Gravel Power Analysis: What it takes to become ‘world champ’
Editor’s note: Gravel Power Analysis is a new column by coach Zach Nehr, who last year did a Power Analysis column on pro road racing. This year he’ll regularly check in with power analysis from gravel races. This first column is a look back at the 2019 Gravel Worlds.
They may not be UCI-official rainbow stripes, but the jersey still looks cool. Plus, you get a sword.
In August 2019, John Borstelmann (Panaracer/Factor) won the 10th Edition of Gravel Worlds from a sold-out field of 700 riders on a 150-mile course of dirt, gravel, and a little bit of pavement. Seven hours after departing the outskirts of Lincoln in his native Nebraska, Borstelmann sprinted back into town, crossing the line first.
It took guts, grit, determination, and bravery. It took planning and logistics, smart equipment choices, and a little bit of luck. It also took power. Lots of power.
John Borstelmann’s Gravel Worlds, by the numbers:
- Height: 6 ft 1 in (1.85 m)
- Weight: 175 lbs. (79.4 kg)
- Age: 28
- Distance: 242.2 km (150.5 miles)
- Time: 7:00:40
- Elevation Gain: 3,016 meters (9,895 feet)
- Average Power: 262 W (3.3 W/kg)
- Normalized Power: 300 W (3.78 W/kg)
- Work: 6,619 kJ
- Borstelmann’s Strava file
How Gravel Worlds was won
Two riders attacked from the gun, seemingly content for a long day of duo-suffering. Borstelmann and the field let the pair go – they would catch them later, surely. Not much happens in the early hours of a gravel race. After nearly three hours, there was still over 90 miles to go.
Just after mile 57, Borstelmann attacked, but not for the reasons you might expect. He sensed unusual softness in his tire, as well as a need for slight derailleur adjustment. The burly Nebraskan could take care of these issues at the first aid station, coming in just over a mile’s time. But he would need a slight cushion to ensure that he had time for the extra adjustments, and be able to leave the aid station with the main group.
Start to first aid station (Mile 0-59):
- Avg Power: 244 W
- Max Power: 1098 W
- Avg Speed: 34.3 kph (21.3 mph)
Attack before first checkpoint (Mile 57.5-59):
- Avg Power: 401 W
- Max Power: 1,098 W
- Avg Speed: 34.6 kph (21.5 mph)
At mile 59, Borstelmann slammed on the brakes as he rolled into the aid station. Refill water bottles, pump tire, adjust derailleur – all was done in just 1:20, and Borstelmann was back on the road at the head of the main group.
Thinking ahead and mechanical prowess are keys to gravel racing success. Without either, the front group could’ve easily left Borstelmann behind, realistically ending his chances with nearly 100 miles to go.
After the checkpoint bottleneck – which Borstelmann says was 40-50 riders long – only about 10 riders including Borstelmann were left in the main group chasing the two leaders. For the next 15 miles, Borstelmann rode tempo, rotating in the group as they soon caught the two leaders, and a few bridged up from behind.
Leaving the first aid station (Mile 59-74):
- Avg Power: 300 W (3.78 W/kg)
- Max Power: 671 W
- Avg Speed: 34 kph (21.1 mph)
The racing truly kicked off after Mile 75. “Cooperation was rare. Attacks flew. Tensions rose. Guys got dropped. By Mile 115, the group was down to seven, and losing steam,” Borstelmann said.
Front group dwindles (Mile 75-115):
- Avg Power: 271 W
- Max Power: 982 W
- Avg Speed: 33.7 kph (20.9 mph)
As the dwindling group rode into the town of Sprague, Nebraska, Borstelmann attacked full gas into a set of three corners leading into a mile of crosswind. Riding high as the hometown hero, Borstelmann’s confidence grew as he shattered the legs of his opponents. His lung-searing attack had dropped nearly everyone. But as he glanced back, he saw one rider – former U.S. national road champion Eric Marcotte – riding across the gap.
Borstelmann’s attack in Sprague (Mile 114.7-116.8):
- Avg Power: 374 W (4.71 W/kg)
- Max Power: 891 W
- Avg Speed: 40.2 kph (25 mph)
This attack was a true leg-breaker, not because of its strength but because of its timing. At this point, riders were more than five and a half hours into the race, and a rider like Borstelmann had done over 5000 kJs of work. Most people coulud barely pedal after that amount of work, let alone attack full-gas with over 30 miles still to go.
Temperatures also climbed into the 80s (Fahrenheit) on this summer day – from Mile 100-150, the average temperature was 84°F according to Borstelmann’s Wahoo Elemnt Bolt, peaking at 90°F in the finishing town of Lincoln. Nutrition and hydration are additional keys to success in gravel racing. The longer the event, the more important these factors. Borstelmann chose to wear a Camelbak for Gravel Worlds, likely a race-winning decision that saved him minutes stopping at aid stations.
For the next 25 miles, Borstelmann and Marcotte rode together. “Marcotte was just along for the ride, refusing to take a pull despite my puppy-eyed coaxing,” Borstelmann said. “So, I made it as tough as I could for him by staying low, accelerating out of corners, and over the tops of rollers, and trying to open a gap out of the checkpoint. I only drank coke.” Despite his best efforts, Marcotte remained glued to Borstelmann’s wheel with just a few miles to go.
By Mile 140 (yes, you read that right), both Borstelmann and Marcotte were beginning to crack. Borstelmann cramped on a rolling hill, handing Marcotte a free 15-second gap. But Marcotte got stopped at a highway crossing shortly thereafter – another oft-forgotten aspect of gravel racing: racing on open roads – and Borstelmann caught back on.
Running on fumes (Mile 140-150):
- Avg Power: 240 W
- Max Power: 558 W
- Avg Speed: 31.7 kph (19.7 mph)
Borstelmann and Marcotte had a lead of over four minutes to the next group on the road, so a bit of cat-and-mousing was in store. With a mile to go until the technical finish, Borstelmann took the lead.
“Marcotte flicked me through, saying something about not knowing the finish,” Borstelmann said. “Last year, I missed a turn and with it my chance to sprint for a podium finish. So, I sure as hell knew the finish, but it was my turn to refuse to pull through.”
Sprint to the final chicane:
- Avg Power: 647 W (8.15 W/kg)
- Max Power: 1,022 W
- Avg Speed: 52.5 kph (32.6 mph)
Borstelmann moved into the lead with a half-mile to go as Marcotte fumbled with his GPS. Borstelmann sprinted with everything he had, but was it enough? He lead Marcotte through the final chicane, legs cramping, body running on empty. Borstelmann glanced back and realizes he had a gap, and… bam! Gravel World Champion!