How to Prep for Riding Your First (or 50th) Gravel Race

While most of us celebrate four seasons, Russians apparently go for six. Rasputitsa occurs twice a year, like two pieces of soggy bread sandwiching the frozen expanse of a ham-fisted winter. These rasputitsa mud seasons are so intense across the realm of the former USSR that they’ve earned special designation synonymous with quagmires, un-crossable roads, dank melting snow, ceaseless rain, and an unspoken understanding that nothing but heartache awaits you outside.

Sounds like a perfect name for a bike race.

Three short years ago, two Vermont guys embraced the Russian concept of “it’s so miserable, it’s fun,” and started the Rasputitsa Spring Classic, a gravel road race, out of East Burke, Vermont and the epic Kingdom Trails. It’s 45 miles of gravel, dirt, pavement, anaerobically-induced hallucinations, and if the pictures don’t lie – donuts.*

We joke about the misery. The Rasputitsa is hard without a doubt, but it has quickly become one of the best gravel races in the country. The challenge and the grit of gravel races tap into the same energy of freedom and strength that made us all fall in love with riding in the first place. So whether you’re hoping to catch a no-show spot for April 16’s Rasuptitsa, or setting your sights on a gravel race elsewhere, here are a few tips on how to set yourself up for success.


Photo by FlickR user RLevans,  CC by 2.0

You’re going to need new tires. There’s no way of saying this without it sounding dirty: save yourself heartache by selecting the best rubber for the task at hand. Call the race organizers for beta on the road surfaces because each substrate will challenge your tires in different ways. Just like in any other discipline, you’re weighing the pros and cons of tire pressure, rolling resistance, and puncture resistance. If your bank account or garage space prevents you from setting up your own bike shop-worthy selection of tires and tubes, prioritize puncture-resistance for gravel riding. Every set up will have its strengths and weaknesses, but tubeless tires (and compatible rims) are the most universal choice for serious gravel riders. Good resource:

Comfort is your friend.
Despite all the talk of suffering and the photo reels of pain-contorted faces, place your personal comfort as a top priority. By definition, gravel races are bouncier than road and longer than most mountain bike affairs. When you begin training, experiment on all of your rides – mountain, cyclocross, fat, touring – until you know which one you’re most comfortable on over long periods of time on inconsistent, hard surfaces. Then play around with that bike’s positioning – especially handlebar height and positions. If you’re gunning for the win, other factors will come into play. But if your neck is so jacked you can’t finish the race, a sleeker set up isn’t worth it.


Photo by FlickR user RLevans,  CC by 2.0

Speaking of comfort: how you ride helps, too. One tip we picked up from the organizers of the Iditarod 200 Gravel Challenge is to practice pushing slightly lower gears, with less spinning overall. The lower cadence helps smooth out the terrain a bit.

You are your own Sherpa. Most gravel races are still pretty low-key affairs, which means you’ll be running self support-style. As you tweak your eating, drinking and clothing needs during your training, pay attention to how you carry all this stuff on your bike, too. You rarely see backpacks in gravel racing because who can deal with 100 miles of sweaty back? Maybe you? Most gravel riders lean toward frame bags to balance the bounce and the weight distribution.


Photo by FlickR user Tony Rocha,  CC by 2.0

Do you need a specialized gravel bike? Across the board, no one will tell you that you need a specialized gravel bike right out of the gate. While it may be something to consider down the line, you’re going to be fine with a few modifications for comfort and performance to whatever (adequate) bike you have right now. Race profiles can help determine if you switch out a cassette to a climbing focused ratio or not.

Embrace the spirit. Eh…we know you will. Happy riding!


*No promises on those donuts, by the way.