Chris Case outlines what you should bring to a grueling gravel race such as the 200-mile Dirty Kanza.
You’ve chosen the bike. You’ve wrapped your head around riding 200 miles. (Hopefully.) You’ve put in the big miles and gathered all the bars, blocks, gummies, and mixes you’ll need to execute your fueling strategy on race day.
There’s just one more thing you need to think about to make your race a success: the details. And there are many, some of which can have a substantial effect on whether your race is pleasurable or downright abominable.
Nick Legan, author of Gravel Cycling, a partner in Rambleur Rising, a coaching and gear consultation source specializing in gravel racing and ultra-cycling, and a five-time participant of Dirty Kanza, has seen it all in the many gravel races he’s done. He is the former tech editor of VeloNews and the current tech editor of Adventure Cyclist, so he knows his gear.
We caught up with Legan to craft a checklist of the final details you’ll want to consider before you head to Kansas.
To aero or not to aero?
Do you aero? Many people believe that aero bars should be left to time trialists and triathletes. Others wholeheartedly embrace the equipment for the long, lonely stretches of road found in many gravel races. Legan emphasizes that using them is about more than just reducing drag.
“My first year at DK I ran drop bars and no aero bars, and my left hand stopped working — I couldn’t shift to the big ring,” Legan said. “Aero bars are not just to get more aerodynamic, although that’s handy. It’s about getting off of your hands and preventing that compressive nerve damage that can occur.”
Lauf suspension forks, and other front-end comfort features like Specialized’s FutureShock also help with long-term comfort.
Tires also play a pivotal role in increasing comfort over the long haul. Legan doesn’t recommend riding DK on anything less than a 40-millimeter tire. The trend in recent years toward wider rims has only improved the volume and shape of the many more robust tire options available today. As we’re learning, wider isn’t necessarily slower, and in many regards could make for an overall faster and more enjoyable day.
“Especially on gravel, comfort does equal speed,” Legan said. “There are scientific studies that vibration running through your muscles fatigues it more quickly.”
Is there any reason to run the smaller diameter, fatter 650b tire size at DK? Legan thinks for certain riders they can be the better choice. It all comes down to your strengths: If you’re technically savvy and comfortable on uneven surfaces, and you want a faster setup, go 700c. If you’re not that proficient on the rough stuff, and you want more comfort, 650b is your choice, according to Legan. That being said, he also notes there are some tires, particularly in the 650b category, that he would not bring to Kansas because they are too light. Also, if the tire is lacking tread, it can tend to float and skate over loose surfaces more.
“Just because a tire looks big, and looks ‘gravelly,’ doesn’t mean it’s up to the task of the Flint Hills,” Legan said. “Most other gravel events are not as demanding on tires as DK. DK is one of the most demanding around.”
And, it goes without saying, tubeless, tubeless, tubeless. Whatever you run, go tubeless. And know how to fix it.
Which brings us to the all-important repair kit. Legan’s includes two tubes, and he’ll drop the tube size below the tire size. So, for example, with 40-millimeter tires he’ll bring 32-millimeter tubes to save some weight and space. He’ll also bring a Dynaplug Air, which is a tubeless plug repair kit with an integrated CO2 inflator, which allows you to inflate your tire through the puncture. Legan suggests keeping them accessible so you have the chance to save a tire that may be quickly losing air and sealant. He’ll also carry patches, two CO2 cartridges, a minipump, mini-tool, a small chain breaker, several quick links, some zip ties, perhaps some strong duct tape wrapped around his pump, and a derailleur hanger specific to his bike.
“My big thing is, ‘I have to finish,’” Legan said. “I can’t have a result until I have any result, which means getting across the line. I may be more mechanically astute than average, but I also want to be able to limp home if I have to.”
On wet years, Legan will also bring a singlespeed cog and a cassette breaker.
Finally, use your checkpoints wisely. Stash extra tubes and other things you may need to make repairs or restock if repairs are made along the course. Stash lights in an aid station so you don’t carry them all day long. In years when Legan has finished after dark, he’ll bring one for his handlebar and one for his head, which helps if you need to make repairs or search through a bag.
Many of the choices you’ll need to make regarding clothing are highly personal. Things like bib shorts, whether to use chamois cream or not, socks, and so forth, are so personal that we won’t cover them here. We will offer a word of advice: don’t experiment on race day. Wear what you know. Do what you’ve done. Try to eliminate choices on race day. Legan suggests you come up with scenarios, dependent on weather, and plot it out before race day. Review it with your support person(s).
Here are a few things you might consider when making last minutes choices:
- Helmet – Only go aero if you can tolerate the heat, assuming it’s a dry, hot race day.
- Glasses – Consider wearing photochromic lenses or stashing a second pair of glasses with clear lenses if you’ll be out after dark.
- Cap – It’ll keep the sun off your face and out of your eyes during the long day, and if you have a shaved head, it could save you from an embarrassing burn.
- Sun sleeves – These can help protect you from hours spent in the sun. No need to apply and reapply sunscreen on your arms of you’re wearing these sleeves which will often have UPF 40+ protection or more. (Check out those from Buff, which makes a very lightweight sleeve that breathes — ideal for hot days.)
- Neck buff – In dry years, wear a buff and pull it over your nose when the dust kicks up. It weighs next to nothing, helps you cool off when dipped in a cooler full of icy water at an aid station, and provides UV protection on the back of your neck.
- Shoes – Legan goes up a half size to accommodate for the swelling that often occurs on long days. If that’s not an option, wear shoes that can be easily loosened.
- Wash cloth – Stash one at each aid station, keep it in the cooler, and wipe down your arms, legs, and face. “You’ll feel like a new cyclist,” Legan said. Just remember to reapply the sunblock.
There are many choices to make when preparing for a race this challenging. Don’t get overwhelmed. Remember this is about having fun. So, good luck, and don’t forget to soak it in. It’s beautiful out there.