Handling Gravel's Extremes

Jesse Southerland
Photo credit: Cody Mann TEST NOT FOR USE
Photo credit: Cody Mann TEST NOT FOR USE

From Bicycling

Key Points

  • Be ready for the weather. Check before you go—it might be radically different from what you anticipate, especially if you’re traveling to an unfamiliar part of the country. Many a gravel rider DNFs from lack of proper preparation.

  • Do dress rehearsal rides. The perfect bike setup in the parking lot can be a rolling yard sale over miles of stutter bumps.

  • Know how you’ll handle all the extremes—elevation, heat, cold—because you’re likely to see some if not all of them at gravel grinders.

  • Race as you train. Practice everything—nutrition, hydration, navigation—on your training rides so they feel automatic come event day.

So you did it. You signed up for a massive gravel adventure. And after the initial thrill simmers down, another emotion soon bubbles up: abject panic. It’s natural to be concerned. Big gravel events are infamously hard. Heck, even professional bike racers like Ted King, who rode—and won—his first Dirty Kanza 200 in 2016 are often dumbfounded by the conditions they find.

“Ignorance was in fact bliss, as I really didn’t know what I was getting into. In a previous chapter of life, I’d ridden inordinately long rides, raced cobbled classics, pedaled across vast flat plains, but until you do Dirty Kanza, there’s nothing you can really do to prepare for Dirty Kanza. It’s a totally zany, one-of-a-kind, all-day monster of a bike race, and as soon as I won it, I told myself NEVER AGAIN.”

Of course he lied. We all lie when we’re deep and dark in the torture tunnel, and the only light showing our way out is the promise that after we finish, we never ever have to do this infernal thing again (I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said those exact words to myself). But it’s also true that it’s nearly impossible to fully prepare yourself for something like Kanza if you’ve never done it (and even then, it’s really hard).

But don't fret. There are steps you can take for gravel adventures of any size that will give you your best shot at having a mostly enjoyable (even if it’s in a type 2 fun kind of way), successful day. It just requires a little preparation beyond “putting in the miles.”

Do Your Course Research

Whether you’re going to New England for Rasputitsa or Nebraska for Gravel Worlds or the High Sierras for Lost and Found, the single most important part of your preparation is researching your event destination.

It’s crucial to know the terrain and potential conditions of the location of the race you’ll be riding. Events like Mid South 100, held in Stillwater, Oklahoma, are notorious for being “weather dependent.” That is, if it’s sunny and dry, you will be flying. If it rains, you will be mashing pedals on a bike packed with so much red clay mud that it resembles a pottery project.

I’ve personally blown this any number of times, but never more spectacularly than Rasputitsa in East Burke, Vermont. I very foolishly didn’t think the April conditions would be that different just a few hundred miles to the north of my home base. As I was running on foot through the snow along an interminably long no-maintenance road, I made a mental note never to make such assumptions again.

And of course, I have still botched it here and there. For events in Colorado, Utah, and Idaho, I’ve lined up massively underestimating how cold it can be in August in the mountains at elevation. A quick check on Weatherbug.com would have saved me a lot of shuddering at the start line, not to mention painfully frozen fingers and toes.

Read the race description and look at photos from previous years. They will tell you a lot about the course conditions. Knowing the terrain not only helps you pack appropriately, but also plan some shakeout rides, which is a must. You’re going to be schlepping at least some stuff, if not a whole lot, such as extra bottles, frame bags, bento boxes, bar bags, lights, auxiliary batteries, and the like.

Have a Dress Rehearsal

Take a pre-race test excursion by outfitting your bike exactly how you plan to run it. Go out and do at least a quarter to a third (longer if you can) of the event distance on the most similar terrain you can find. After three to four hours in the saddle, you might be surprised by how much stuff rattles, bounces, flies off your bike, gets in the way of your pedaling, and otherwise makes you just short of insane. There’s only one good time to discover that the bottles you think are 100 percent secure behind your saddle actually launch like missiles when you hit a series of stutter bumps, or that those bottle cages you thought were cinched tight will rattle loose and nearly fall off after 25 miles on chattery terrain. That time is when you’re not actually in the event.

