The Grind: Gravel race feed zone etiquette and formats
When you’re racing a long gravel event and you come to a feed zone, what do you do? Do you blow on past, confident in the extra supplies you’re carrying on your bike and back? Do you take a quick hand up from a roadside friend or stranger? Or do you pull in to the checkpoint, and patiently line up to fill up your bottles and pockets?
Like a lot of things in gravel racing, there is no one definite answer, as each race sets its own rules.
“I’ve been through them all and even ones with secret, illegal feed zones,” said veteran gravel pro Mat Stephens, who has won Dirty Kanza 200, Land Run 100 (now The Mid South), Barry Roubaix, and more. “I think the best balance is neutral hand ups for the top 5-10 percent of the race, and water jugs or other goodies for the rest of the bunch. This fits the bill for most gravel ‘mullet’ races; it’s a race at the front and everyone else is having fun, finishing.”
Gravel pro Alison Tetrick said that for most events, neutral feed zones are sufficient. “Feed zone requirements are unique to each event due to the distance, conditions, and course layout,” Tetrick said. “The feed zone shouldn’t inhibit the race or give other riders unfair advantages. I love getting neutral bottle hand ups, but this service needs to be available for everyone.”
At STB GRVL, promoter Amy Charity said the race organizers wanted everyone to have the same experience, whether they were at the front, or the back of the race.
“People came in and were like, ‘my person always gets X’ in the feed zone. We said, ‘you have two options, you can carry your own. Or you can bring 1,500 – enough for everybody.'”
STB GRVL did not do call-ups at the beginning of the mass start event for the same reason.
STB GRVL promoters initially planned to do hand-ups for the first 100 racers through the aid stations, but ultimately canned the idea. “What if you are 101st? Everyone gets off their bike and fills their own bottle,” Charity said.
For 2020, at The Mid South (formerly known as Land Run 100) the aid-station format will change: Skratch is offering neutral support with hydration and snacks at the 50-mile point, and teams can also set up a tent to support their riders.
In past years, the race offered a dropbag service where riders could leave a bag at the start and have it trucked out to the aid station. Race organizer Bobby Wintle said the dropbag service was expensive for the race. When visiting STB GRVL, Wintle was impressed by how that race handed the feed zones.
I did Land Run in 2018, and dropped a bag for the mid-point, thinking the front group would at least make a quick stop. My friend and gravel guru Nick Legan pointed out that, no, they would not stop, and that I should run a CamelBak if I wanted to stay in the group.
Legan was, of course, right. Stephens and his Panaracer squad came through the feed zone like a WorldTour team, grabbing musettes as they cruised on through. I was happy to have a CamelBak on so I could stay on their wheels. A few guys who stopped to grab a bag didn’t make it back on, and the front group was thinned out, to less than 20 riders.
“Ideally, there’s a balance between what’s easy for the promoter, and what affects the outcome of the race,” Stephens said. “A lot of times, the feed zone situation does affect the race and, for sure, it pays to know how that race handles the feed zone, and how to not have it be a disadvantage. As it is, the feed zone is part of the race. Kind-of like aero bars, it doesn’t matter if you like it or not, this is how the races are and that’s how the game has to be played.”
Racer and race promoter Rebecca Rusch sees the expectation of hand-ups as one more example of the ‘roadie-fication’ of gravel.
At her Rebecca’s Private Idaho event, she is changing up the feed zone format.
“Typically, we have done hand-ups to the first 50 riders to the best of our ability,” Rusch said. “I have dropped [bottles] and felt terrible. It takes a roadie expectation into a gravel, off-road event. We are going to eliminate that, and take a page from mountain bike stage racing: You stop and you fill your bottle. If people don’t like that style, they don’t have to participate.”
Stephens shared an anecdote of how feed zone etiquette can affect racing:
“Last year, at Gravel Worlds, I was too nice at the feed 50 miles in,” Stephens said. “I let people grab water from the tap until it was my turn. I chased solo for 40 minutes at threshold to catch up to the lead group. I have no doubt it affected my race. I’m not saying the guys up front were jerks in getting their water, but I would have had to have been a jerk to get out of the water stop at the same time.”
As for team support, Stephens is a fan of neutral support.
“It sucks for any race but the biggest ones to have team support,” he said. “I’m lucky enough my Panaracer team is well supported but I would hate to have three guys in a van show up to race and be handicapped because they didn’t drag along somebody’s friend to stand in BFE for four hours to hand them a bottle.”
Tetrick said feed zones can be critical for a rider’s success at the event.
“I have seen riders attack feed zones and this is frowned upon. The first rule of any event should be, don’t be lame. Just don’t do it. Riders should be able to quickly enter and exit the feed zone and get the supplies that they need,” Tetrick said. “The spirit of gravel is adventure and this should be maintained even in the feed zones. Don’t use these places to cut in line to fill up your bottle or be rude to a fellow competitor. Get a snack, get a drink, and get on with your ride. Now this doesn’t mean you get to relax with a latte and expect your competitors to wait for you. But if everyone is quick, courteous, and efficient, then everyone is simply racing their race and not creating a situation giving unfair advantage to certain riders or having to bully other riders out of the way to stay in a group.”
“And if you want to skip an aid station while the group stops and try to get an advantage that way, then good luck when you run out of food and fluids,” Tetrick said. “High five if your gamble works, but if you’re on the side of the road cramping in an hour, your competitors you dropped when you skipped the feed zone might not toss you a bottle they stopped for. And yes, sometimes that rider cramping is me…”
At the Crusher in the Tushar, promoter Burke Swindlehurt has always wanted to support every person the same way.
“My background is road racing. My vision for Crusher was to bring the pro experience to everybody. From the very first person to come to the aid station, to the last person. Which was a great idea when I was expecting 30 people to show up,” Swindlehurt said. “But now we are close to giving away 3,000 water bottles to make sure everybody is taken care of.”
“I want self-serve, but my volunteers, they love this experience so much, if I told people we are not doing this anymore, I would literally have people crying. I have floated this idea and seen the tears well up. If we keep growing, I have some hard decisions in front of me. Then you’ve got the idea of 3,000 water bottles: What do you do with them? We run them through an industrial cleaner.”
If you are doing a gravel race this year, be sure to familiarize yourself with how the aid stations are set up, where they are, and how they are run.
“Unfortunately you can’t always plan for what happens at the feed zone as some races change from year to year what they do, even if you raced it last year, they may handle things a little different this time,” Stephens said. “Sometimes, you just gotta wing it.”
Tetrick said that it’s also important to keep the spirit of the event in mind. “A lot of times in gravel, the event’s culture and ethos is on display loud and proud at the feed zones,” she said. “Only so many people are at the pointy end of the event attempting to race it. The rest should be a party bus of fun, and even those racing at the pointy end should be on the party bus, just, at the front, having fun. I mean, Fireball and chocolate-covered bacon, anyone?”