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Getting into gravel racing

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You can add more bikes later
racing 29 Apr 2024 By Travis Reill

Imagine combining mountain biking and road cycling and creating a new cycling genre. That is precisely what happened with the introduction of gravel riding, which has grown exponentially in the past several years. Gravel bikes, also known as “gravel grinders,” combine some of the best aspects of popular cycling disciplines—the efficiency of road bikes and the rugged capabilities of mountain bikes—into one very capable machine designed to traverse pavement, dirt roads, and singletrack alike. The ability to ride on various surfaces adds the element of adventure to the sport, and when you get a bunch of like-minded people on bikes in one place, sooner or later you’ll have yourself a race.

gravel rider

How we got here

Although gravel-style riding and racing have existed for several decades, the gravel genre really took off in the 2000s. As you can imagine, once gravel riding grew in popularity, gravel racing soon followed. So, what exactly is gravel racing? Similar to how gravel riding combines the styles of a few cycling disciplines, gravel racing combines some of the best aspects of racing from those disciplines. Gran Fondo-style road bike racing meets cross-country and enduro racing of mountain biking, with a bit of cyclocross sprinkled in.

Gravel races often take place on gravel roads. Due to the abundance of unpaved roads in the US, such races are much easier to organize logistically. Races typically cross many different types of land and terrain, often rolling through small towns, and bringing a festive atmosphere with them. Other than gravel roads, racers can cross over to smoother double-track and singletrack trails, cross small streams, and spend time on pavement, but usually just to connect one form of dirt track to another.

With gravel racing primarily taking place on less-trafficked country roads, it is a far less dangerous cycling discipline than other forms of riding, both while racing and training. Road cycling obviously has the highest chance of incidents with cars; although road bike races typically use closed courses, training for them means spending many hours riding on the road next to cars. All it takes is one distracted driver for things to go very badly. Gravel eliminates both risks, as traffic will be minimal, if at all, and trail technicality will be very manageable, the worst you can get is a very bumpy or dusty road or a mud pit.

Mountain biking can be intimidating, especially if you are considering racing, as it can require high levels of bike handling skills. The idea of crashing on rough sections of the trail and that crash resulting in major injuries can keep some people away from the sport altogether. Because gravel bikes aren’t equipped with suspension, when a gravel race does hit singletrack it will be flowy beginner-friendly trails. Such course design creates an amateur-friendly environment, allowing racers to focus on building their endurance rather than having to worry about particularly difficult sections of singletrack.

Different formats

Similar to other forms of cycle racing, gravel racing has several formats. Here are some of the most popular ones that you will most likely experience if you are considering jumping into the sport.

First, and maybe most popular, are single-stage gravel races. This is the most basic form of gravel racing, as there is a start and a finish, all taking place in a single racing stage. These races can vary significantly in distances, with some covering 200+ mi (320 km) and others only covering 30-50 mi (48-80 km). In some instances, a single-stage gravel race will have both a long and short track, allowing for more experienced riders to tackle greater distances but still allowing beginners to participate.

If you are looking for a bit longer of an adventure, perhaps you should consider a multi-stage gravel race. These races take place over a number of days, depending on the event, with accommodations and format varying, again, depending on the event. Some multi-stage gravel races require the riders to be self-sufficient, carrying on their bike all of their equipment like a tent, food, and extra clothing to each stage checkpoint. Other racing formats may allow the racer to have a support team transporting their equipment from one stage to the next, cooking food, and setting up camp. For those seeking comfort after a long day in the saddle, tour-style races take it up a notch and will have lodging accommodations handled by hotels.

gravel race

Multi-stage gravel races can also vary in length and just like single-stage races, often offer a short(er) and a long course. Because racers will be covering significant distances over several days, the daily distances at such races range from 50 mi (80 km) to 75 mi (120 km), which is more manageable and possible to repeat for a number of days.

The final format is enduro-style gravel racing. Similar to enduro mountain bike racing, enduro-style gravel racers are only timed on certain aspects and segments of the course, such as climbs, descends, technical tracks, or rolling segments, but not the entirety of the course itself. These timed sections are added up, with the fastest winning the race.

What makes gravel racing special?

