Spring is around the corner and that means dried-out roads, sunshine, and GRAVEL. While gravel riding and racing is super hot right now in the cycling world, there are still a lot of cyclists who are intimidated or unfamiliar with how it all works. So, in this episode, Coach Frank breaks the gravel skills  down and offers some of his tried and true tips for gravel riding and racing as a veteran of the gravel scene (he’s been doing it since before it was “cool”).

In this podcast, Coach Frank covers:

  • pack riding skills
  • maintaining a line of sight
  • body position and english on the bike
  • braking
  • cornering
  • descending
  • roots and mud

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Let me start with the 3 different types of gravel courses that different kinds of gravel skills apply to:

the Boulder Gucci gravel 

What I jest about here is that the dirt roads around  Boulder, CO are practically paved because out West Boulder County grades the dirt with giant tractors and treats the dirt by spraying the road with magnesium chloride (I think) to help bind the dirt and when the conditions are right – its smooth and hard pack just like a rough paved rough.

Incidentally for those of you who live or have ridden in Costa Rica, you know many of the roads are dirt and they are treated with molasses to bind the dirt and keep the dust low.  So riding in Costa Rica smells like pancakes.   But I digress….

In either place not many gravel skills are necessary and I know that because I’ve ridden a road bike on these roads just as I would ride a road bike.  In fact Boulder has historically held a road race called the Boulder-Roubaix on the Boulder gucci gravel and we all used our road bikes with maybe 25mm slick road tires.  And nobody got hurt. The skills required are the same skills you need for road racing:

  • To be able to ride in a pack, group, peloton
  • Draft wheels
  • Conserve energy from drafting and maneuvering in the pack to travel faster with less energy expenditure

When I say draft I am speaking about the fact that aerodynamic drag is 30% less riding directly behind a rider in front of you than it is riding with no rider in front of you aka breaking the wind.

Over 3-4-5-6 hours + that 30% adds up alot and you can travel farther and faster by riding in a group.  Having a good group to ride with during a gravel race is kinda the holy grail to your performance especially in the final quarter of the race when you are really tired.  You’ll go faster and be more motivated than being stuck out there by yourself in no man’s land questioning your life’s decisions.

How do you work on your pack riding gravel skills: why by George practice by riding in groups.  This where a lot of roadies excel and why you see a lot of them coming over to gravel. That and they are aerobic endurance monsters.

So to practice you need to seek out opportunities to work on you drafting and your pack riding skills.  This is why we are such fans of the weekend group rides and the weeknight crits and group rides.

I said crit – yes – crit racers  are some of the best drafters in the sport of cycling (trackies too) but a good crit racer can draft like nobodies business and out sprint , out kick you on the last lap.  Want to improve your pack riding, drafting gravel skills – do a crit.  Or a road race – that counts too.

In fact, the first 30-60 minutes of a gravel race is just like a fast paced road race.  Therefore seek out road races to work on your gravel skills.  Of course you can do gravel races to work on your gravel skills because by doing you are practicing. And with more practice you’ll improve and become more comfortable riding at speed in close proximity to other riders. All the while it is dusty and bumpy.

Familiarity plays a big factor. So practice practice practice.  I’ll give you an aside about pack riding skills to put it in perspective for gravel racing.  When I worked for USA Cycling and Directed the US National Women’s Team at all the world cups like Flanders, Drenthe Plouay, etc…  pack riding skills was many time the rider’s biggest challenge.

The US National Team would take the best riders in the US used to slower speeds, bigger roads and a not as tight of a pack and put them on narrow unfamiliar roads, higher speeds , closer quarters and that was their biggest challenge. That’s also why racing in Europe is important for athlete development – its a skill that comes from doing.  There’s no practice or drill or workout that is a substitute for riding in the European peloton.

The point I want to make is to practice by doing when it comes to your gravel skills.  The more gravel races you do the better you’ll become at them, including our gravel pack riding skills.

Okay – that covers the chaotic first 30 minutes of a gravel race but what about after that?

After that you will be lucky to be in a smaller group of 6 – 12 riders.  Same skills apply it is just not as scary. Your line of sight is much better!

