HOW TO PREPARE FOR BIG GRAVEL RACES
By Christopher Bagg
The start line of the Belgian Waffle Ride is a crowded place. Since the iconic southern California event is a “ride” and not a traditional bike race, riders are only loosely grouped into skill levels, and almost 300 cyclists begin at the same moment. As a result, riders nervously jostle each other into smaller and smaller spaces, trying to maintain a semblance of cool, knowing that when the whistle blows a frantic rush to front of the pack will ensue. If you’re reading this, you probably know that the head of a cycling race offers the safest place, but in a macrocosm of Pauli’s Exclusion Principle, not everyone can be at the front of the race at the same moment. An aggressive mixing begins, with riders who have made it forward guarding their space against those trying to move up. At BWR, there are eleven miles of pavement before we enter the first sector of dirt and gravel, where the field will narrow to one expensive line of carbon and Lycra, and all of us at the start line know it. Coupled with the sound of drones whirring like blenders, the half-ironic Mariachi band, and the steady static of hundreds of voices, the stress is enough to make you need to pee very badly, which I have had to do now for the better part of thirty minutes.
And that need to pee continues for at least another hour-and-a-half, adding another layer of discomfort to what is certainly an uncomfortable day. The Belgian Waffle Ride, if you’re not familiar with it, is a 134-mile, 10,000-feet-of-elevation-gain rolling party that includes the trappings of a bicycle race. It begins in Escondido, California, quickly trading the familiar traits of the area (traffic, people, traffic) for terrain that seems like it should come from a state where far fewer people live. Unlike many bike races, BWR swaps pavement, gravel access roads, and mountain-bikey singletrack, sometimes all within the span of a few miles. I am here, a recovering triathlete with some cyclocross experience, to see what this whole gravel thing is about, and to prepare for the really daunting event I have only a few weeks away: the Dirty Kanza 200.
But that’s for another post and another story. 134 miles is far enough for most people, and the distance has had me concerned, for sure, for months before I find myself standing at the start line next to my Caffeine & Watts teammates James Walsh and DeLayne Hart. Here’s what I did to prepare for the race, and the things I found helpful along the way.
You don't need to ride beyond the distance.
I run into this question all the time. Athletes believe that to do something, they have to do it on their own, first. There’s a lot of understandable psychology that goes into this mistake, and a lot of miscommunicated physiology. I cannot tell you the number of people I have talked out of “doing a marathon in preparation for my marathon.” The same principle applies to BWR, or any big day of gravel riding. Your biggest determinant of success is if you are consistently logging miles every week for 14-18 weeks ahead of the event. I’m assuming you’re not attempting a couch-to-waffle moonshot, in this context. If you are completely untrained, or coming back after a long hiatus (several months or more), then think about extending that window out to 24-30 weeks. What was consistent mileage for me? From January 12th, when I finished up my winter break (and recovered from a terrible off-season cold) I averaged 11 hours and 186 miles of riding each week. I think I could have done more, for sure, but given the time constraints of life, that number turned out to be effective. I still swim (and run, well, rarely), so you can add another 3-4 hours per week of swim volume to that number. I’m not guessing many of you are gonna pick up the speedo to prepare for BWR, but if you’re a recovering triathlete like me, know that your swim volume will certainly help your aerobic conditioning while removing some stress from your legs. What’s the takeaway here? I knew BWR would probably take between seven and eight hours. Target at least 1.5 times your hoped-for finish time in your weekly volume, and hit that number. Every week. Life will intrude from time to time and force you into a lighter week, so just let that happen when it happens.
Do a lot of big gear work.
You’re gonna climb a lot at BWR, and even when you’re not climbing, the way-higher rolling resistance of gravel events means that your muscle tension is going to be high all day. You need to prepare for this, or your sticky legs will give out long before your cardiovascular engine. Another misconception I hear a lot is “I want to be better at climbing, so have me climb more.” Sure, that’ll help, but you can do plenty of “climbing” on your trainer or a flat road, just with the resistance or gearing turned all the way up. Intensity doesn’t have to be high, here: think 75-78% of maximum HR, or around 75-80% of threshold power, with RPM around 60-70. Break the work into little chunks, from as short as 1’ intervals all the way up to 60’ of grinding. Muscular strength is important for any of these races, and doing big gear work is a great way to develop that on the bike.
Do your final preparation in races and learn to eat.
In the final two weeks before BWR, I raced a bunch. First I tackled the Yamhill Gravel Fondo, a deceptively difficult 62-mile affair deep in the Willamette Valley. Heavy with climbing, featuring large block gravel, Yamhill showed me the value of point number two, above: come in having done lots of big gear work. I also realized that these events would see just as much high intensity riding as any road race, full of attacks, lulls, and sustained high-effort climbing. Racing is the best training, the cliché goes, and gravel is no different. The weekend prior to BWR, I competed in the Cascade Gravel Omnium, a novel event that included a short time trial/prologue of just over five miles, and two longer stages of 70 and 65 miles, respectively. Those three days gave me the BWR distance, but spread out, giving my system a chance to respond to the stimulus and recover. The races also provided a glimpse into how important fueling would be, and that eating and drinking constantly (similar to an Ironman) might be the difference at BWR between finishing proudly and groveling in across the line.
Learn how to descend!
During the Waffle, the level of descending ability (or lack thereof) surprised me, especially on the sandy washes of Black Canyon, a series of climbs and descents riders often tackle twice on the giant lollipop. I had a leg up in this regard, as I was running a set of 40mm IRC Boken tires, that felt like I could take any corner at any pace I chose, but my cyclocross background, I feel, gave me some advantage, too. Learn how to let your bike roll through corners, patches of sand, and minor surprises without grabbing a handful of brake lever. Gravel racing, much like cyclocross, is all about the conservation of momentum, and leaning on your brakes will really sap your overall time, even though it doesn’t seem as if it would. Late in the race, I passed a rider who said, in frustration, “I just keep losing time in all the dirt sections!” Well, hombre, you did sign up for a race that touts 46-miles of dirt and rocks—I don’t want to shame you or say “You were told so,” but…didn’t you know what you were getting into? Specificity of preparation is the key to doing well at these events, and hoping you’ll ride well simply because you’re a good road rider is not a strategy.
Do some mental preparation.
Seven hours is a long time on a bike, for sure, but coming from Ironman I knew that seven hours is really just when the discomfort is taking hold for real. I also knew that I had a bigger, much more daunting task on the horizon in Dirty Kanza, about which I had many more doubts and fears. But I still knew that I would go through some real energy valleys during BWR, and that I should prepare myself for them. Coping visualization is a twist on traditional sports visualization where instead of imagining solely positive outcomes, you picture yourself going through tough moments and then rising above them. Knowing that there was a steep, difficult climb at the back end of the race, I pictured myself flagging there and then gathering myself for the last 30-40 minutes of riding. Sure enough, this stretch is where my energy petered out. I rode along with another blown rider for a few miles, picked up a bottle at an aid station (which was, mercifully, full of salt and calories—not just water), and told myself “You’re better when you’re climbing,” which is something of a half-truth. I had imagined this moment before the race, and sure enough, after a few minutes of difficulty, my energy levels began to perk back up and I made it up and over Double Peak and down to the finish line in 39th place—not bad for my third gravel race ever.
Gravel races are hard, take longer than road races, demand more muscular strength than flat-out speed, require you to eat and drink more often, and reward toughness of both the physical, mental, and skill varieties. But you can have a solid result at BWR with less effort than you may imagine, as long as you are consistent and diligent in your training and preparation.