While bike races of any discipline are very fun, gravel races tend to step up the fun factor another notch. Catering to seasoned professionals and local heroes, these races have a very festive atmosphere, it just might be the only cycling discipline where a guy who showed up wearing a tutu wins the race. If it is your first race and you have the jitters, don’t worry, you are not alone. Gravel races, and especially local events, typically will have many first-time participants. The butterflies in your stomach will go away when the gun goes off, and you set out on the course, only to return to good food, beer, new friends, and post-race festivities.

Depending on the organizer and the size of the event, gravel races range from no-frills small-scale events to full-on festivals with crowds of spectators, and everything in between. It’s not uncommon for there to be food trucks, beer gardens, raffles and giveaways, and activities for kids, making gravel races a great place for the whole family to go.

The barrier for entry is also lower with gravel riding, as you can use the bike you have and ride as fast or slow as you want. If you aspire to find a podium spot at a gravel race, you will probably need a quality gravel bike, however, if you want to challenge yourself or race with your friends and don’t care if you are in the back of the pack, almost any bike will do!

What kind of bike do I use?

While just about any bike can ride down a dirt road, some are better suited than others. Cyclocross bikes are closely related to gravel bikes. They are perhaps the first style of riding where many of us saw someone taking what looked like a road bike off the asphalt. A mountain bike can also work, and it isn’t uncommon to find some mountain bikes in the pack at a gravel race, albeit these usually tend to be hardtail (front suspension only) or fully rigid (no suspension) mountain bikes geared toward cross-country riding. Hybrid, touring, and some commuter bikes also do well on gravel. People also have even put wider, knobbier tires on their road bikes and raced gravel.

If you don’t own a bike or are considering adding another one to your stable, and especially if you’d like to dabble in gravel racing, a gravel bike should be on your shortlist. Although it is fair to say that a gravel bike looks like the offspring of a mountain bike and a road bike, it does have specific features that optimize it for gravel riding and racing. It isn’t just a road bike with bigger tires, the rider position is optimized for long-distance comfort and stability rather than speed and utmost efficiency. With that said, gravel bikes are generally highly universal machines, capable of pulling multiple duties: commuting, training, racing, touring, and an occasional rip on a singletrack. There’s a general wisdom that if you had to have only one bike, a gravel bike is probably your best choice.

gravel bicycle

Tire choice

Tires are an incredibly important choice in all disciplines of cycle racing and are what really makes gravel bikes stand out. Because the choice of tire is so critical, most gravel bikes are designed to accept wheels equipped with tires as wide as 42 mm, with some models capable of running 2.2 in (55 mm) mountain bike tires. Gravel tires themselves have continued to grow over the years, getting wider and wider to the point where many resemble cross-country mountain bike tires.

While any gravel race can be completed on any gravel tire, significant gains can be had when choosing wisely. Because most gravel races traverse through many types of terrain, selecting the right tire boils down to achieving the balance between speed and puncture protection. How aggressive and knobby the tire tread is, and the width of the tire will greatly affect how the bike will feel on that particular course. Courses with long stretches of hardpack dirt road or even some miles of asphalt will have racers equipping their bikes with less aggressive tires for less rolling resistance. If the race favors singletrack or rougher roads where more traction is needed, knobbier and wider tires will be the go-to. Tires with tightly spaced knobbies will roll faster on dry and dusty roads, while far-spaced knobbies will shed mud and provide better traction in rainy conditions. It isn’t uncommon for multi-stage racers to have an extra wheelset with different tires, switching between stages if the race format allows for that type of change. Changing air pressures can also give you an edge during a race. If a long stretch of asphalt road is coming up, consider firming up your tires with a CO2 cartridge for more efficient pedaling. When it is time to return to the dirt, releasing some air pressure will maximize traction and grip in corners and climbs.

If you’re just getting into gravel riding, consider chatting about tire choices with your local bike shop. They will likely put you on a tire in the middle of the spectrum, offering decent traction while remaining efficient. Depending on the bike you're putting the tire on, you’ll need to know the maximum tire width the frame will allow. Many modern gravel bikes allow for a 42 mm tire, much too wide for a road or cyclocross bike. Knowing the frame clearance before you purchase a tire set will save you the headache of buying and setting up the tire only to find out it is too wide for your frame.