Let’s talk about your line of sight because this is a big gravel skill.  Your line of sight is drafting and looking ahead at the road/trail and seeing the smoother path.  The path of least resistance AND making changes to your line to avoid that rock, or that hole in the dirt or the muddier line.

Your line of sight is easier to see when you are out there all by yourself in the latter portion of the race but at the beginning of the race see the dirt is blocked by the pack and your attempt to draft better.   Know why there are so many flats in the first two hours of the Dirty Kanza/Unbound? Because riders are desperate to find a better draft and don’t see the sharp rock because they are literally glued to the wheel in front of them.

What’s the skill?

Eyes up  #1.  Don’t just look at the wheel just in front of you – looking ahead and around.

Look Around # 2 – if possible – you’ll be able to see better by riding an inch or two to the left or the right of the wheel in front of you – riding just to the side gives you a better line of sight.  Sometimes that line of sight comes at the expense of the draft so its a balance.  Do you trust the wheel, the rider in front of you and follow them verbatim or do you ride just a little off to the side? Its a balance – but don’t use your brute strength in the first few hours of the race riding off to the side because that will come back to bite you in the last quarter of the race when you are dog tired.

One final gravel skill or tactic is when riding in a group of 20 for example position yourself towards the front but not on the front for a better line of sight. You’ll still have a good draft but less likely to be surprised by a rock, a rut, root, patch of mud etc… Kinda like the Paris-Roubaix entering the Ardennes Forest – be up front. But not on the front….

That covers the roadie esque portion of your gravel skills. You’ll use those at nearly all your gravel races.

Let’s shift over to the gravel skills per the terrain – the gravel conditions getting away from the Boulder gucci gravel course and on to the medium and chunky sections – even sections that are like mountain biking.

For these sections of a course line of sight is critical and the draft is not that important.  In fact you will negotiate these sections better by not being around other riders.  For example – you’re riding in a pack, drafting well , traveling  faster and life is good but you come to a singletrack section:

The skill here is to enter that section first out of the group you are with or if not give the rider in front of you space ahead – like 3-5 bike lengths so you have a clear line of sight to handle the turns, the rocks, mud, slick section, roots, etc….

Often times these sections are only a small fraction of the whole race so my best piece of advice is to try to negotiate them safely and then you can put the hammer down when the technical aspect is over and the gravel road is in better conditions.

In cyclocross we use the adage, “you know what’s slower than riding a section carefully? Crashing.” Crashing is slower and often costly to you and your equipment.  I know its cool and all to rail a section like Matthew van der Pool or Christoper Blevins but remember from our podcast with Amity Rockwell – the tortoise beats the hare every time. Your goal for these sections is to safely steadily negotiate your way thru.

Gravel Skills include:

  • Check your speed before entering a technical section
  • Eyes up – look ahead
  • Ride light – and by that we mean get up out of the saddle so if you do need to roll over a rock or a root your whole weight sitting on the bike does not compress the tire and potentially damage your rim, cause an flat etc…
  • While you are out of the saddle use your knees and elbows like shock absorbers.  Let the bike move up and down and around underneath you while your arms and legs are extending at your knees and elbows.
  • I took a mountain bike lesson from 2000 World Downhill Mountain Bike Champion Myles Rockwell and he said – ‘dance with the trail’ let the bike move underneath you while you are stable

To practice: ride your Gravel Bike on trails!

Yea, its fun and will help you train and practice for these portions of your gravel race. So for the Boulder gucci gravel riders – head over to Dowdy Draw where the xc mountain bikers go and practice riding your gravel bike on the singletrack.

This reminds me of the announcer of the Crusher and the Tushar which is billed as ‘no matter what bike you choose, you’ll be dead wrong at some point in the race’ – and of course this was in the early days of gravel racing when some choose to ride a mountain bike and some choose to ride a cyclocross bike – the crusher had/has mountain bike sections and road bike sections.

These days ride your gravel bike on mountain bike terrain as well as the road.  Be diversified. The more you do it the better you’ll become.

Back to the more in the moment skills here are a few more tips to consider and implement when you are out there getting your groad on:

Use your rear brake more than your front brake unless the traction is good and consistent.  Like 70 % rear 30% front.

This is especially important for descending and corners. Again criterium racers and cyclocrossers have the upper hand here and often times take their skills for granted.

