Overcoming Common Gravel Racing Challenges
Anticipating and planning solutions for what could go wrong creates the greatest chance of success. Particularly in long races, athletes who can adapt to adversity are typically the most successful
By Reid Beloni, CTS Senior Coach
There are a lot of Murphy’s Law moments in gravel racing, so we need to talk about crisis management, or what to do when things go wrong. Anticipating and planning solutions for what could go wrong creates the greatest chance of success. Particularly in long races, athletes who can adapt to adversity are typically the most successful. Lest you think that the racer who won just got lucky, their perfect race was built on lessons learned from many failures. So let’s speed up your learning curve by going over some common crises and giving you tools to overcome them.
We are going to use the Vanilla Ice approach to a crisis: “Stop, collaborate and listen… If there’s a problem, yo I’ll fix it” (and move on). Easy to remember. When something goes wrong, start by slowing or stopping, assess what is going on, devise a plan to fix it (ask for help if needed), and then get moving again.
Note: the terminology from here on out will reference gravel racing, but these steps can be applied to road races, epic bike tours, and long mountain bike races as well.
Flat tires and mangled equipment are common in gravel racing. If you trained for months, paid a lot in travel and entry and it’s a bucket list or once a year type of event, take the time to prepare for mechanical issues. This means racing with the tools, parts, and knowledge to fix common problems. For events in remote areas with long distances between aid stations, I recommend redundancies in your parts kit. Carry CO2 and a pump, tire plugs and a tube, shift cable or di2 wire, zip ties, duct tape, and a spare derailleur hanger. In your aid station bag (if applicable) have duplicates of all of these things and more. Add a tire and sealant, change of cycling clothes, spare shoes, a replacement chain, battery, lights, and brake pads.
Now, what do you do when you have a mechanical? Vanilla Ice, baby: stop and figure it out. If your derailleur is making a loud popping noise, don’t keep pedaling thinking it will fix itself. You are likely to rip your derailleur off. If you realize you don’t have the tools or knowledge to fix your problem, collaborate. A lot of people are also just hoping to make it to the finish line, so ask for help and you may just get what you need. Be sure to return the karma. Fix your problem and then get back to the task at hand. Don’t panic or try to make up for lost time, just go back to doing what you were doing. Rushing the repair or rushing to make up time will start a cascade of secondary mistakes.
Sometimes mechanical issues alone result in 50% of a field failing to finish. High DNF’s from mechanicals are typically associated with inclement weather people failed to anticipate. I know during a recent muddy year at Unbound Gravel, no one thought, “My best case scenario is having to walk for 50 miles!”
Hope for great weather and plan for bad weather. Know what you will need to do if it ends up being 15 degrees hotter than expected or pouring rain, and how that will change your race plan. If it does get hotter you’ll need to ride slower and drink more. Rain might warrant mud tires, extra brake pads and a dry base layer in your drop bag, and an additional jacket at the start. Bad weather almost always means your event will take longer, so pack more food and don’t go as hard at the start.
Crashes happen. If you have a spill: Vanilla Ice and STOP. Don’t get right back on your bike, take a second to check yourself over. (Read: “What to do when you crash”) Often an injury can be hidden or you are in a bit of shock and so you might not even know you’re bleeding. Rub your hands over your body and look for any blood. Take a look at your helmet. Make sure all your joints are moving how they should.
Now do the ABC safety check of your bike: Air, Brakes, Chain. Check your tires to make sure you didn’t flat or burp one in the crash, and check the wheels to make sure they’ll spin and are still tight in the frame. Brakes: Are they still working, are the levers where they should be, and are your rotors straight? Chain: put your chain back on the crankset if necessary, lift the back of the bike and spin the crank with no pressure on the chain. This will tell you whether you have a bent chain link or bent derailleur hanger.
If your bike, body, and brain all check out, get back on the bike and take it easy as you check your body and bike while in motion. If everything is working well (albeit with added pain), gradually accelerate back to your goal pace. If there are any red flags, don’t ride through them; address any medical or mechanical problems. Again, don’t try to rush things and make up for lost time; that leads to secondary mistakes.
I spoke about nutritional strategies at length in my gravel nutrition blog, which you can find here. But even with a great nutrition plan, your stomach can still turn on you.