Tire width (mm)Optimal terrain
28Asphalt, fine crushed stone
30Wet, rough roads
32Dry mixed road surfaces
35Mixed road surfaces
38Gritty, loose road surfaces
40Gravel, hard pack, dirt
45Gravel, hard pack, dirt
50Singletrack, gravel

If you haven’t already, it is time to ditch the tubes and go tubeless. Having your tires set up tubeless allows you to run lower tire pressures, which in turn equals more grip and traction without sacrificing efficiency. Attempting to run the same lower pressures with tubes will not only give a different ride feel but will likely result in a pinch flat on your ride. Tubeless equals no more pinch plats. To learn more about tire choices, see our article about how to select the optimal tire for your bike.


Similar to choosing proper tires for the race, choosing the correct cassette can greatly affect your performance on the race day. Many modern gravel-specific derailleurs designed to work with single-ring (no front derailleur) groupsets can accept 42-tooth cassettes, providing nearly endless options for gearing.

The more teeth present on a cassette cog, the “wider” the gear ratio becomes. This is measured by the number of teeth on the smallest and largest cog, often written as “11-41t.” The current happy medium for a gravel drivetrain is an 11-42t cassette paired with a 40t or a 42t front chainring. Higher gear ratios, when the chain is on the bigger cogs of the cassette, are needed for long, steep climbs. These climbs can go on for miles, and being able to get into sustainable gear, put your head down, and grind without overloading your leg muscles is the way to conquer them. Conversely, many gravel races cover long distances where the elevation isn’t changing much. These races require the rider to stay at a fairly fast pace while maintaining a comfortable cadence, making cassettes with smaller cogs (11-36t) a better choice. Some gravel bikes come with double (front) chainrings, allowing for an even wider gear ratio and higher speeds.

Mechanical issues

Considering that gravel races often cover significant distances, the chances of major mechanical issues are reasonably high. Being unprepared for a mechanical while you are miles out on a ride can result in a long walk back—not having the right tools for a mechanical during a race can mean the end of your race day.

Dealing with a flat tire is likely the most common issue you will run into on the trail, so ensure you have a quality flat repair kit. Assuming you are running tubeless tires, you’ll want the kit to include a tire plug tool and plugs. Ensure your kit also includes a CO2 cartridge and a CO2 head, allowing you to refill your tire much faster than trying to pump it with a small hand pump. And, just in case, it doesn’t hurt to have a spare tube and tire lever in your kit as well, as major tears in the tire cannot be repaired with plugs. It is also prudent to practice tire repair at home to dial in the steps and avoid a disaster on race day.

tire repair

The other common mechanical you will likely deal with is chain issues, with dropped chains being the most common. A dropped chain is when the chain pops off the front chainring, falling behind the chainring and onto the bottom bracket or, to the front, onto the crank. A dropped chain is a byproduct of riding down rowdy roads and trails; while modern drivetrains have significantly reduced them, they still happen once in a while. Getting a dropped chain back on is relatively easy, given the chain isn’t jammed behind the chainring. Follow this procedure:

  • Flip the bike and put it on the ground, drive-side up, it should be resting on the handlebar horns and the saddle
  • Push the derailleur cage forward with your left hand, giving the chain some slack
  • With your right hand, grab the top of the chain and put it on the top of the chainring, ensuring that several of the teeth lock into the chain
  • Let go of the derailleur cage and chain, stand the bike up, lift the rear wheel slightly, and pedal forward. Pedaling the bike forward will pull the rest of the chain onto the chainring.