For cornering – my number 1 tip is to check your speed before you enter the corner.  While you are coming up on the corner read the line and the terrain. Is it loose and dusty, muddy slick or buttery smooth? How tight is the corner what are the safe speeds?

At the Crusher the corners come in the form of switchbacks on the descents and the speeds are really slow. At Steamboat Gravel the corners are more like bends in the road and the speeds are high and some don’t even require braking at all.

Just  remembering the tortoise and the hare its better to go thru a corner safely than by crashing. No one ever finishes a gravel race wishing they’d of cornered faster.

Descending!  I’m gonna give you all my cyclocross skill tips here:

Keep your weight back and feather your front break, use your rear brake more. To get your weight back even further stand up and get your hips behind your saddle over the back wheel. Keep your elbows loose to dance with the terrain and avoid having a death grip on the handlebars.  Be loose and flowy so the bike can move underneath over rocks, roots, etc… Avoid the death grip.

Hand position: hoods are ok but for better brake modulation be down in the drops – the curly bars as the enduro folk poke fun of us endurance types.

To practice: descend!  For the Bouder gucci gravelers – descending down the gravel section of Sunshine Canyon – it has similarities to Steamboat and the Crusher.  The gravel road at the Crusher get chewed up big time and stutter bumps forms as well the corners get loose. So descend Sunshine when its like that : awful.

You can let off the brakes more in the straight sections and check your speed as you enter the corners.  Even in the drops keep your elbows and shoulder loose.  If you can remember to laugh and flap your arms like a chicken you’ll get bonus points.

Steam crossings + Roots and Mud:

Gravel skills for stream crossings mostly depends on how deep the water is, visibility and the conditions at the bottom.  At the legendary Winter park Tipperary Creek MTB race way back when, Lance Armstrong was racing and came to the famous Tipperary Creek crossing in the lead of the race.  In late summer the water was still running pretty high and there was no visibility to the rocks below. Rumor has it Big Tex did a full on superman endo with a full face plunge into the water. Local honch Jimi Killen who was about a minute or two behind dismounted and overtook Lance for the w.

The point here is safe passage is faster than crashing. There’s a lot of stream crossing at Unbound and a lot of flats after because the visibility is poor a riders slam a rock underneath. So run your big tire and don’t be afraid to get off your bike if you can’t see you line.

Roots!  There’s dry roots and wet muddy slick roots.  I still have PTSD from racing the NorBA Nationals at Mount Snow and in West Virginia.  If at all possible square off and ride the roots perpendicular.  Whatever you do try to avoid riding a root diagonally because the chances are much higher for the rubber tire to slip sideways on the smooth wet muddy root.  That is nearly impossible at Mt Snow or West Virginia but thankfully I do not know of any gravel course that gnarly.

Pick your way over these sections. Light out of the saddle eyes ahead, feather the front brake and this is where doing a course inspection will help a ton.  Ie. riding the course and knowing about the sections coming up.

Finally let’s talk about mud! I think we’ve all seen the picture from the Mid-South last year – just soul crushing slow peanut butter heavy mud.  The biggest mud riding skill is a light gear and to keep your momentum, moving forward. Once you stop or dab you are going to probably need to get off an run to a less muddy section or expend a lot of energy to get going again.

Fortunately for most of the gravel races out west you’ll be battling dust rather than mud.  But races further east have the potential to be muddy and that means slower speeds and more patience is required.

That is more tactics but skills are to simply keep your arms and shoulder loose – and honestly let the bike slide underneath you and keep your center of gravity overtop the bottom bracket.  Avoid the death grip.  Letting the bike slip around in the mud is for sure an acquired skill so how do you practice? That’s right ride in the mud. 10,000 muddy miles for mastery. ha!

Alright that’s all the gravel skills I have for you in this podcast, if I missed some please let me know in the comments.  My biggest take home point is that gravel skills is like riding a bike – the more you do it the better you’ll become. So while you are out there FtFP’ing weave 10-20 minutes here and there to ride singletrack or mountain bikey terrain. Use your long gravel simulation rides not only for the physiological aspect of the training but for the skills practice too. Not only uphill but downhill as well!

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