That “perfect” bento box may become less so when your knees bang the edges every time you get out of the saddle. The saddlebag strap system that functions flawlessly on fair weather rides may give up the ghost—along with all your tubes and CO2 cartridges—when the Velcro straps get wet and dirty. None of this is productive on race day. Practice, practice, practice.

Practice eating and drinking, too, and not just for nutrition and hydration purposes, but also for logistical purposes. Can you physically access your food and fluids? Sounds ridiculous, right? It’s amazing how many times riders bonk, finish on fumes, or get dehydrated, despite having food and drink with them, because it was a hassle to get to or they “just didn’t think about it.”

Race day adrenaline is a powerful drug, and it’s really easy to get swept up in the excitement of the day and let your fueling slide. You can get away with that when you’re out on a 40- or 50-mile road ride. But you are burning so much more energy and working so much harder on gravel that it’s very difficult to catch up when you fall behind. You’ll pay for it exponentially after hour five or six, when it also can become harder and less appealing to eat.

Do a full dress rehearsal with the food and fluids you’re going to be eating. Figure out where you’re going to store them and how you’re going to access them, and then go out and practice. And really practice. If you plan to unwrap and eat your energy bars without stopping, practice that during your dress rehearsal. Figure out how to best organize your fuel so you can access it quickly and know where to stash the empties.

Practice Your Navigation

By all means, practice loading a route on your GPS unit and following it as you would the course. If you think you’ll be out there longer than your unit’s battery will last (often about 10 to 15 hours), practice running an auxiliary charger on it. I’ve been at the pre-race meeting literally 20 minutes before go time helping fellow racers figure out how to use turn-by-turn on their Garmins or Wahoos because they never used that feature before.

Having a GPS (unless you’re willing to read a paper map and cue sheet) is increasingly necessary at gravel events. Many courses are marked, but you can’t count on it. Course markings go missing or people mess with them. Some events have dispensed with marking the course entirely, requiring riders to be completely self-sufficient. There is nothing more dispiriting than going off course on a day that is already going to be eight hours long. Lots of folks are a little intimidated by technology, but today’s GPS units are more user-friendly than ever. Take the time to practice so you’re confident—and won’t go astray—on event day.

Prepare for Altitude

When you stand on the start line of SBT GRVL in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, you’re already nearly 7,000 feet above sea level; you’ll spend a few hours over 8,000 feet as you rack up more than 9,000 feet of vertical on the 140-mile day. Hit up Crusher in the Tushar in Utah’s breathtaking Tushar Mountains, and you’ll be pushing your pedals above 12,000 feet. If you’re not accustomed to riding at altitude, you’re in for a bit of a rude awakening.

I got hard-knocks schooled on racing at altitude in the opening stage of the Breck Epic, a six-day mountain bike stage race in Colorado that is mostly above 10,000 feet. “Don’t go into the red, you’ll never recover,” everyone with more altitude experience than I had warned me. So what did I do? Shot off the line like a cannonball, soared into the red, and spent the rest of Stage 1 dropping anchor as everyone in the race passed by like I was on an escalator going in the opposite direction.

After that humbling experience, I tapped high-altitude experts like Peter Hackett, M.D., director at the Institute for Altitude Medicine in Telluride, Colorado, for some thin-air expertise and advice. Here’s what he taught me.

You’re getting less oxygen with every breath. As elevation rises, the air pressure becomes lower, meaning oxygen molecules become more spread out, leaving you with less oxygen in every breath you take. It generally becomes noticeable as you hit the 5,000-foot mark and pretty much affects everyone once you cross into high altitude at 8,000 feet. By the time you reach 12,000 feet, there’s a wind-sucking 40 percent fewer oxygen molecules per breath. Your brain doesn’t like not having enough oxygen, so it sends out the signal to dilate your blood vessels to get more blood flow and oxygen to the brain, which is why some folks get a throbbing headache shortly after arriving at higher altitudes.

