Crushing Gravel? Preparing for my first gravel road race

There will be gravel.
There will be mud.
It will be cold.
Some will cry.
We will not wipe your tears for you.


Trans Iowa 2010. Photo courtesy of Kristin Riching

These are the lines that greeted me on the event page for Dairy Roubaix. Come mid April, I’ll be attempting my first gravel road race. Don’t ask me why…I’m still trying to figure it out. I can only guess that my decision was made after several beers. This is when I make most of my stupid and yet fun decisions. All I know is that an ugly little seed got planted in my brain last April when my husband and I shared a short section of the course while on a mini bike tour. I can also put some blame on my friends since several of them race Dairy Roubaix, Almanzo, and Trans Iowa (three more friends are training for this suffer fest right now).

The first few times I allowed the idea of racing/riding these events  to grace my mind, it played out like a horror flick. Why the hell would I want to go down 20% grade gravel hills? Going up doesn’t seem to bother me so much, but the down part kinda makes me want to puke. My husband knows me well enough to foresee mini meltdowns on my end when we go down steep, freshly chip sealed roads. He, of course, isn’t riding the Dairy Roubaix, so I’ll have to contain my whimpers at all costs.

Until the actual race date comes into focus, I can count on Kristin Riching, BJ Bass and Michael Lemberger to be my Obi Wan Kenobis. I asked them each a few questions to enlighten those of you who have not heard of gravel road racing. Who knows…maybe more seeds will be planted.

Q: What got you started in gravel road racing and what was your first race?

Michael: My first race was the 2011 Almanzo 100. Raining, windy and 44˚F. Made it about 32 miles in before we got cold and called it. Rode another 14 back to town on pavement. Finished the 67 mile version of the 2012 Dairy Roubaix. About 70% gravel. Very hilly.

Kristin: Trans Iowa was the first gravel race for both of us. BJ signed up for Trans-Iowa V3 because (being stupid boys) he and his friends Matt and Travs refused to back out after Matt sent a link to the website with the subject “check this out”. I attempted the following year as I was converting into a more avid cyclist and I had heard talk of little else since starting to date BJ!

Michael, after...

Q: How do you train differently for these types of events?

Michael: Uhhhh… *I will note that Michael is currently training for Triple D Winter Race and rides year round, so really he never stops training.

Kristin: 100 mile races are trained for by doing 50-100 mile rides on weekends, and 2-3 20 mile rides during the week. Try to keep the intensity high for as long as possible and then limp home. We usually depart into a headwind and return home with a tailwind which give you something to look forward to during the ride.

The Trans Iowa is a little different, being a much longer and completely unsupported event. The key to training for T.I. is to schedule your training rides and then do them regardless of weather or conditions. We typically do a century each weekend starting 10 weeks before the race, and have 1 weekend a month before the race where 120 miles are ridden each day. A trip to Galena or Sheboygan makes it a lot harder to punk out on day 2 of that weekend. Equipment is also very important, and endless deliberation on just the right equipment keeps the training interesting and gives you something to discuss with other riders. Keep experimenting to keep the rides interesting. Training rides are as much about fitness as testing equipment and finding out what works for you. A strict rule to follow: never race on anything you haven’t tested for at least 100 miles.

Q: Are there any gravel events that you haven’t done and are on your “must do” list?

Michael: Trans Iowa *Michael will be doing his first TI this spring!

Kristin: No. First and foremost, gravel racing is social. The distance of the events keeps most riders at a conversational pace for at least half of the race. We’ll do a few per year based on which ones have been fun and free, and where our friends are planning to ride. Especially in the unsupported events we all need to look out for each other. Being friendly and social is important under those circumstances.

Q: Explain what gear you like to use for these events.

Michael: Not-so-fancy Surly Cross Check with good wheels and tires; 1×8 or 2x 8 drivetrain. Minimal cool-weather kit. Food and water.

Kristin: Bike: cyclocross or hybrid frame with drop bars, disc brakes preferred for when it rains or gets muddy/snowy. Have clip on fenders as an option, but full coverage fenders can pack solid with mud. Do not use full coverage fenders on gravel when it’s raining. They will fill with peanut butter. We run the largest semi slick tires we can fit in our frames. In the case of our bikes the continental cyclocross speed 700x42c tires roll well, provide plenty of cushion, and don’t puncture. Picking tires based on weight usually leads to time fixing flats. Don’t worry about using an all-around cyclocross tread,  gravel bounces too much when it’s rough to make use of it, and gravel provides enough vibration without the help of knobby tires.

