Whether you're doing your first gravel race ever or are a seasoned veteran, spring gravel events are a great way to tune your approach to success. Here are my tips for crushing the first gravel event of the season.
Know the course
Success starts with doing our homework. Once we sign up for an event, it's important to spend time gathering all the event information we can. Start with the course route and map profile, as these are key, both to our training and our race day strategy. Once we have these, it's time to look at things like the course surface (mixed surfaces, gravel types, etc.), past performance, general finishing times, and comments and notes from past riders. All of these will help us plan for the event.
Build a course plan
Once we've done our background research, let's build a course plan. This is loose guidance on how we'll tackle key sections of the course and achieve our goals, which means the plan may vary based on those goals.
I recommend dividing the course into four sections:
The start and the first hour
After the first hour to about the halfway point
Halfway to the last hour
The finish/last hour heading home
It may be helpful to use terrain elements as markers to divide the course.
Once we break up the course into segments, let's consider pacing targets for each section. We can set targets by power (a range or percentage of FTP), heart rate (a range or percentage of heart rate threshold), or by feel (easy, tempo, hard, etc.). The goal is to be aware of when we'll push a little harder and when we'll conserve and recover. It's also helpful to build planned rest stops into the pacing plan.
Things to consider in a course plan
Start/first hour: In gravel racing, the first hour of an event is often the hardest due to the mass start and drafting impact, so we need to have a plan on how to handle this. If your goal is to be on the podium, you need to get in a front group and focus on going hard until things settle in. If your goal is to finish within a goal time, you can use this segment to get ahead, but be careful not to go too hard. Be prepared for this first section to be harder, regardless of your goal.
Segments two and three: Once we're through the harder start, the second and third segments can be used to conserve and recover or to push the pace. These segments are often the most tough mentally. Having a basic plan for each segment can help us manage the struggle and stay focused on our goals. Where will you recover? Where will you push a little? I suggest using a simple + or - approach; the + areas are ones you'll push, and the - areas are ones you'll conserve.
Final segment: There are a lot variables that affect the end of a gravel race. How well have we been fueling? Is our equipment holding up? How are we holding up? Again, having a basic plan here will help us focus and push to success.
Below is a simple example of a plan based on the Baked Potato course at Rebecca's Private Idaho (the image was taken from the Strava page for this course). The course is divided into four segments (marked with red numbers) with planned stops and aid stations (marked with purple letters), a general pacing strategy for each segment, and + and - symbols where to push a little and where to conserve.
Manage the Chaos
Now that we have a plan prepared, we can be confident of this: it will not go exactly as we planned. Gravel events are dynamic with numerous variables to be managed; conditions, weather, fueling, and equipment all play a major role in success, and the reality is that many of these are outside of our control. Things will probably go wrong.
So how do we handle the mishaps? Good preparation is key. Let's talk about each of the areas I just mentioned.
Conditions. As you do your course research, you'll learn the course conditions and be able to select the right bike setup, tires, and tire pressure.
Weather: Watch the forecast, know what you're riding into, and plan for it. Select the right clothing to match the conditions, allowing you to be neither too cold nor too hot.
Fueling: Build a fueling plan. Hydration and fueling play a major role in longer events, and it's important to plan them out. Also, make sure both drink and food are easily accessible. For example, water bottles might be lighter than a hydration pack, but it is much easier to drink from a hydration pack at higher speeds on challenge courses, so it might be worth the extra weight.
Equipment: Make sure your gravel rig is in perfect working order and carry a selection of tools and items to keep you rolling on the course.
These tips are simple, but they're effective for gravel race success. Take the time to do the research and build a simple plan; this can be the key to achieving your goals.