Ibuprofen can help relieve your pounding head. To help your body adjust and get the oxygen it needs before your big event, some experts recommend beetroot juice. It’s rich in nitrates that your body converts to nitric oxide, a gas that causes your blood vessels to relax and widen, increasing blood flow and making it easier to function in low-oxygen environments. I’ve had good success with products like Beet Elite and Beta Red, which are powders you mix up pre-game, and way easier to manage than packing bottles or making your own beet juice.

Your heart rate zones shift. If you train with heart rate, be prepared to adjust your expectations. You’ll be seeing different numbers than you’re used to. Your heart rate increases at altitude as your body compensates for the thinner air. At about 6,500 feet, your heart rate will increase 10 percent over your usual rate at sea level. Heart rate will normalize as you acclimate, but it takes at least 2 to 3 weeks to become fully acclimated. If you don’t have that kind of time to acclimate, it’s useful to go out for a few of your training rides with a heart rate monitor and see what your high-altitude zones look like—then stick to them during race day. This has worked swimmingly well for me at Leadville, which climbs above 13,000 feet.

Hills are more humbling. The same incline you’d big-ring up in beast mode at sea level will leave you feeling like someone pulled the plug on your wattage cottage as you huff and puff in the little ring. Your power output drops about 3 percent per thousand feet above 5,000 feet elevation, says Hackett. So you’re easily 15 percent down in power outage as you creep over those Tushar Mountains passes. Acclimatization helps. But there’s a reason that people who live high often choose to train low—everyone’s power suffers to some degree once you hit high altitude.

Prepare for nature’s breaks. If you wear bib shorts, be sure they’ve got an easy escape route for when nature calls. It’s not just an extreme case of event nerves; you are peeing a lot at altitude. It’s called altitude diuresis, and it’s actually helping you out. “Your body wants to be a little drier at high altitude. As you pee out some excess fluids, your blood becomes thicker and your hemoglobin more concentrated,” Hackett says. The cool thing is that this happens within 24 hours of touchdown at altitude, so within a day you can already carry more oxygen in your blood. “Everyone talks about the dehydration like it’s a bad thing,” Hackett says. “But it’s a natural adaptation designed to help you get more oxygen to your muscles and organs.” It’s kind of like natural blood doping. Along with thickening your blood through a little dehydration, your body will start producing more EPO—the hormone that regulates the volume and number of red blood cells—within 24 to 48 hours of your arrival at altitude.

To that end, resist the urge to drown yourself in fluids every moment of every day in the mountains. “You cannot—nor should not try to—completely counteract altitude diuresis,” Hackett says. “Drinking an extra liter a day is a reasonable amount to stay hydrated without overdoing it.”

Carbs are your fueling friend. You may also feel kind of “off” at altitude. Some people even get nauseous when they go to high altitude from sea level too quickly. But even if you don’t feel altitude sick, it’s natural for your appetite to decline. Research shows that levels of leptin, a hormone known to suppress appetite, increases at altitude. For the best energy and performance at high-altitude, add carbohydrates to your diet. Carbs provide about 15 percent more energy for the same amount of oxygen as you get from fats.

Expect to toss and turn. You won’t need a sleep monitor to show you that you’re not getting restful shut-eye when you arrive at altitude. Low oxygen directly disrupts sleep centers in your brain and causes frequent waking. You also can experience what is known as sleep periodic breathing. As the name implies, you literally stop breathing for a few moments. You start up again as the respiratory center of your brain, which senses carbon dioxide, battles with the respiratory trigger in the carotid artery, which senses low oxygen. Both can be quite disruptive to a good night’s rest. “Taking a mild sleeping aid like Benadryl can help while you acclimate,” Hackett says.

Give it time. Everyone acclimates a bit differently, with some people adjusting relatively seamlessly and others still feeling wheezy and woozy a couple of weeks in. Generally speaking, however, we all fall along a bell-shaped curve with 60 percent of us taking a few days to start feeling better; 20 percent acclimate faster and 20 percent more slowly. It all comes down to your genetic makeup. Before your race, plan to spend at least three to five days adjusting to the altitude.