A dropped chain isn’t a major problem, but a broken chain is. A few extra chain links in your repair kit are essential as they are small, light, and can get you out of a tight spot. Many cycling multi-tools also have a chain tool to help you remove broken chain links and add new ones. This is a skill that’s absolutely worth practicing at home on an old chain, as it’s much trickier to do it in field conditions. Follow this protocol for repairing a broken chain:

  • Get the tension out of the chain by pushing the derailleur cage forward and removing the chain from the chainring, allowing it to rest on the crankarm
  • Isolate the damaged links and use the tool to push the pin holding the links together out. Be sure not to lose this pin, as you will likely need it when you add the new link.
  • If only one link was removed, you’ll need to either replace it with a spare link or remove an additional link to ensure that you have one side of the chain with outer plates and the other with inner plates
  • Align the links in the chain tool and carefully push in the pin
  • Re-install the chain on the chain ring and holding the rear wheel off the ground spin the pedals to ensure that the chain is sitting on the right gear

Train (put in the work)

You can purchase the best gravel bike that money can buy, however, if you haven’t trained well and prepared for the race, you will quickly realize that a great bike can only take you so far. Unless you’re an already fit cyclist, even being able to complete the event in the allotted time may require a significant amount of training. Start by finding nearby gravel roads and routes you can pedal on and slowly increase the distance. As you continue to push yourself further, building greater stamina and endurance, look for other terrain types to ride on, such as chunkier roads and singletrack, to develop bike handling skills. Remember that gravel races can go between gravel roads, singletrack, and paved roads in a single race. Even with smooth singletrack, riding, and cornering will drastically differ from riding on a gravel road. Focus on having experience with different terrains that you anticipate riding in a race.

gravel cycling training

Going out on rides is a good start, but structured, intentional training is what sets racers apart. As you build greater endurance through your rides, find yourself in the weight room focusing on building strength in not only your legs but your core and arms as well. Spend some of your rides working on bike handling skills rather than focusing on the length of the ride. Remember that tricky climbs and descents during your gravel race may require you to pick lines and move the bike more than you anticipated. Some skills that may not seem all that obvious, like being able to quickly mount and dismount the bike, or run while carrying the bike, are worth practicing.

If you are really serious about racing, consider hiring a coach. He will design a training plan that will set you up for success on race day. The training plan may even include a nutrition plan. The nutrition plan will take the guesswork out of your meals for the weeks and months leading up to the race, and an on-the-bike nutrition plan will carry you through the race day.

Find a race

A simple Google search will likely pop up gravel races near you. If you strike out, head over to your local bike shop. Race organizers are sometimes bike shop owners or employees, or a local shop will sponsor a race. Regardless, race organizers almost always provide race information to bike shops, hoping to fill all open slots. If you’re still not having luck, websites like and are good resources to find information about races and connect you to the gravel community.

Be sure to research multiple events with varying distances. If it is your first race, you may consider a shorter race to ensure you don’t get in over your head, considering your skills and fitness level. Build from there as you get more race experience and continue to train and progress as a gravel rider.

Register and prepare

If you find a race you like, be sure to sign up as soon as you can. There is likely a limited number of spots, and they can fill up; plus, you will likely save a bit of money on registration fees the earlier you sign up. Beware that some popular races sell out in hours if not minutes. If you miss the window, you still may be able to get in by contacting the race organizer and asking to be put on a waitng list.

Once you are registered, start preparing for race day. Get to know the course by watching YouTube videos or getting out and riding it if you live close enough. If you can’t ride the exact course, try to find a similar one that mimics mileage, elevation gain and loss, and trail conditions. Be sure that your bike is in tip-top shape and that you have everything you need, including food, hydration, and a repair kit.

Race day, even on an amateur level, and especially the first one, could be an intense experience. If you’re prone to anxiety, you want to invest a little time practicing sports psychology and meditation: visualize your race day and “dial it in” in your head. Start from the moment you wake up and head out to the race to the moment you cross the finish line. There are two keys to a successful race day visualization: breathing and br’s eye vivid imagery of yourself conquering the race to the mind's eye course. Practice this exercise every night before you drift off to sleep for a smooth experience on the day of the race.

Packet pickup

Larger races usually require that you pick up your packet and attend an orientation the day before the race. This process usually takes about an hour, and the orientation takes place at a designated time. It’s highly recommended that you attend it because it will most likely contain critical information, such as information about aid stations, drop-bag locations, road closures, and potential route changes.

Race day

Don’t be rushed on race day. Events can be hectic, and parking can be limited. Plan on showing up at the event early so you have plenty of time to park, check-in, and ask any questions you may have. If you are unfamiliar with the course, take a moment to familiarize yourself with the start and finish areas, as well as the first and final moves you’ll be making as you start and finish. Begin to get your mind and body in the appropriate space for the race by calming your mind, relaxing with breathing exercises, stretching, fueling, and hydrating. Also, chat it up with the other racers, focusing on the fun of the event to help keep a positive mindset.

