Training and Gearing Up for Gravel Racing and Gran Fondos

Over the last few years it’s become increasingly obvious that the bikes we ride on the road, the types of road that we ride them on, and the types of events we participate in are changing dramatically. No longer are road races leading the way. In fact, road racing is consistently decreasing in numbers for many reasons. It seems cyclists are no longer defining themselves as either racers or recreationalists. And you know what? I love it. Cycling isn’t solely about racing. Yes, I personally LOVE to race bikes of whatever form, but even more I value long solo days in the woods, fun group rides with new and old friends, and the places a bike takes me. For this reason, I, and many others, have switched our event participation over to gravel rides or gran fondos. Gravel rides and fondos are much more about a day (or days) on the bike in a cool place with lots of other fun folks that prioritize the experience of cycling over straight out competition.

How do you best train for these types of events? Easy. Look at the courses and focus on your ability to complete the distance and cover the type of terrain you’ll be encountering along the way. Since these events are generally more about completion and less about racing you’ll need to prioritize preparation for your surroundings and the course profile versus staying with the fast folks.

#1. Make sure you are putting yourself in a position to complete the distance. Does this mean you have to and should complete the distance prior to the event? In my opinion, no. Would it be helpful if you had the ability to do so? Sure. Priority should be making certain you get your body as ready as you are able to while not tiring yourself out for the sake of miles. That looks different for everyone depending on available time and one’s cycling experience. Focusing on good base type rides with endurance as the priority is a great idea. Make sure to incorporate the adventure aspect into your training as well. Pack lots of snacks, a water filter and just point the rig somewhere new and go.

#2. Make sure you have the technical ability to complete the course you are attempting. Most of the gravel events are pretty tame when it comes to the road quality, but not all races are created equal. Some races will be butter smooth pavement, dirt, or gravel, while others will be more similar to a mountain bike race with very rough roads or singletrack with hazards along the way. Know the course and then put in some time on similar terrain to make sure you are ready for what the day brings. Gravel racing often includes some steep sections we are not often used to riding in everyday road rides. Doing a bit of overgear work (low rpm efforts) would be a great idea to make sure you are ready for the muscular type of riding needed for these steep pitches.

#3. Make sure your gear is up to the task. For a fondo you’ll likely be able to ride your current road bike set up as it sits in the garage, but for gravel racing a little more thought on the gear will go a long way.

Frame: Do you need a gravel bike? Probably not for most courses, but it depends. Your road bike would be suitable for some races like The Gorge Roubaix, but would leave you in the dust in tougher races like Unbound Gravel or Lost and Found. Your cross bike is definitely capable and likely the best bike for the job but there are lots of great new gravel specific bikes too. Besides, who doesn’t want an excuse to buy a new bike? Mostly, just make sure you’ve got a frame that is capable of integrating with the components suggested below.

Tires: A lot of the gravel roads raced on could easily be done with 25c road tires (I’ve ridden most of the gravel in the Bend area on a TT bike with 23c’s). Some races, however, will require bigger tires for comfort, traction, and durability. If it’s a mixed surface ride with lots of pavement I’ll ride the Schwalbe G-One Speed in a 35c. For races like Unbound or Rebecca’s Private Idaho I’ll use 40c+ with more knobs like a Schwalbe G-One Bite. And yes, tubeless in a no brainer.

Wheels: Tubeless compatibility is a must as it allows you to run lower pressure and will keep you from fixing flats all day. I suggest a wheel on the strong and sturdy side over one that is either aero or uber light. A wide internal rim width is also great as long as it is compatible with everything else above.

Gearing: Make sure you’ve got the gears to be able to pedal on both steep uphills and steep downhills, or fast road sections. I like a double front Di2 set up for more roadie centric courses and a 1X setup for more mountain bike-esque courses that have steep climbing. Being able to have a 1 to 1 ratio is a good rule for more rugged courses.

Brakes: Disc brakes are not 100% necessary, but they are very very helpful. They are obviously far better at stopping quickly, which you’ll need more often on the technical courses you’ll find in gravel racing. More importantly, without disc brakes you won’t be able to run the bigger tires and wider rim diameters needed for a lot of the courses.

Now that you’ve got yourself and your gear ready for the race let’s talk about some events.

Gorge Roubaix: This one is a classic Central Oregon event that has morphed in the last few years from a road race with gravel sections to an all out gravel race. Be ready for some loose sections and some very windy bits. The course has a fair mix of road thrown in to break up the gravel and give your hands a break from some white knuckle descents. It’s a fun early season race that’s sure to bring athletes from all over the country to Central Oregon this year. (4.11.2021 / www.oregongravelgrinder.com)

Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder: This is a new race that is destined to be a classic. Think BC Bike race for gravel cyclists. The multi-day course is one massive loop around Central Oregon over five stages. It follows roads rarely used but perfect for a gravel adventure. Chad Sperry and the Breakaway Promotions crew will transport your gear and camping equipment to the next stage while you toil away with new and old friends to get to the next camp. Gourmet food, live music, good beer and a summer camp vibe at each stop will make this a race to remember. (6.22.2022 – 6.26.2022 / www.oregontrailgravelgrinder.com)

Ochoco Gravel Grinder: Starting at the fairgrounds in Prineville, riders head into some of the best gravel riding Central Oregon has to offer. There are some very steep pitches thrown in to keep you honest, but also lots of pavement sections to keep the speed up along the way. You’ll keep that laid back feel of gravel racing as you are forced to stop at traffic lights on the final run to the finish where a looooooooong pavement sprint will test your inner roadie. There’s great music and food to finish the day and optional camping at the race venue. (07.24-25.2021 / www.ochocogravelgrinder.com)

Rebecca’s Private Idaho: This is one of my all time favorites and one I simply try not to miss each year. Rebecca Rusch is an absolute legend in cycling and she puts on an event that brings all levels of riders to Ketchum over Labor Day Weekend. A unique part of Rebecca’s race is she offers both a stage race that includes three stages with singletrack, a gravel climb time trial, and the signature race on Sunday that also acts as a stand alone event. So many great people in one place always yields new friendships and new, fun experiences on a bike. Always looking to do more than her peers, Rebecca focuses on female inclusion and last year had 35% female participation which is unheard of in these types of events. This year she’s hoping for a 50/50 split and I think she’ll do it. Our sport will be better for it. (9.01.2021 – 9.5.2021 / www.rebeccasprivateidaho.com)

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Matt Lieto
Matt Lieto has lived in Bend, OR for the last 15 years while training and racing for professional triathlon and beyond. His goals this year are to do less of the things he's already done and more of the things he never thought he could do, while encouraging others to do the same through his coaching business at theenduranceco.com. He is a six-time Pacific Crest Champion, 2nd place Wildflower triathlon finisher, U.S. Duathlon National Champion, and many time 70.3 and Ironman podium finisher.