Beat the Heat

You don’t have to be doing the 4G—Great Gator Gravel Grinder, which takes place in south Florida—to find brain-baking heat. Kansas can be hell in June. Heat can also sneak up on you out there in the prairie. The last time I did Kanza, the afternoon temps crept close to 90°F during the hardest part of the day, when I was about eight hours in and praying my way to Checkpoint 3. I eventually made it but not without succumbing to nausea and tossing my energy bars (from my belly, not my bento box) on the side of the road. I sat down with a Coke for a few minutes once I finally reached the third aid station, but man, it was miserable for a few hours.

Heat is a power sucker and as soon as you start pedaling, there’s an internal competition in your body between your skin and your cycling muscles. Your skin needs your blood to radiate heat, help you sweat, and keep you cool. Your muscles need it to get the oxygen and nutrients they need to keep your cranks turning. When the outside temperature rises, that competition becomes particularly fierce. Unless you can keep yourself cool, you’re going to slow down, because the skin always wins when the threat of heat illness rises.

This battle is all too familiar to James Herrera, CSCS, with Performance Driven Coaching and the Wounded Warrior Project. He has trained and worked with athletes from the high, dry heat of the Southwest to the muggy, sweltering conditions in the Southeast. “The humidity thing is a special beast,” Herrera says. “You have to acclimate a little and pay attention to the details.” Here’s what he recommends.

Precool your jets: If it’s hot from the get-go, drink something really cold before you head out—a slushy if possible. Research shows that athletes ran nearly 10 minutes longer in tests to exhaustion in the heat after drinking a slushy compared with when they drank just cold water. “I have a smoothie for breakfast, which works as a slushy since I make it in a blender with ice cubes and frozen fruit,” says Herrera. “I also have my Americano over ice, so I get my caffeine fix without heating up my core.”

If you happen to have access to a swimming pool or body of water, taking a plunge before you roll out will keep you cool longer, too, though it’s not always a practical option.

Hyperhydrate: You need to keep your blood volume high enough to have plenty of plasma (the watery part of your blood) available to produce sweat, which in turn evaporates off your skin to keep you cool. You can boost your blood volume by hyperhydrating. Starting the night before a big ride that will be in the heat (and again the morning of), drink a sodium-rich fluid such as chicken broth or miso soup.

Keep your fluids cool: Your on-bike fluids should be kept as cold as possible. A sports drink is hard to choke down once it gets lukewarm or worse, soupy hot, so you’ll be less inclined to drink as much as you need. Warm fluids also do nothing to help cool your core. Cold drinks, on the other hand, help you ride more comfortably in the heat. Drinking cold fluid on a hot day can lower your heart rate by five beats per minute, a British study found. That’s key when your heart rate is already elevated by heat and humidity on hot days.

“I put two large Camelbak insulated bottles in the freezer the night before, one half and the other three-quarters filled with water and Osmo, a sports hydration drink. I top them off with water before I roll out,” says Herrera. “I drink the one that is half frozen first and the other bottle second.”

Dress light and airy: Choose clothes and gear that allow as much airflow and sweat wicking as possible to maximize your cooling potential. Start with your helmet, as a lot of heat escapes from your head. “I use an Under Armour HeatGear vented skullcap to protect my bald head and prevent sweat from running into my eyes,” says Herrera. “Then I top it off with a lightweight, highly ventilated helmet.” Lightweight socks and vented shoes help keep your feet cool. And choose light-colored jerseys, which absorb less heat while you’re riding in the glaring summer sun.

Drink on cue: “Dehydration will kill your mojo on a hot day quicker than anything else,” says Herrera. If you’re one of those riders who looks down after an hour or so only to find two full bottles sitting in their cages, make a mental note to take a few gulps every 15 minutes to stay on top of your hydration. “I prescribe drinking three-quarters to a full bottle an hour depending on the heat and rider’s state of prehydration,” says Herrera. If your bike has limited bottle-carrying capacity, consider wearing a hydration pack or vest to have access to more. Don’t skimp here. You’ll pay for it.