Frame bags: make sure you can shoulder your bike when it’s necessary. Even a 30 foot stretch of mud can be brutal if there isn’t a good way to carry your bike. Kristin’s frame is small, so she typically just uses a seat bag and relies on a camelbak to carry extra gear and food. BJ uses a small frame bag (one that still allows access to water bottles) a camelbak, and two seat bags (a standard type and one that hangs from his Brooks saddle.)

BJ uses a brooks saddle with springs. It weighs a ton, but remains comfortable after 340 miles of gravel and washboards. Kristin uses Bontrager Inform Race saddles, which have a little more padding than the higher end RL versions. Clothing is really personal. The main things that we consider are: make sure there’s a place to store layers you shed, and when it’s cold out, bring an extra shirt to change into if you plan to stop and eat during a ride/race. (this may be more important during training rides) For cold weather, make sure layers are breathable. Using a windproof layer that doesn’t allow you to dry off will just lead to getting soaked and chilled inside your jacket. We use gel inserts under our handlebar tape. Double wrapping makes the bars too large in diameter for both BJ and Kristin. Kristin uses toe warmers for temperatures up to 45 degrees. Always overdress on your hands and feet when it’s cold.

We typically assume that we’ll drink 1 ounce of liquid per mile, so a 100 mile race unsupported will likely include 2 water bottles and a 50 oz camelbak. This rule doesn’t work when it’s hot out, but at temperatures between 30 and 65 degrees it holds pretty true. Don’t skimp on water storage by drinking 50 oz before leaving, you’ll just end up peeing on the side of the road. Both of our bikes can be turned into singlespeeds in case the derailleur hanger gets torn off. This hasn’t been necessary yet, but it happens to a lot of people and Kristin had a close call last year. Any advice we might give about bike fit is really personal. Make sure you are comfortable in multiple hand positions. Many bikes are set up with the bars too low to make good use of the drops. Make sure that the tops, drops, and hoods are all viable options even when you’re tired and sore.


Kierstin's bike for Trans Iowa

Q: When the going really gets tough, what tricks do you use to keep going?

Michael: Uhhhh…dogged determination and speed metal.

Kristin: Different people respond differently to getting super exhausted and worn out. BJ never considers quitting an option. The truth is that most of these races require that you keep going to make it home. Plan B is often an hour or two away and freezing in the ditch until your ride shows up is typically less appealing than gritting your teeth and pedaling those two hours to get home. However, if bike riding is causing suffering, you’re doing it wrong. There is a lot that we give up to do these races. Weekends, family time, and relaxation all get sacrificed on the altar of gravel races. Time spent on the bike should be as enjoyable and fulfilling as the alternatives. Gravel racing doesn’t have a strong culture of social status given to the winners. There is typically no prize money. Time spent riding and fond memories are all the reward you can expect to be given.


Kristin (on the left) on Trans Iowa. Photo courtesy of Kristin Riching

About Kierstin Kloeckner, Bike Fed Board Member

Kierstin is a personal trainer who lives and bikes in Madison and a board member for the Bike Fed. She writes guest posts for us here, but you can read more of her thoughts on how cycling fits into her life at her personal blog Two Wheels From Home

11 thoughts on “Crushing Gravel? Preparing for my first gravel road race

  1. Thank you for the view into your thinking about cycling adventures. You describe perfectly normal behavior to me. I live to venture on my bike. I will warn you it is addicting. And yes it is painful. But makes one feel alive. I can only say this about downhill… I usually get so numb that I don’t care and when I relax the bike does most of the work

    Ps if any one wants to winter bike I am all in. Three events. Arrowhead135, Tuscobia and Farmers. I need to fill the between time with fun.

  2. I did this race last year (the 67 Mile – Courage Grandes) and it was a freaking blast. My buddy Rich and I hauled arse out of the gate and Rich managed to drop me as I bonked and had shifting issues about 8 miles to finish. I mustarded my way through to the finish, burger, and beer at the end. Good times. I might have to travel from the UP to do this again. 🙂

    • Dave, the more I hear about these Gravel Road Races, the more I want to try one. I love the whole DIY, not so serious but still fast vibe to the scene. Plus it might give this old man another reason to get back in something close to race shape 😉

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