After half a decade of cycling on the road, this season has seen me move into the privateer world. This effectively means that I’m my own team. I’m in control of finding my own partners and choosing my own race calendar. It’s been the hardest, but most rewarding year of my life.
With the infamous Unbound Gravel being only my third ever race on the loose stuff, it’s fair to say I jumped in at the deep end.
With zero previous off-road experience, here are eight lessons that I've learned...
1. It’s really physically demanding
There’s an ongoing joke that gravel is where all the failed roadies end up. While there’s been loads of former road pros coming across, it’s definitely not an easy discipline.
Gravel is unpredictable, there’s no structure and it’s mentally draining. In a road race, you can afford to sit in the pack and go into auto-pilot, that’s not the case in gravel. There’s always a corner that could catch you out, or a technical section coming up that you have to think about.
If you think gravel racing is easy, I encourage you to try a race. If you still think it’s easy after trying a race, then coffee is on me.
After the Gravel World Championships, the winner of the Tour de France Femmes, Demi Vollering, told Velo, “no race that I’ve done on the road is as hard as today.” Say no more.
2. It’s a logistical nightmare
When I say this, remember that I’m coming from the pampered world of (kinda) pro road racing where everything was done for me. Gone are the days that I’d sit and wait for an email to come in with all the flights and accommodation details on it.
The beauty of gravel is that you go to some incredible places, the downside is that they’re not always easy to get to. Trying to figure out how to get bike boxes and suitcases across Northern America while sticking to a budget is a nightmare. I’ve been relying on host houses and old teammates which actually make the experience that little sweeter.
In case you're interested, I've put together a breakdown of my expenses whilst gravel racing in North America. Here's how those broke down as percentages...
Feed zones are something else that used to be the problem of the team. Nowadays I travel to most races as a one-man band so it’s calling upon the local cycling community or someone else’s support crew to save my day.
It's a challenge that Lotto Dstny cyclist, Florian Vermeersch, can relate to. He swapped team racing on the road for solo gravel racing when he took on the 2023 Gravel World Champs in Italy, where he finished 2nd…
Getting your fueling strategy correct is so important. Gravel is physically and mentally demanding. Doing a four-hour race will leave you feeling much worse than the equivalent on road.
I aim for ~100g of carbohydrate an hour, but I’m still training my stomach to get there as I sometimes have some slight problems taking that much on. The core of my fueling is done with the PF 300 Flow Gel. I’ll aim to take on 60-70g of carb per hour via drinking. Then the remainder of my fueling is via a PF 30 Gel or PF 30 Chew.
My first hour is usually a gel, as the racing can be hectic and it’s much easier to get a gel down fast than a chew. For the next few hours, I’ll move to chews. I try to stick to a plan as closely as possible but inevitably things have to change ‘on the fly’.
Pro Tip: I say pro-tip but really PF&H Sports Scientist, Raff, gave me this tip: unwrap the chews before the race and place them in a small plastic bag in a top tube bag. Having a top-tube bag makes no difference to how the bike handles but lightens your pockets a little. It also allows you to split up eating chews as it’s 15g of carb per unit.
Leading on from fuel…
Hydration vests are common in the pro ranks of gravel racing and I’d go as far as saying that they can be an essential bit of kit. The weight penalty that you get from carrying an extra two litres of water is nothing compared to what can happen if you get significantly dehydrated.
Gravel races are generally completed at a much lower speed than triathlon or road racing, so thermoregulation can be much, much more difficult. The second the temperature goes up, you feel as if you’re cooking.
I personally use the USWE hydration pack. It sits an awful lot higher than most others which in my opinion is much more comfortable. I’ll also add electrolytes to my pack.
I choose to go electrolytes rather than carbs in my pack for a few reasons. I need to be aware of how many grams of carb I’m drinking. It’s almost impossible to know how much you’re drinking per sip of a hydration vest. Being able to physically feel how much is left in a bottle makes doing calculations that little easier.
Obviously, everyone is different, but I know from my Sweat Test that I lose 860mg of sodium per litre of sweat, so I added four PH 1000 Electrolyte Drink Mixes to my two-litre pack to ensure I’m replacing an adequate proportion of my losses.
Pro Tip: Again, from Raff. The PH Drink Mixes also contain a small amount carb which is an easy way to boost your carb intake.
5. Disciplines within disciplines
No gravel race is the same. Some have crazy mountain bike descents which will leave you petrified. Some involve a big percentage of road riding.
Just like on the road where you have Classics, Grand Tours, mountains, hills, crosswinds and whatever else, there are different specialities in gravel. Pick the course that suits you.
If you have a MTB background, go for those races that are a little more challenging. If you have a huge engine and a TT background, then maybe something like Unbound will suit you better.
6. It's fun
Let me educate you on a little something called the spirit of gravel.
The spirit of gravel is this mythical beast which often gets quoted when people start taking things a little too seriously. Depending on who you ask, anything from wearing a skinsuit to not stopping at an aid station can be ruining the spirit of gravel.
In my humble opinion, the spirit of gravel is whatever you want it to be. Do you want to stop at every aid station and drink IPAs? Great. Do you want to race as hard and as fast as possible? Great. The rules are that there are no rules.
Unbound Gravel is one of my favourite races of the year. But, it was at Unbound where I relaxed into enjoying the race after I realised my race was gone. I chatted to locals, I stopped at aid stations and I had a completely new experience of gravel.
Equally, the week before at BWR Vancouver, I rode as hard as I could for seven hours to secure a top-ten result. It was painful, it was hard. A true sufferfest.
I enjoyed both for completely different reasons. The spirit of gravel is whatever you want. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
7. Take Spares
The set-up for gravel racing is surprisingly expensive. Now you don’t need all of the spare parts, but if you’re in the middle of nowhere and 50km from the next checkpoint, you’ll be thankful if you have some spares. From dynaplugs to zip-ties, spare-tubes to chain tools, being a gravel racer can sometimes feel just as much about problem solving as racing.
You learn a few things about where to put your spare along the way. Any tool that you want quick access to should go in your back-pocket. Definitely put a multi-tool in your back pocket.
I have dynaplugs stored in my bar ends to make fixing any puncture that little bit faster. I have CO2 canisters taped at easy access points all over my bike. Everything else gets stored in my saddle bag.
8. Early starts
Gravel races love early starts. I was on the start line of BWR Vancouver at 7am, and Unbound at 6am. When you consider that it’s best to eat ~2 hours before the start, that’s a very early alarm clock. It’s the part of Gravel I hate most, but on the other hand there’s something special about seeing the sun come up as you race.
We were staying in an RV and cooked a tonne of white rice at Unbound. We didn’t want to put it in the fridge until it fully cooled. With a 3:30am alarm, we decided to cover the pan and leave it on the stove top. It was still warm when I had it for breakfast.