Water yourself down: It’s cliché, but true: It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity that gets to you sometimes. You can only keep so cool when the air is hot but also humid if your sweat just sits on your skin without evaporating. Dumping some cool water over your body can make you feel better in a hurry. “I’ll sometimes keep a 20-ounce Platypus bladder filled with water (half frozen) in my center jersey pocket to pour over my head, chest, and back during a hotter ride,” says Herrera. “I’ve also walked into plenty of convenience stores to refill bottles with ice-cold fluids and soak my jersey in the bathroom sink.”

Don’t forget sunscreen: Sunburn is bad and amplifies your heat stress, so be sure to apply sunscreen to your exposed skin. Also consider UV-protectant arm sleeves. They not only prevent sunburn, but also help keep you cool when you pour water on them.

Conquer the Cold (& Wet)

Gravel events generally take place during mostly fair-weather months, but of course that never guarantees you’re going to get fair weather, especially during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. And even if the day is forecast to end up pretty nice, there’s a good chance you’ll be shivering on the start line. These events often kick off close to the crack of dawn, when the temperatures are freezing or below.

If your race is in the high mountains, you can encounter anything, including snow, even in the summertime. And of course, the weather does not always unfold as predicted. Take, for instance, the 2017 Mid South 100 in Oklahoma. The weather forecast called for temperatures in the 40s (still not exactly warm), but instead they stayed in the mid-30s with a spitting drizzle and mist, resulting in endless slow-going mud. Everyone who rolled out for the day dressed in jerseys, arm warmers, and vests rode straight into hypothermia territory. About 80 percent of the field ended up pulling the plug and DNFing, and the local ER saw myriad cases of people coming in with cold-related woes like hypothermia.

Mastering the art of layering will save you from such fate. It will also save you from cooking like a bag of steamed peas once the sun warms the day. Sometimes riders show up at start lines like they’re going on an Arctic expedition—balaclavas, booties, thermal bib tights, and winter jackets—for metric to full-century events. All those clothes certainly will keep you cozy waiting for the start, but they’ll result in overheating once you start churning up the first climb. It also leaves you with nowhere to go once the day heats up. If you’ve committed to a winter jersey or jacket, you can’t strip it off when the temperatures rise 20 degrees.

You should not be warm and comfy while you are standing around before the start. You should feel a little chilly at first, so you’ll be comfortable once you get your heart rate up. If it’s going to warm up, dress for the temps you’ll be riding in most of the day, and plan on being a little chillier after the start. Wear extra light layers to avoid getting too cold. Here are some guidelines on what to wear:

  • 65° to 70°F: Start with a base layer, short-sleeved jersey, shorts, short-finger gloves, and socks.

  • 60° to 65°F: Add arm warmers and full-finger gloves.

  • 55° to 60°F: Swap in knickers or knee warmers, and put on thicker socks.

  • 50° to 55°F: Add leg warmers and a vest.

  • 45° to 50°F: Use thicker gloves, put on a long-sleeved jersey, add toe covers and a sock layer, and wear ear covers (if you prize comfort over style). Tip: Bring rain gear. Temperatures in the 40s and even 50s with drizzle will chill you fast.

  • 40° to 45°F: Put on tights, slip on a long-sleeved base layer, and wear a thin hat (you may need to loosen your helmet).

  • 35° to 40°F: Swap in shoe covers or winter shoes, and trade up for a thick hat.

  • 30° to 35°F: Wear heavier tights, as well as lobster gloves or mittens.

  • 25° to 30°F: Add a second long-sleeved jersey, as well as midlayer socks.

  • 25° and below: Add a base-layer short and/or knee warmers under your tights. And be creative. Try things like wrapping your feet in plastic bags for insulation before putting on your shoes, and dropping hand warmers into your mittens. ❖

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