The Gravel World Champion on managing hydration during long rides

By Chris Knight | 7 Minute Read

John Borstelmann knows about the importance of hydration better than most. The American won the 2019 Gravel World Championships - a gruelling 240km race that features 700 riders, 3km of elevation, temperatures peaking at 90°F, and 7 hours of racing - by a margin of one second... that's about the same time it's taken you to read this sentence.

John's hydration and nutrition strategy, particularly with his tactics at aid stations, proved crucial during the course of his epic victory and he's given us an insight into how the very best riders in the world fuel and hydrate during long, hot and humid races...

 

Hi John, congratulations on your win at the Worlds! Can you give us an idea of just how difficult that race was to win? 

Thanks PH! Well, after 185km, the lead group was down to seven of us, so I attacked full gas, and only one guy was able to cover it.

Even though I had paid close attention to my hydration and nutrition strategy the whole race long, we were both so bonked that he didn’t attack, but I was able to pedal through and eventually win in a sprint finish.

 

Fantastic. It's amazing that a long race came down to such fine margins. What were the key gains that you made during the course of the Worlds course? 

At Gravel Worlds, there are two required stops at checkpoints at mile-60 and mile-125ish.

I had an issue with my derailleur and a tyre with low pressure well before the first checkpoint, and I knew the volunteers at the checkpoint would have a difficult time filling water for all of the 50-strong group that were still together at the front of the race.

I attacked the group a mile or two ahead of the checkpoint, so I would have first dibs on the water and gain an extra few seconds to mess with my tyre and derailleur.

It worked out great as I was still one of the first riders to leave the checkpoint, and the group splintered after that because the people at the back had to wait for as long as four minutes to get their bottles filled.

I was in and out in 1:20.

The first three-ish hours of the race (6am-9am) before the first checkpoint are early enough that the sun is low and temps aren’t hot yet. I still managed to finish off my two 1-litre bottles in that time period, but I didn’t touch my Camelbak, which I would need during the hot 3 hours between the checkpoints. 

 

How important was your Camelback? 

The Camelbak really was vital. If I had only taken two bottles, I would have probably needed to stop at an extra aid station or risk dehydration, which would have both been costly.

Eric Marcotte, who was the last man standing beside me and the one I beat in a sprint finish, didn’t take a Camelbak, and was without water for as much as an hour before the second checkpoint, and I could tell it took a toll on him.

At the second checkpoint, the race was close enough that I only needed to fill one bottle with water and PH. There was only Eric with me by that point, and he was sitting on my wheel. I tried to get in and out of the checkpoint faster than him to try to wear him down by making him close a gap to me.

The aid station protocol is different at every race, so the strategy always changes. At Dirty Kanza, for example, I had a support crew, which for the first checkpoint meant someone simply to hand me a musette bag, so I didn’t have to get off my bike.

 

 

It sounds like you got your checkpoint strategy pretty much spot on at the Worlds, but you need to be pretty flexible from race-to-race. How do race conditions affect the way you hydrate? 

Hydration is one of the biggest challenges of 5+ hour races, especially when it’s hot and humid. If you don’t have the proper fluids, or if you get behind on hydration early in the race, you can put yourself in a hole that’s difficult or impossible to crawl out of.

 

We're looking forward to helping you dial in your hydration strategy in the coming months - how did you first hear about PH out of interest? 

Well, Tim Fleming sponsors my road cycling team, and Tim offers a couple of different testing opportunities through his Endurance Performance Training Centre in Mill Valley, including the Advanced Sweat Test.

I had always used standard electrolyte/carbohydrate drink mixes during races, but towards the end of long road races and gravel races I had trouble with muscle cramping.

The Sweat Test showed me that I lose over 1300mg of sodium per litre of sweat, and none of the drink mixes I had tried came close to replenishing electrolytes at that rate.

I started using the PH 1000 tablets in almost all of my bottles and I immediately noticed a huge difference in how I felt during training and racing.

 

Good to hear! So, how did you approach your nutrition and hydration for the Gravel Worlds?

I tried to have a variety of easy-on-the-stomach foods to eat. The intensity of that race is such that I don’t feel hungry and thus I find it's harder to eat.

But, from experience, I know that I need to eat and drink early and often in that kind of race in order to avoid bonking, cramping, and feeling bad later on.

I had a few different flavours of stroopwaffles, shot blocks, and gels, as well as a banana and a small sandwich for something more natural and savoury-tasting.

Because of the temperature, I preferred not to have calories in my bottles, so the low-calorie PH 1000 tablets with plain water were perfect.

My basic strategy is to eat and drink in small increments as often as possible, steadily throughout the duration of the race, starting about 30 minutes in.

 

It sounds like you're already well on the way to finding a flexible strategy that works for you. What advice would you give to anyone preparing their hydration and nutrition strategy for their own gravel race?

It depends on the length of the event, but I love using the 1-litre water bottles, which provide an extra 16oz between the two compared to two standard large-size 26oz bottles.

Additionally, it's really helpful to open your food packages part way so that they are easier to get into during the race.

I usually keep my food in one skinsuit pocket and a small top tube bag, and my tools in the other pocket.

If you don’t mind a saddlebag for tools, then you could maybe spread food between jersey pockets and forgo the top tube bag. It's all personal preference, and at your first race you will see a vast range of hydration and nutrition set-ups.

The Camelbak is nice if you plan on going 3+ hours between aid stations, but usually races will have aid stations often enough that two large bottles are enough to get you by if you don’t mind sacrificing time to make an extra stop.

 

Thanks John, it's great to get an insight into how you won the Gravel Worlds. We're looking forward to working with you during another successful campaign!

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