear that this revolution is just getting started. That’s why I wrote to provide the training, gear, and grit-know how riders need to crush this new discipline.
Here are some of the top tips you need to know to join the fun.
Research Your Race
Of course, it’s always smart to know the course before lining up for an event. But it’s especially important for gravel road races, where knowing the quality of the road surface—and choosing the appropriate tires—are paramount to your success.
Generally, the course description will give you a fair assessment of just how rough (or smooth) the going will be. But if you can’t tell from the course description, most races have Facebook pages where riders can post such questions. Or look at photos from past years and zoom in on the terrain and how racers outfitted their rigs. When all else fails, a fast rolling pair of 38mms will get you through most anything.
Sketch Your Strategy
Determine your goal for the event. Are you in it to PR or podium? Is it a personal challenge to see if you can finish before the cutoff time? Are you just in it for a scenic adventure? How much gravel experience do you have? How much pack riding experience do you have?
Ask yourself all those questions and then hatch a plan according to your goals and abilities. Gravel races often start very fast right off the line as the leaders try to “make the selection” and winnow down the group to a smaller, more manageable size. If you’re comfortable both on gravel and riding in a tight group, it’s a good strategy to start out a little harder than you’d like to follow some faster wheels, because you’ll be in a good position to settle in with a group that is going your race pace after that initial push.
If that’s not your game, line up mid to back pack where you won’t get swept up in the starting line frenzy and can comfortably maintain your personal effort—and still find likeminded and similarly paced wheels—to share the work with along the way.
Mind Your Matches
Yeah, I know I just said you might want to push yourself off the start. But even if you’re not at altitude (but especially if you are), you still need to mind your matches when you’re racing over gravel roads.
Unlike pavement where you can often comfortably sit in and soft pedal or coast the downhills to recover, gravel doesn’t afford many opportunities to let your guard down. Rutted, squirrely descents can take almost as much energy as climbs. Flats you’d be able to hammer out on tarmac demand more energy to move along at the same (or more likely lower) speeds on gravel.
Because you’re always working harder, by the end of the day, you’ll have already burned more matches than usual just making forward progress. Because there’s less opportunity for true recovery, it’ll take you much longer to bounce back from surging into the red. So it’s best to minimize your time in the red.
Nail Down Your Nutrition
What works for you on 100 miles of smooth pavement will not necessarily work well over 100 miles of stuttery, slower going, sometimes full-body effort gravel events. You’re inherently working harder, jostling around more, and using more muscles, so there’s less circulation and energy to spare for your gut and digestion.
The general endurance fueling guidelines recommend 30 to 60 grams (120 to 240 calories) of carbs per hour for long events. Err on the lighter side of the fueling spectrum. You can always nibble more. But if you shovel in too much, you’re pretty much stuck with the consequences—some of which may come back up.
Decide What and How to Drink
Hydration is power. Riding gravel demands more power. Make hydration a priority. For gravel events that means carrying enough fluids. Know the distance between aid stations and plan to have a bottle’s worth of fluid per hour (more if it’s hot).
Make sure those fluids are easily accessible. If you can’t take your hands off your bars, you’re not going to drink very much if all you have is bottles on your bike. That’s why even though many gravel bikes have three (or even more) bottle cage mounts, riders often opt for minimal hydration packs or vests to make it easy to drink on the fly.
You want to stay on top of electrolytes as well as fluid loss. Look for a low-carb (3 to 6 percent carbohydrate content) sports drink with a healthy dose of sodium (300 to 400 mg per 16 fluid ounces) to replace the sodium you sweat out and encourage you to drink.
Hold On Loosely
Gravel is way more unpredictable than pavement. You’ll can be humming along and suddenly find yourself in a deep patch of “oh sh-t!” Staying relaxed can help you stay upright. Tensing up will increase your odds of tumbling to the ground.
Keep a secure, but relaxed grip on the bars, with your elbows bent and relaxed, so the bike can adjust on the fly as necessary. Go easy on the brakes, especially when riding over stutter bumps and rough gravel. It’ll help your bike maintain traction and forward momentum.
Plan Your Packing
Gravel road races will either have fully stocked aid stations or checkpoints where you can access your own supplies that you have brought for yourself. Either way, you are expected to be self sufficient between those points.
That means carrying what you need, and a few spare items, just in case. Keep in mind that rough roads make it harder to sit up and pull food out of your pockets, stash wrappers, and so forth. Top tube fuel bags help solve that problem and leave your pockets open for other necessities like your phone, wind jacket, and so forth.
Pamper Those Touch Points
Even if you generally don’t wear gloves or chamois cream, you’ll want that touch point protection for gravel events, where your hands and butt are subject to more jostling and rubbing and chafing than they are on smoother surfaces.
Adjust Your Attitude
My favorite gravel racing attitude story came from former pro road racer and Enve employee Neil Shirley, after his first Dirty Kanza attempt in 2014, which he shared with me for my upcoming book.
“I was incredibly fit and felt like I was going into the day as the person to beat. That all changed just 25 miles in when I broke off my rear derailleur. At that moment, my mindset went from trying to win to just trying to finish. After an hour on the side of the road, I was able to get my bike turned into a singlespeed and rode the next 175 miles to the finish,” he says.
Instead of leaving the race disappointed, he emerged a bit transformed.
“It was an amazing experience that helped re-shape my thinking on what makes an event special. My background was as a racer where it’s about a result above anything else, but that DK experience helped me take a step back and see how much more there was to participating in an event than just trying to get a result. I still enjoy being competitive and try my best when I’m at an event, but I get more fulfillment in seeing others enjoying their gravel experience and taking in the atmosphere surrounding the scene. If I can go into a gravel event and ride well, awesome. If I don’t ride well, no problem. I’m still going to have a blast and hang out with cool people.”
And that’s what this new breed of American road racing is all about.