How to Choose a Bike for a Gravel Event


Gravel riding and racing has really taken off throughout the U.S. in the past couple years along with types of gravel events. It seems that every day new styles of gravel bikes and equipment pop up. While training is an essential part for a good gravel experience, equipment choice can be the difference between enjoyment and misery. We hope to offer a leg up on bike choice and preparation for what is arguably the most demanding on equipment, the long gravel race.
Bike choice is essential
In just the last couple years we have seen a huge influx of gravel specific bike choices. What makes a gravel bike different in general is a longer wheelbase, a more relaxed fit, and clearance for wider tires. A major difference between cyclocross bikes and gravel bikes is the geometry and amenities. For gravel bikes, we need the ability to carry more water and be fast, yet comfortable over longer distances. Cyclocross bikes, however, generally have zero to one mounts for bottle cages, a higher clearance in the bottom bracket, and more aggressive geometries that make handling on gravel and long gravel rides less comfortable. This difference between cyclocross and gravel bikes does not mean it’s a slower bike. Cyclocross bikes are extremely specific to cyclocross races which are on a closed course with very tight turns and the necessity to pick up and run with your bike. It makes sense that good gravel bikes will not follow the same lines as a good cyclocross bike.
You will find that most companies are starting to make specific bikes for gravel vs. cyclocross vs. road. For example, Niner has both the BSB carbon cyclocross bike and the RLT line of gravel bikes. Bike choice is simpler than set up. If you ride a ton of dirt and want the occasional cross race for fun you’ll be way happier on a gravel bike. If you are a serious cyclocross racer and do some dirt roads in cross training then your cyclocross bike is great. Sometimes you can get away with a cyclocross bike in multiple race scenarios, but as you will see in the example of bike set up below the right tool for the job is what makes the event fun and fast.
Proper Bike Set Up: Look at Your Course
You have done your due diligence shopping for your gravel bike of choice. It’s still far from ready to hop on and hit that long gravel route. It’s time to learn about proper bike set up for your event.
What we know is that no two courses are the same. The Unbound Gravel requires a totally different setup from the One Speed Open in Fort Collins, Colorado, which requires a totally different setup from the Belgian Waffle ride in Southern California . These are all demanding gravel races but require totally different builds to be competitive or even just finish comfortably. We can start looking at how to set up our bike with a basic check list.

  • Longer than 70 miles?
  • Aid stations/wheel support?
  • Ratio of dirt, pavement, trail?
  • Amount of climbing?
  • Mud/surface condition?
  • Pavement to dirt to single track ratio?

Much of this equates to tire and tire pressure choice, that's a whole other article in itself that I touch on here.
How you answer the course questions will bring is a certain level of preparedness for your event.
Example 1: Unbound Gravel
Rebecca Rusch gravel

Photo: Rebecca

Staying with our examples, the Unbound Gravel is self supported between aid stations. Here we have a picture of Rebecca Rush’s Niner BSB at the Unbound Gravel. With this event being so long and self supported between aid stations, we see Rebecca opt for a Camelbak backpack, a small frame bag and a seat bag. Attempting an event of this length and technicality with harsh dirt roads is foolish with any less than this as far as preparedness. She has the ability to change multiple flats, carry enough food and water between aid stations up to 50 miles apart, and her bike is setup for the event specifically from tubeless tires for light mud to a pretty relaxed fit for the long ride.

Example 2: Belgian Waffle Ride
BWR Bikes

Photo: BWR Facebook

Here is an example of the a similar length event, the Belgian Waffle Ride. This ride is 146 miles, hot, 13,000 feet of climbing and obviously grueling terrain with some gnarly dirt roads, pavement, and singletrack. Why does this picture showing a former winner Phil Tinstman on a road bike, wide road tires, with no seat bag, no camelback, and no frame bag? HOW!?
This event is fully supported. No better or worse than the Unbound Gravel, just different. The Belgian Waffle Ride has wheel support even on the trail locations. This support is a game changer as far as your bike set up. Main point, pack for the worst situation you may encounter. If Phil here breaks his chain, he may lose a bunch of time in the race but he will likely walk/coast down to the next area where neutral support is located.  The longer road sections call for you to pack light and climb fast to make the fastest times in the race, creating the push for cyclocross and road bikes over gravel bikes. In contrast at the the Unbound Gravel if you break your chain it could be hours and hours before you see anyone and you need to be able to fix it yourself.

Example 3: One Speed Open
Moving to a shorter gravel race ride example, the One Speed Open in Colorado’s Front Range is a smaller event but its format offers it a unique difference and a unique set of problems in equipment preparation. Besides the fact that in this event you are limited to one gear, the route is not released until the night before the event. This makes for a specific problem in planning. You do know that the route will be somewhere between 60-80 miles and will be between 3000-4000 feet of climbing but as far as bike choice and packing you have to make certain choices on your own with the weather and conditions you know may exist. Do you plan on mud tires with or without rain to be safe? The event has no aid stations- will 2 bottles be enough for 60 miles? What if it's 80 miles and hot?
Zack gravel

Photo: Logan Vonbokel

The event this year happened to be a rainy 40 degrees calling for warmer clothes. The winner opted for slightly over built tires, not knowing the extent of the size of gravel. Riders on road bikes found many flats and slower times. Two bottles were enough for the 78 mile total ride. A seat bag was necessary for tools and flat kits with minimal support of the ride.
We hope that you now have a better understanding how to choose your bike and equipment for your next gravel event. As a coaching company, we know we can prepare you to be well-trained to have your best gravel event, but if you aren’t comfortable on your bike or ill-prepared equipment-wise, it won’t matter how fit you are. Read more about what you should know before your first gravel grinder or gravel event here

Our coaches have physiology degrees, write workouts, and strive to better our athletes physiologies for them to reach their goals in their events. As a cycling coach in this day and age that’s not enough. Right or wrong, as cycling coaches, we not only have to be up to date on the latest beetroot juice studies, we have to be experts in courses across the country, and experts in the top equipment for the job. To properly prepare our athletes we have to know everything from the length and grade of the finish climb at the UCI Winston Salem Classic to the type of bike and tires you will want to ride on a wet Land Run 100 course for best mud clearance. We give this knowledge to our athletes in the hopes that they will use it to get the result they have earned in training. In my case, I raced and worked on all kinds of bikes before I coached anyone. I enjoy equipment choices, technology, and picking the right tool for the job.
Check out some of our other articles on Gravel Riding and Racing. 
BioPic-ZackAllisonZack Allison’s affinity for cycling started when he was 14 racing on the East Coast and his enjoyment of the sport lead him to pursue his BSEd in Exercise Science from Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, Colorado. He currently races for Elevate Pro Cycling, a UCI continental men’s road team. Growing up in the sport with many great mentors, he loves to pay it forward, using a combination of education and race experience. You can often find him zooming around on Fort Collin’s many gravel roads or on its countless mountain bike trails. Learn more about Zack.