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Groad Trip: Lessons learned from my first full gravel season

I struggled sometimes with the travel and social media, but 2021 was the best year of my career.

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Groad Trip is Pete Stetina’s regular column on graveling and traveling.

Three weeks into my self-imposed monthlong bike abstinence and I’ve finally taken the time to reflect on my 2021 campaign. The offseason has been a jump into the deep end of house projects and 2022 planning. As I now ruminate on this past season I can happily say it was the most successful and enjoyable of my career. It was damn hard, but I loved it and wouldn’t trade it!

Here, I’d like to share some lessons I learned this season.

Race results are only part of the story

I’ve always said a happy racer is a fast racer. While I had a very successful season results-wise, I can say that regardless of my placing that I enjoyed every event. This was my year to experience the vastness of the national gravel scene. I experienced sub-freezing snow and slop at my local Shasta Gravel Hugger, the international showdown at Unbound 200, my title defense at BWR, a snotty-cold congested Barry Roubaix, and flying to Iceland for a vacation with a bike race as the excuse.

The most fun was Oregon Trail, because of its “Summer Camp for Gravel Dorks” environment. Indeed there is always a way to have fun at a gravel race and it’s just about opening your eyes to opportunities when they present themselves.

I received more kudos for deciding to sip a beer mid race at Big Sugar than I did for winning Crusher in the Tushar!

Class is in session

I’ve subconsciously known it my whole career but I was finally able to mentally acknowledge it: I view races like tests. I am obsessed with doing the best I can. I get a lot of internal satisfaction by knowing I played it right, and an easy way to measure that is by crossing first. Winning indicated I passed the test with flying colors, a job well done.

Rebecca’s Private Idaho – check! (Photo: Linda Guerrette)

In my road career, my exam grades were rarely straight forward: Some directors would verbally acknowledge when I’d done a good job — and would subsequently get more out of me. Others wouldn’t, leaving me to wonder if I’d met expectations.

This season I’ve learned that to be the best ambassador for my sponsors I can be, there are other ways to pass the test. And this will be very important as faster folks enter this space and I continue to age! Which leads me to…

Industry relationships mean more than team relationships

In this discipline you can have a bad race result but sponsors are more likely to stick by you so long as you still have a good time. Just make sure you cross the line with a smile on your face and congratulate the others for their own successful battles and journeys, and stay genuine! The industry cares about personality and stories beyond a results sheet. My sponsors were happy, film projects were well received, and I finally had sufficient opportunities to hang around the expo, socialize, and not actually ruin gravel.

Everyone should buy a digital tire gauge

Seriously, do it. I didn’t realize until this year that floor pumps are notoriously inaccurate. Apparently I raced a lot of 2020 under pressurized and had no idea! These little checkers are much more accurate. While you’re at it, study this info sheet below.

Know your pressures, folks.

Start saying no

I exited the pandemic not wanting to miss out on anything and to make up for lost ground. I said “Yes!” to almost everything in an attempt to experience every gravel race I could. I spent too much time traveling, and had some massive burnout after the LeadBoat Challenge while still having months to go until offseason. Next year I need to prioritize better, but with the ever-booming season a few weeks off, I can already see myself overcommitting but I don’t know how to fix it!

Prioritize your internal flame

The majority of my colleagues, myself included, just follow our heart. By prioritizing the events we want to be at, we’re able to collectively spread ourselves to hopefully highlight the entire scene of races and adventures better than if we were all just following a sanctioned series. We all enjoy both regional and national races while also knowing that certain races and occasional sponsor requests are important for our respective careers. If one of us misses a big event for any number of reasons however, it doesn’t really matter: “We’ll miss you, see you at the next one!” is a common text amongst my colleagues. Payson McElveen skipped out on some important summer races to ride across Iceland, something I massively respect.

Social media versus reality

This is akin to our society as a whole, but I feel a lot of us, myself included, can get sucked down the wormhole of online sensationalism from time to time. I struggled not to take occasional online comments personally and it’s something I’m slowly growing calluses towards. Social media is a powerful tool us athletes can use to effectively promote ourselves, our sponsors, and events. It’s a useful yet unpredictable instrument that should be mastered… but at the end of the day there is no substitute for attending in person. I saw multiple times that no matter what was happening online, once embedded at an event the stoke around the fastest growing discipline of the sport is healthier than ever. After a year off of racing, every event was a joyful reunion.

Now it’s all eyes turned towards 2022 and expanding my horizons in the ever expanding landscape I’ve been lucky enough to fall into. I cannot wait to share it with you all on VeloNews!

Now it’s time for some offseason projects with my friend and mechanic Wayne.