Cramping is a common issue faced in long gravel events, but muscle cramps don’t necessarily mean your race is over. The science on muscle cramps is now telling us that cramping probably isn’t a nutritional or hydration issue as much as it is from overexertion or excess fatigue. However, some nutrition and hydration strategies may help alleviate them: slow down, cool down, eat and drink a little more, and try eating mustard packets, drinking pickle juice, or other strong flavors (vinegary and spicy foods/liquids in particular seem to help). These can be a reset switch for cramping that allows you to get some relief and adjust your pace.
Upset Stomach/Gastric Distress
“Gut rot” is probably everyone’s greatest nutritional fear. Usually, gastric distress is caused by having too much food and not enough water in your gut, so your digestion slows significantly. Gut motility drops when athletes are overheated as well. If this starts to happen, stop eating food and start sipping small amounts of water more frequently. This will help dilute the solution in your gut and restart absorption.
Flavor fatigue is another issue that crops up during long gravel events. The best sports nutrition products in the world can’t do you any good if you leave them in your pocket. Sometimes you need a new or different flavor or texture to incentivize you to reach back into that pocket. Ideally, you should have a range of foods you know work for you, including options that are sweet, salty or savory, crunchy, or soft. Then you can look for these options in aid stations or make sure they are all in your drop bags or with your personal support crew.
It is really easy to get wrapped up in the race and overextend yourself. This is compounded by the fact it can be a good strategy to start somewhat hard. A fast start can put you with a group of riders as strong or stronger than you, enabling you to stay in the draft and cover the opening miles faster. The problem is that when some people hear this, they ride 3-4 notches higher than normal, rather than 1-2 notches higher. Here’s how to start fast, but not too fast.
Study the course
Study the course and try to anticipate where selections will be made. Let’s say there’s a short but significant hill at Mile 10. You could work hard to stay with the front group until that point, then pace that climb by your power meter and RPE. By the top of the climb you should be able to gather a group of riders who are similar to your strength. If there isn’t a decisive feature in the course, maybe at 30 minutes do an honest assessment of your pace. By this point the early race jitters and adrenaline should be wearing off and you can do a more honest assessment of perceived effort or look at your average power or heart rate thus far.
Monitor pace frequently
Keep checking in on your pace frequently. You’ll need to adjust your effort several times, based on how you feel, the heat, the wind direction and speed, and how far you’ve traveled. Don’t be afraid to slow down when you’re in a rough period. But similarly, don’t be afraid to go fast when you feel great. Add a pacing assessment to your “to do” list every time you eat food or drink.
Endurance sports can take your mind to some dark places. Endurance racing icon Rebecca Rusch is fond of saying, “There will be times when you feel really great, and times when you feel terrible, but both will pass.” This is your first line of defense: it’s temporary. Whatever you are going through, it won’t last forever. It will likely last for less time than you think.
Your second tool for getting out of a mental funk is redirection. Start counting fence posts, recite a recipe, sing. If the negative thoughts are all you can think about, deliberately redirect your focus to something else, anything else. Pedal as smoothly as possible, focus on the whole pedal stroke, try to take the smoothest line, focus on your breathing, identify five things you can see, five you can hear, five you can feel, or repeat a mantra. Mantras can be really powerful, come up with one and use it during your training rides. A mantra should include positive self-talk, “I’m crushing it.”
A third tool to get yourself out of a funk is talking. Don’t get lost in your own head and that internal conversation. Talk to the person next to you, talk about what you are going to eat when you finish, get them to open up, make them laugh, lifting them up will lift you up.
Don’t give up; find a new goal
There might be a point when your goals for a particular event are completely out the window. You’ve lost an hour fixing your bike. You’ve flatted four times. Your stomach turned against you. It happens, but rather than quit, try changing your race focus.
I once cracked myself trying too hard to stay with the lead group and had to stop completely to recover. I absolutely wanted to quit, but then I remembered my friend who was riding further back in the field and I made it my mission to help her finish as strong as she could. Another time I turned around and rode a course backward to the start, stopping to help people fix their flats. I ended up with 7 flat tubes in my back pocket by the time I got back to the start line. Your race might be over, but it doesn’t mean you can’t help someone else have a great day.
Crises are going to happen in gravel races; it’s what you do when you are faced with adversity that dictates how the rest of your day will go. Anticipate the most common crises of mechanicals, nutrition, pacing, crashes, and metal funks. Mentally rehearse what you are going to do when those things happen, and learn the skills necessary to execute those actions. Practice, learn from crises when they happen, and your race will be as smooth as Ice Ice Baby.
To find out more, please visit: https://trainright.com/crisis-management-gravel-racing