How I Fell Into Gravel (Not Literally, OK a Couple Times Literally)

January 26, 2022

By Lenny Ramsey, PhD

After racing Ironman Finland in August, following a very front-loaded triathlon season, I felt like I really needed a break. So, when a friend told me about a gravel race half an hour from where I live, my first thought was “interesting”, which turned into “that could be fun”, and then “why not”???  And that is how I ended up signing up for my first gravel race – Big Sugar - less than two months before the race.

Once the dust had settled, I realized a couple of things:

1) I had no idea what it really meant to do a gravel race.

2) I did not own a gravel bike.

#2 was an easy fix. Ok, semi-easy because of the limited bike inventory at the time. But I found myself an as good as new bike that I could get within a week. Sorting #1 would take a bit more work, but step one was to go to the local bike shop and have them help me with essentials. A few things they (and now I) would recommend that were new to me:

*Go tubeless – Gravel is rough on the tires and flats are common, so you are better off without tubes.

*Get a Hydration Pack – If you plan on riding longer (training) rides, finding support is harder than along paved roads, so be self sufficient (also carry basic tools and spare tube).

*Invest in Some Gravel/MTB Shoes – There is a good chance you’ll have to walk up a hill at some point!

*Update Your Gear – Personally, I had to add some properly padded shorts and gloves to my inventory.

*Get Used to Using the Route Function on your Bike Computer – There aren't always street signs letting you know where to go.  Even many races send out the race route beforehand and expect you to rely on that vs signage.

At the bike shop, the guys suggested I go with them on their weekly ride later that day and, still in the spirit of “why not”, I did. That is when some of the differences between road and gravel became apparent and I realized quickly that this would take a bit of practice. After years with many hours on the bike, the power was not a problem, but now I had to be ok with slipping and sliding on very rough gravel, descending while bobbing all over the place, learning how to make a turn (without slowing down to about 5 mph) and riding close to others (that are experiencing the same). In the weeks after that I went out multiple times a week sometimes alone, sometimes with others (falling way behind on the descents and then hauling * to catch up on the flats and climbs). One pointer that helped me greatly is to descend in the drops – this gives you a lot more security in your grip.

On the gravel bike, especially the rough gravel in this area, you have to be ok with having less control. Being a triathlete, this is not necessarily my second nature, but this is also where the fun comes in. Power numbers don’t matter (I didn’t even have a power meter), and even heartrate often isn’t all that useful (depending on terrain there is just no way you can keep it steady).  Positioning on the bike doesn’t matter (much less of a need to be aerodynamic). I just rode to ride. And it was hard both in physical effort and in technique. And I loved every minute of it. Because of the lack of need to control, this was the break I needed. Not a break from riding, but a break from the pressure.

Big Sugar rolled around and thankfully I had fellow QT2 Systems athlete Amanda Wendorf with me to help keep my nerves under control. The mass start was an experience all on its own and not one I particularly enjoy, but the fact that you can ride with people during the race was definitely a plus, and the ride itself was 100 miles of excitement and adventure (including a thunderstorm, downpour and flat tire). And because we enjoyed ourselves so much, we repeated the fun a week later at the BWR Kansas – which was another lovely ride. Most of it anyway. Minus the 2 (long) sections of single track. For now, my newfound love for gravel has not extended to mountain biking...!

As I am getting back on my time-trial bike, to start building towards the triathlon season, the gravel bike will take a bit of a back seat. But the bike will not be put in storage, a long ride is a long ride, and the gravel bike is great for cooler weather riding. And I am most definitely planning to do a few more races next fall!

About the author ...

Lenny Ramsey is a USAT Level 1 Certified Coach.  She has been a coach with QT2 Systems since 2018 and races as a Professional IM Athleted coached by Tim Snow.   Lenny has a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience and currently works as a scientist part time, using the rest of her time to focus on coaching and racing.