Gravel Grinding: Top events and race day tips

Closer look at one of the fastest growing disciplines of bike racing (and riding)

Gravel How To Race Coverage
The Lost and Found had its fair share of climbing on the 100-mile route – 7,000 vertical feet of it.

The Lost and Found had its fair share of climbing on the 100-mile route – 7,000 vertical feet to be exact (click to enlarge).

The Lost and Found strikes a reasonable balance between the Kanza and the Crusher, featuring a more palatable 7,000 feet of climbing over 100 miles of mixed terrain, ranging in elevation between 3,000 and 7,000 feet. However, what makes the Lost and Found 100-miler a brutal day on the bike is the 10-mile, 3,000 vertical foot climb that must be negotiated at mile 75. Although the climb out of Genesee Valley has a few respites, in between there are gut-wrenching pitches I heard one rider describe as “diabolical.” Despite having a 34/32 bailout gear on my cyclocross bike, I barely cleaned a couple pitches while some riders on 1x equipped SRAM setups were hoofing it.

Riders tear up the gravel approach the first major turn at the Lost and Found.

Riders tear up the gravel approach the first major turn at the Lost and Found (click to enlarge).

Having spent years competing in both the road and mountain bike ranks, I discovered the Lost and Found to be a really fun mix of riding that required being as proficient at tactics and rotating pacelines as it did being a skilled descender who’s not afraid of the occasional two-wheel drift. Even if you don’t have freakish climbing prowess, if you’re strong enough to motor the flats and skilled enough going downhill, at events like the Lost and Found you can more than make up for the ground lost on climbs.

The Right Gear and the Right Preparation

For events with fast sections of dirt and pavement mixed with long ascents and somewhat technical downhills, proper bike selection is important. Everything from early 1980s steel cyclocross bikes to lightweight, carbon fiber full-suspension mountain bikes with 1.8” semi-slick tires were used at the Lost and Found this year. But based on the fastest finishers, it was apparent the best tool for the job was a lightweight cyclocross bike with hydraulic disc brakes and tubeless 35-40mm tires with knobby tread.

Road bikes and full suspension mountain bikes ran the gamut of choices at Lost and Found.

Road bikes and full suspension mountain bikes ran the gamut of choices at Lost and Found (click to enlarge).

Because of its explosive growth, gravel events have given rise to yet another type of bike specifically designed for gravel grinding. Gravel-specific bikes like the Salsa Warbird are essentially the same as a race-specific cyclocross bike, with the main differences being gravel bikes have slightly more relaxed geometry, lower bottom bracket height and more chainstay clearance for wider tires. But considering new cyclocross bikes like the Santa Cruz Stigmata are designed to excel on a closed cyclocross course as well as an event like the Lost and Found, there’s really no need to have two different bikes.

But like everything in cycling, doing well at an event is more about preparation, training, nutrition and fitness than bike setup. How do you prepare for big events like Dirty Kanza, Crushar and the Lost and Found 100-miler? I asked last weekend’s winner of the Dirty Kanza 200, Yuri Hauswald, how he prepared for the biggest victory in his career.

“I started in December by riding 15 to 18 hour weeks at a really slow pace,” explained Hauswald. “At first it was hard to adjust to how slow I needed to ride, but after a month of big base miles, I started doing more specific interval workouts that resembled the rolling prairie lands of Kansas.”

Yuri Hauswald, 2015 Dirty Kanza 200 winner, enduring the most brutal Kanza ever. Photo by Adventuremonkey.com

Yuri Hauswald, 2015 Dirty Kanza 200 winner, enduring the most brutal edition of the race to date (click to enlarge). Photo by Adventuremonkey.com

Hauswald’s insight shouldn’t come as Earth-shattering news. You have to ride huge miles and build a healthy base for events like the Dirty Kanza. You don’t necessarily have to do century dirt rides all the time, but you definitely have to do a handful of back-to-back days where you’ll be on the bike for at least six to eight hours. And if you really want to do well, at hour five or six throw in a 10-mile climb to see how your body reacts. You never want to experiment on race day.

Once inside two weeks of the event, cut the big miles out and focus on shorter, more intense rides.

“A couple weeks leading up to the event, I was doing shorter rides with 20 to 30 second sprint intervals mixed in,” said Hauswald. “I’m convinced those intervals were what helped me win at Kanza, as it came down to a sprint with one other rider.”

In the week leading up to the event, go super easy and short. Start hydrating four days before the event. Load those carbs starting two or three days before. By the time event day comes, your legs will feel fresh and ready to rock. And depending on how much you sweat and how hot it is, drink and eat 150-200 calories for every hour you ride to prevent glucose depletion, dehydration and the much-dreaded leg cramps.

The 100-mile Lost and Found is a long ride, so pace yourself and enjoy the beauty along the way. Photo by “The Metal” Mike Haire

The 100-mile Lost and Found is a long ride, so pace yourself and enjoy the beauty along the way (click to enlarge). Photo by “The Metal” Mike Haire

If your plan is to just finish, set a comfortable pace right from the beginning and don’t let anyone try and coax you out of it. Riding steady at a pace you know you can maintain will get you to the finish line. For those in search of podium glory, energy conservation is the name of the game. Draft as much as possible, spin as much as possible and of course, eat and drink even when you’re not hungry or thirsty. Oh, and don’t forget – gravel grinding is supposed to be fun, so don’t take it too seriously.

Ready for your first gravel grinder? Check out these popular events and get after it.

Rebecca’s Private Idaho – Featuring 100 miles and 6,500 feet of climbing around Rebecca Rusch’s beautiful hometown of Ketchum, ID.
Grinduro – Put on by the same folks who do the Downieville Classic and the Lost and Found, Grinduro is where enduro meets gravel grinding in Quincy, CA.
Oregon Coast Gravel Epic – Choose between 70 miles and 8600 feet of climbing through the Siuslaw National Forest or 35 miles and 3,740 feet of climbing.

About the author: Kurt Gensheimer

Kurt Gensheimer thinks the bicycle is man’s most perfect invention. He firmly believes ‘singlespeed’ is a compound word. He sometimes wears a disco ball helmet. He is also known as Genshammer. He is a Gemini and sleeps outside in a hammock.


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