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How to win a gravel race

From staying in the group to wearing the right gloves, pro Hannah Otto offers up some ways to win at gravel.

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Gravel cycling may be the quickest growing form of cycling in the world right now.

I think that one of the reasons it continues to take off and soar in popularity is because it can be so many things for so many different people. For many people, finishing a gravel race is a big accomplishment, while for others crossing the finish line first is the goal. While only one person can stand at the top of the podium, many people have the ability to have their own personal victories.

Read also: ‘Happy tears and a million stories to tell:’ Hannah Otto’s Leadville 100 win

Here are my tips and tricks to win a gravel race, whether that be in the most literal sense of the phrase, or creating your own wins and personal victories out on course.

Stay in the group

In most cases, the fastest way that you can travel through a gravel race is in a group.

When you are part of a group, you’re able to share the load of the work. Each rider in the group should take a turn breaking the wind, while the others draft and rest behind. This means that the whole group can travel faster because the person at the front can ride faster since they only have to break the win for a short period of time before they will switch with another rider and rest in the draft.

When you fall off of the group and have to ride on your own, more often than not you have to work harder because you are constantly breaking the wind, and you will also move more slowly because you’ll have to pace more conservatively since you don’t get any breaks in the draft.

Take your turn

While some people think that the best way to win the race is to hide in the group and never take a pull, I think that it’s important to take your turn breaking the wind. Taking your fair share of the work in the group will earn you friends and respect from your fellow racers which will only benefit you in the long run.

Pace smart

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in a group during a gravel race, then you must assess the pace.

The pace of the group should challenge you but also feel sustainable. There may be times when the group accelerates and you’ll need to make the careful decision as to whether putting out the effort to stay in the group will be faster overall. If you put out the effort to do several big pushes to stay in the group, you may be rewarded with faster overall speed and the chance to recovery in the draft, but you also may be punished late in the race when you’ve burned too many matches and begin to fatigue.

Understanding how many efforts you can put out early on without blowing up later in the race versus the difficulty of constantly breaking your own wind and riding alone comes with experience. There will likely come a time when you are forced to ride alone and understanding your own capabilities and pace will be critical to making it to the finish line.

Fuel early and often

Gravel races tend to be longer in duration, so fueling is an important element in the race.

In fact, some professional gravel racers have even jokingly referred to gravel races as ‘an eating competition.’ The reason for that is because the better you are able to fuel the effort, the better your performance will be.

Don’t get caught up in the beginning of the race and forget to eat. Aim to eat something at least every 30 minutes starting in the first 30 minutes of the race.

Tire pressure

Finding the perfect tire pressure for your gravel event could save you significant amounts of time. A lower tire pressure will allow you to better absorb bumps and washboard vibrations thus saving you energy and making you more efficient across the terrain. Too low of a tire pressure and you may risk hitting rim or flatting. The tire pressure that is optimal for you will largely depend on your riding style, your weight, your tire width, and tread.

Bar tape and gloves

In a gravel race you spend hours on the bike encountering variable terrain. Your hands gripping the bars will fatigue throughout the race, especially if the ground is bumpy. Good bar tape and gloves can really save your ability to carry speed the entire race. Blisters on your hand will cause a surprising amount of pain and ultimately slow you down as you try to save your hands.

Gearing

Some races boast extreme climbs, while others offer rolling hills or flat terrain that’s never ending. Having the right gear to match the terrain can make all of the difference.

Don’t be afraid to change your gearing according to the race. You’ll be happy when you’re able to keep pedaling through long flat sections or better yet, when you can ride up the hills instead of having to walk them.

Optimize your position

Finding good positions during gravel competitions can make a difference in both speed and comfort. Being aerodynamic can save a lot of time out on course, and simple adjustments can come from a good bike fit to optimize position.

Something that is arguably more important than aerodynamics is comfort. If you’re uncomfortable then you’ll struggle to go fast as the pain settles in hour after hour. A good bike fit can also help you find a position that is comfortable maintain for hours on end.

Taking advantage of different hand positions such as riding in the hoods, flats, and drops can also help.

Take good lines

Since gravel racing is less technical than mountain biking, many people forget to look for lines while gravel racing. While you may not be looking for the best way to navigate a technical feature, finding the best line through a sandy section can not only save you time, but energy as well.

Know the course

Knowing what is coming can help you both prepare for what is ahead as well as motivate your current scenario.

If you know that you have a big climb ahead then you may pace more conservatively or if you know that the current climb is almost over, then you may have the courage to push through. Additionally, many gravel courses aren’t traditionally marked and you’ll be responsible for navigating your own way through the race.

Respect the ‘spirit of gravel’

While the spirit of gravel is something that many people continue to search for, it may be right in front of you. Basically, the spirit of gravel is an atmosphere that allows everyone to simultaneously search for and reach their own goals.