Reflect and improve

Consider what went well in the race and what didn’t. Things that went poorly will often be out of your control, such as mechanical issues. But if there are things that you find that you could have done better, reflect on them and consider changing your training and routines for the next race. If you struggled on technical, rocky climbs, focus on bike handling skills, if your performance degraded as the race progressed, it’s time to train pacing or maybe build more base endurance.

improve at gravel cycling

Don’t forget to have fun

It’s easy to get caught up in the racing mindset. No matter how serious, intense, or disappointing things get, don’t forget that the most important thing about riding any bike is having fun. Gravel racing is as much about the camaraderie of the racers as it is about podiums. Regardless of getting first, second, or thirty-third, make connections and join the community. Each slight improvement or moment of progression should be celebrated. Finishing the race should be celebrated. Even if you don’t finish the race this time, enjoy and celebrate the rolling hills, high-desert plateaus, or mountain landscapes, and make a goal to finish the next one.

Make gravel racing bigger than just you by including your family. Due to the relatively low risk associated with the sport, inexperienced partners and kids can easily be a part of it, and most “family” rides may already essentially be gravel rides. Many races will have a kids' race event that you could register your children for, and the race itself may seem more like a festival with food, beverages, and events for kids. Turn the gravel race you are preparing to travel to into a family vacation, and you will have a private cheering squad in your corner.

Top gravel races in the U.S.

Here are some races you may consider:

  • Belgian Waffle Ride, Arizona. Cutting through the unique desert terrain near Scottsdale, Arizona, the BWR offers three distances for racers considering conquering the desert—39, 79, or 122 miles. If 122 miles doesn’t seem too daunting, consider that this will also include nearly 9,000 feet of climbing. With mountain ranges on the horizon, racers count different species of cacti as they make their way through the desert.
  • Rule of Three Race, Bentonville, Arkansas. The Rule of Three evenly distributes racers on singletrack, gravel, and roads surrounding Bentonville. With 50- and 100-mile options and around 8,500 feet of elevation change, the Rule of Three has something for all racers, especially with an inexpensive entry fee. Come a day early and stay late on race day to enjoy all the festivities surrounding the popular gravel grind.
  • Oregon Gravel Grinder, Sisters, Oregon. Stepping up to a multi-stage race, the Oregon Gravel Grinder is a five-stage race at the end of June. With stages ranging from 40 to 90 miles, it may not be the distance that gets you, but the grueling Cascade Mountain climbs—phenomenal views included. Each racer is provided a bin to carry camping supplies, which is transported from stage to stage by event staff, as well as a spare wheelset for different riding terrain encountered at each stage. Get ready to ride 350 miles.

Consider bicycle insurance

Cycling is one of the most accessible and exciting activities. However, like any hobby, there are things to consider before diving in head first. Gravel racing requires both financial and time commitment, which hopefully will be repaid by a measurable improvement in the quality of life and physical well-being. Not much spoils the mood of a cyclist than bike theft. Unfortunately, a bicycle is stolen every 30 seconds and fewer than 5% of stolen bikes are ever reunited with their owners. If gravel biking, or cycling in general is a vital part of your lifestyle, it’s prudent to protect your investment with a gravel bicycle insurance policy from Velosurance. Unlike conventional insurance, specialty bicycle insurance is designed to cover risks that are inherent to the sport, such as theft and accidental damage of a bike.

Designed to provide comprehensive coverage, the policy can be extended with optional coverages such as racing, medical payments, uninsured motorist, liability, and worldwide coverage. Since the policy is designated as “permissive use”, these coverages extend to anyone riding your bike with permission, including underage children.

Velosruance was created to provide bicycle riders with insurance that actually covered their lifestyle and peace of mind that no matter what happens on the road or trail, there’d be a helping hand to get them back in the saddle. With a decade of experience insuring bicycles, we can tailor a policy to complement your particular cycling lifestyle and the risks you take on when you jump in the saddle. An online quote takes less than 5 minutes to get, and most policies are issued within an hour.

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