Gravel Cycling - There Are No Wrong Answers

What’s with this buzz about riding gravel? Are you getting burnt out with road cycling races with dwindling rider numbers? Or have you been doing triathlon so long you have calloused forearms? Sick of so many cars buzzing you? Well here’s a way to mix it up AND increase your bike fitness. I started dabbling in gravel about 4-5 years ago while I was still racing on the Ironman circuit and chasing Kona. Each year I got more into it and then in 2015 after making it back to Kona, I decided to just follow the motivation – and it was 100% directed at gravel cycling and skimo (a topic for another day!). I started out as a cyclist and skier so it’s been incredibly fulfilling to come full circle. 

In short, gravel cycling is a type of riding that brings together many of the most fun and challenging aspects of road riding and mountain bike riding. It blurs the lines of the two styles of riding and really creates a situation where you can go anywhere on your bike – this, I believe is the big draw and what keeps us all coming back for more. See a cool looking rocky dirt path that you couldn’t ride on your road bike? – bam – go for it, see a long fast dirt road that is just not efficient on your mtn bike but has a rideable river bed at the end that connects back to the main road? – bam let’s do this. Any cyclocross bike will do or if you really want to up the experience check out a gravel specific bike with good tire clearance (kind of like an incredible hulk version of a road race bike – thicker, beefier and can fit wide tires).

Gravel grinding as it’s commonly referred to has many forms. There is really no wrong answer here (it’s fun saying that so I’m going to keep saying it). And if you like to race you’ll be pleasantly surprised how competitive most of these gravel events are even if they are not considered a race. For the ones that are actually races – here’s my favorite part – there’s no categories! None of these goofy 25 different categories with fields of 10 riders. Nope – everyone rolls out together and whatever happens, happens. At Rasputitsa in the northeast kingdom of Vermont– over 1000 riders roll out together! If you don’t like to race but just want to ride you’ll have plenty of company – again no wrong answers here. We’re all just riding bikes. You will find less ego in the gravel world than other forms of cycling. Most of the time there are no results, no one really cares, what we care about is riding bikes and the adventure of cycling in it’s purest form and (for some) cracking ice cold beers after or having some chocolate covered bacon at the Muddy Onion aid station. Want an IPA or a PBR? How about a Schlitz (gasp)? Like I said, no wrong answers. 

In the East we have many gravel events in the 25-50 mile range while out in the midwest there are the original classic gravel races like Dirty Kanza 200 mile race, Land Run 100, Crusher in the Tushar, Almonzo 100, and Trans Iowa to name a few. In Vermont we have our own classics like Rasputitsa and The Overland. Both of these are incredibly competitive and diverse and can sometimes include former world tour pro cyclists as well as plenty of first timers and even fatbikers – no wrong answers! We also have a gravel event almost every weekend (check and come on up) starting in the spring. Pretty much all of them have a great après scene too with amazing beer and food options. 

So how the heck do you train for this? Ok coach hat on here – I’ve taken what I’ve learned over the past 10 years of coaching endurance athletes and applied it to gravel. I could talk your ear off on this with minutiae if you wanted it but I’ll keep this section short and sweet. Basically, gravel events require a high amount of muscular endurance, a lot of sub threshold training, and some well-timed recovery after creating a high chronic training load (CTL). Most gravel races have an early punch (3-5 minute very hard effort) that will establish most of the field, then from there it’s a sub threshold to threshold grinding effort. 

I like to build these strategies into the plan for all my athletes that are doing gravel events. I half-jokingly refer to these as the #legcannondevelopment system:

  • Lots of big gear/ low cadence intervals to build muscular endurance
  • Lots of sweet spot riding (this is about 85-97% of FTP wattage or lactate threshold heart rate)
  • Building up their CTL as high as possible prior to their key event with well-timed recovery embedded into the plan
  • Ongoing cycling specific strength work
  • Most gravel events are quite hilly so good strength to weight (watts per kg) is key
  • A diet that periodizes their macronutrients (carbs, proteins, etc) to enable an anabolic environment in the body as much as possible. It is about timing your carbs and proteins correctly – if you need help with this please reach out to our endurance sports dietitians over at the Core Diet

This post was written by QT2 Level 3 Coach, John Spinney.

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