Get Into Gravel Racing

Gravel bikes and gravel riding have seen a boom in recent years, with gravel racing going from a niche discipline to a UCI sanctioned series in a matter of years. Here, we explore gravel racing and gravel events to help kick-start your gravel race calendar.

Reading time: 6 min
Two gravel cyclists riding together

What is Gravel Cycling?

At its core, ‘gravel’ is an all-encompassing term for navigating off-road terrain with drop-bar bikes. This includes anything from gravel roads, wooded double tracks and even challenging singletracks. Originating from the expansive network of unpaved roads in the mid-west of the US, gravel riding remains deeply rooted in this region with the iconic Unbound Gravel race being widely regarded as the biggest gravel race on the calendar, attracting riders from all-around the world.

While the extensive network of unpaved roads of the mid-west might not be a universal feature, gravel riding has transcended geographical boundaries to become a global phenomenon. The term now encapsulates a variety of things, undergoing continual evolution and encountering various challenges as the race scene gains traction, attracting professional riders from other disciplines like road and cyclocross.

A gravel cyclist riding along a straight gravel road

Gravel Bikes: Simplicity and Utility

A dedicated gravel bike can be as varied as the terrain and landscapes you experience while riding. From traditional steel frames, through to super-light carbon gravel race bikes, the genre is a wide one. Although any of these variations are totally capable of being ridden on gravel, when looking to take to the start lines of your first event or race, some have clear advantages, but, others have a trump card when it comes to versatility – what works best for you will depend entirely on your intentions.

At one end of the spectrum, there are aero-optimized, super-light race options, often with minimal mounting points beyond traditional bottle cage mounts with the focus of being as light and fast as possible for race-day gains. As the gravel race scene continues to become more competitive, riders are seeking out whatever advantage they can as they look to those all-important podium placings. Tyre clearance may be limited with these bikes too, with many focussed on the ‘sweet spot’ of 42mm, the choice of many riders looking to balance speed, weight and handling capability.

Ian Boswell riding a carbon Specialized Diverge at Unbound Gravel 2021, which he won

Ian Boswell gravel cyclist on a Specialised Diverge at Unbound 2021

Ian Boswell riding a carbon Specialized Diverge at Unbound Gravel 2021, which he won

Rider standing behind a Squid steel gravel bike

Nico Deportago-Cabrera and his steel Squid gravel bike at Unbound XL in 2021

Nico Deportago-Cabrera and his steel Squid gravel bike at Unbound XL in 2021

Venturing into the more adventurous side of the spectrum, additional mounting points, such as top tube and fork leg mounts provide increased carry capacity for more adventurous gravel riding, with bolt-on top tube packs or cargo cages integrating seamlessly for bikepacking or ultra-distance racing. Increased tyre clearances allow use of larger volume tyres for tackling more technically demanding terrain, with recent releases such as the new 3T Extrema Italia, ridden by Apidura ambassador Cynthia Carson, can run 29 inch mountain bike tyres for tackling extreme terrain with ease. The addition of cargo cage mounts gives a level of adaptability that means that with a wheel or tyre change and the addition of a cargo cage and fork packs, this gravel bike can go from single day race podium to multi-day ultra-distance winner with ease.

 

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Gravel Racing and Events

With races and events as varied as the terrains you encounter, there’s a gravel event out there to suit everyone. From the laid-back, party atmosphere of the international gravel fest, Grinduro, to the competitive UCI Gravel Series where road professionals share the course with gravel privateers at speeds more akin to a pro-level road race.

Undoubtedly, the pinnacle of the gravel calendar is Unbound, offering a multitude of options from 50 miles to the challenging Unbound XL—a formidable 350-mile course of meandering dirt roads. Located in Emporia, Kansas, Unbound attracts top gravel racers and amateur riders alike, all seeking to test their limits on this renowned course.

In Europe, The Traka has emerged as the ultimate expression of gravel, again featuring a number of distances for riders to choose – from the classic 360km to 560km, a new distance for 2024 for those who really want to challenge themselves on the iconic trails of Girona.

The start line of Unbound Gravel

Essential Gravel Cycling Gear

Whether embarking on a local loop or gearing up for your first gravel event, proper packing is essential. Gravel rides typically traverse a variety of terrain, often leading to more remote locations than your typical road ride— a café stop may require some pre-planning! Regardless of the ride’s length, there are several must-haves for your gravel adventure.

Spares
Inner tube, pump, tubeless repair kit, CO2, tyre lever: There’s nothing more disheartening than a ride-ending puncture, especially in the middle of nowhere. Ensuring you have all the necessary tools to keep rolling is a top priority. A compact frame bag, such as our Racing Frame Pack (1L), provides just enough space to store these ride-saving essentials.

Nutrition
Food and water: Gravel riding often takes you off the beaten track, introducing challenges for resupply. The best strategy is to pack enough water and food to be self-sufficient. A top tube pack is an ideal storage spot for items you want easily accessible mid-ride. In warmer climates or during races when stopping is a valuable use of time, a hydration vest can significantly increase your water-carrying capacity while providing extra space for additional items

Clothing
Extra layers like a light rain coat or warm riding jacket are indispensable when embarking on an long gravel ride. These lightweight essentials can easily fit into a frame bag. However, for a compact and efficient storage solution, consider a small saddle pack such as our Racing Saddle Pack (3L). It’s the perfect size to stow essential layers, ensuring you’re prepared for changing conditions during your gravel adventure.

Choosing Your First Gravel Race

With such a wide range of events, ranging from sportive-style single day races, through to multi-day unsupported adventures, choosing your first gravel race can seem like your spoilt for choice. Here’s a few things to consider when picking from the many options available:

How far do you want to ride?
Lots of gravel races will be a single day and have multiple distances on offer to cater for a wide variety of riders. Although taking on a 360km event to challenge yourself may be a valid strategy, it’s important to hit that balance of selecting a distance which will be challenging for you, but also doable. Many people will surprise themselves with just how far they can ride when put into an event-style situation, but if your other commitments mean you are unlikely to get in frequent rides as training, you may find it better to temper your goal with something that is more achievable. The good news is that most event utilise parts of the same route, with splits at certain points for the various lengths, so you may have the option of dropping down at the split between 100km and 200km if things aren’t quite going to plan.

How competitive do you want to be?
For some, getting to the start line is achievement enough, for others, it’s all about where they come on the results sheet. The unique thing about a lot of gravel races is that riders with totally different goals line-up on the same course. Typically the most-competitive categories set off first, with the more casual and non-race categories following on, so even if you aren’t intending on rubbing shoulders with top-tier racers, you’ll still be riding the same course, which can do wonders for your confidence when figuring out what your next gravel race might be.

A gravel cyclist riding in the sunset

Most Importantly: Have Fun 

In amongst all the events, racing and bike choices, remember that gravel riding was borne out of a desire to break free from the perceived constraints and rules of road riding. Riding gravel is supposed to be challenging, but it’s also meant to be fun. With events and races prioritising racing and community in equal measure, it’s one of cycling’s most vibrant and welcoming disciplines.