Tis the Season, for Gravel. What does it take?

Tis’  the season, for gravel. But what does it take?


Scenery from a gravel ride in the driftless region near La Crosse, WI

The recent surge in popularity of gravel events over the past few years has my mind reeling. People are coming out of the woodwork ready to slay their own bodies over thousands of miles of gravel, in the dark, in the cold, and even when it snows. Cyclo-cross is it’s own thing, an anaerobic beast of sorts, and whereas the type of pain is short lived in cross, gravel riding and racing takes on a whole new level of discomfort. With this discomfort however, there is an immense amount of achievement and a bit more of finding out your own personal limits.
We all know that gravel riding and racing requires the right mix of training, but it is a bit more complex than putting on knobbies and sporting a handlebar mustache. Actually training for gravel events is far from basic as there are certain things you need before you can begin to stack up against likes of the previous elite gravel race winners and contenders.
So with out further ado, Here’s my list of 5 “must- haves” of what it takes to be a true gravel grinder.

  1. You’ll need grit. If you don’t already have it or possess it somehow deep within, advantage to the other guy. However, all is not lost and grit may earned through a relentless process and many sacrifices. You must say “no” to habitually resorting to trainer rides to get you through the winter. It’s just not going to cut it. It helps to be a successful athlete, but one thing I  have found is that mental toughness is a direct correlate to performance. Training your mind and body to withstand the pressures of the elements, light-less evenings, hunger, cold and wet hands and feet is of utmost importance. Like many things in life, it is not necessarily what happens to you but how you choose to respond. Having grit and phsychological strength will take you far in gravel riding and racing .
  2. Secondly, you’ll need to be prioritize preparedness. Not only do skilled gravel riders know how to dress, but you’ll need to know where you’re going and what you’ll do if the batteries in the phone die, you flat both tires, and maybe you made a wrong turn? Again you can guard against this scenario and other similar ones with a high level of preparedness. hint: bring a cue sheet on a 3×5, pack multiple ways to fix a flat, and as always keep your phone charged. Of course you shouldn’t knowingly put yourself in danger, rather you must welcome these challenges as an opportunity. Do your best to prepare and you’ll be much more adequately equipped to handle adversity.
  3. Along the lines of preparedness is having the right equipment and learning how to maintain it. Not necessarily the most expensive equipment but make sure you (key word) invest in good Equipment that you know or has proven to be reliable. Familiarize yourself with your set up and how to service it as well. To be honest, I prefer to work on my own stuff because that way I learn how it works and how to service it if i need to. I am not saying you shouldn’t take your set-up in the the local bike shop, I am actually saying you should. In addition you should try to learn as much as you can in the process. Do your homework and when it comes to test time, you’ll be able to pass if not thrive. If you are one to just take your set-up in and let the mechanic deal with everything, you’ve got studying to do. Besides, having your mechanic follow you everywhere you go, would cost a fortune in beer. Use quality equipment, have it properly serviced, and know how to fix it WHEN it breaks.
  4. While giving a talk last spring on prepping for the DK200, most people are interested in really two topics. It’s kind of funny…” choice of tires” and ” what and how much should I eat.” the tire choice/pressure question relates easily back to the importance of knowing your equipment. On the feeding questions however, I almost die trying not to mention the words glycolysis and aerobic metabolism for fear I will lose my audience. That said you can see how complex the situation is. You’ve got a race that takes all day and you’ll burn X number of  calories, of which you should seek to replace X percent of those. What about hydration, electrolytes, protein, carbohydrates, etc? Skimming the surface of the tip of the iceburg… your nutritional strategy for training and racing are a very complex and your approach should be individualized. And whereas I haven’t told you anything specific, I will tell you that training and racing have different demands and thus require differing nutritional strategies. There are so many products and ideas on the market that it becomes cumbersome trying to decipher what is good and what isn’t. Bottom line, develop a strategy for nutrition and know what you are doing and why you are doing it. This leads me to my final point.
  5. Last but not least, don’t do it alone. Even if you have a tight group of friends that have been doing this for years, and you have always had success doing things a certain way, it’s very likely that your previously held beliefs can stand to be improved upon. My suggestion is to seek the help of a professional who stays current with not only the industry but current supporting research. Going back to the importance of preparedness you’ll want to work with someone who knows physiology as it relates to the many facets of training including nutrition and periodizing your training plan. Equally as important is knowing how to curtail training to changes in life’s circumstances. Again, seek out a professional who is not just someone that is good at racing and uses a certain drink during their workouts. See the difference? Find your guru and embark not just on a training journey but one where you are willing to learn.

Are any of these factors any more important than the others? Depends on who you are and what you need. In short, if you don’t have it, you’ll have to get it to be successful in grinding gravel. Assuming that most people reading this have a fair amount of grit, because they like gravel riding, then my next top choice would be seeking guidance. Through professional guidance, the other aspects of being a successful gravel rider and/or racer may be obtained in due time, but having help along the way is more enjoyable, rewarding, and as anyone who has worked with a professional can attest, yields better results.

As a senior consultant at Source Endurance, I would love to help you achieve your goals for 2016. Whether it be monthly coaching or a one-time training or nutrition consultation, please feel free to contact me: gharrison@source-e.net. Questions or comments regarding this post are also welcome.
Grant Harrison
Senior Consultant, Source Endurance