Epic routes. Challenge. Adventure. Gravel grinders have it all. No wonder they draw participants from all different cycling backgrounds. We talked with gravel racing pros Geoff Kabush (Yeti Cycles-Maxxis), BrittLee Bowman (The Meteor // Intelligentsia) and Jake Wells (Form p/b IRC Tires) for some expert advice on how to go faster and have more fun at your next gravel event. Read on for gear tips and strategy that could make the difference between a good day and a great day on gravel.

Jake Well's Grail CB7 Wheelset (Photo by Justin Balog / Mixed Media Machine)

Pro Tip #1: Go Tubeless

Smooth out your ride, and you’ll go much faster. One way to do this is by converting your wheels and tires to a Stan’s tubeless setup. “You should definitely go tubeless!” said Jake Wells, a Dirty Kanza top-three finisher and current masters and singlespeed cyclocross national champion. “You’ll have better puncture resistance at a lower tire pressure, which means better traction climbing and cornering and a much more comfortable ride.” And once you’ve converted to tubeless, don’t forget to refresh your Stan’s sealant regularly.

Pro Tip #2: Select the Right Tires

One key equipment choice can make or break your day: your tires. If you pick tires that are not substantial enough, you could be changing flats all day. First, you’ll need to figure out what tire width you’ll ride. “Of course which exact tires you pick will depend on each actual course and conditions, but a good rule of thumb is to run as wide of a tire as you can fit in your frame without compromising mud clearance,” said Wells.

Jake Wells (Photo by Justin Balog / Mixed Media Machine)

But it’s not only size that matters. “When deciding what tire to ride, look closely at its construction,” said Olympic mountain biker, Geoff Kabush, who is also a top-three Dirty Kanza finisher. “Often the exact same tire is made in a couple different constructions, which is important when it comes to durability and flat protection; one of these differences is threads per inch (TPI). An example is the popular Maxxis Rambler which comes in either a 60tpi or a 120tpi casing. The 120tpi casing will be lighter, more supple and more comfortable but not as durable. This is nice if you are a smooth rider or the course isn’t as rough, but has a higher chance of puncturing. On a high-risk course like Dirty Kanza, which has a lot of sharp rocks, definitely look for the more durable construction like the 60tpi casing. Besides different tpi, tires will also be made with different protective layers which can be an important part of the decision when picking rubber.”

Pro Tip #3: Pick Your Bottle Cages Wisely

Seemingly small details matter more the longer a day gets on a bike. BrittLee Bowman, Manager and Racer for the The Meteor // Intelligentsia Team which was formerly a road racing squad that now focuses on gravel races, reminds us to be intentional about selecting your water bottle cages. “Inevitably when the course transfers off the pavement and onto the first gravel section, there are always bottles lost. Don’t let them be yours! Test your cages off-road before the event because losing a bottle can be a huge disadvantage.” Lost bottles mean you may not get enough fluids when you need them, increasing your potential for dehydration and cramping

BrittLee Bowman (Photo by Daghan Perker)

Pro Tip #4: Don’t Use Aerobars

Sometimes the smartest equipment choices are about what NOT to run. Kabush recommends against racing with aerodynamic handlebars like those used in time trials or triathlons. “Don’t run aerobars. Just because you may have seen a few riders using them doesn’t make it a good idea,” said Kabush. “You’d never use them in any other mass start road event or mountain bike with them, so what makes you think they are a good idea on the gravel? In my opinion, it is not safe, and I don’t want to see any more crashes.”

You might spot Geoff Kabush and/or the Salsa chaise lounge at your next gravel event (Photo by Salsa)

Pro Tip #5: Test Your Setup

Bowman and Kabush both believe it’s important to test everything to avoid any unpleasant surprises on race day. “My number one tip for everyone trying out a gravel event is to test your setup before the event. Figure out your position, what you are going to wear, your hydration pack, the bags on your bike, your navigation and what you are going to eat,” said Kabush. “A lot of gravel events can be long, hard days in the saddle, so you don’t want to be experimenting day of.”

Pro Tip #6: Wear Sunscreen

There’s nothing like sunburn to make you feel worse during and after a big event and increase your risk of skin cancer long term. “Don’t forget your sunscreen,” said Bowman. “Often, gravel races start just as the sun rises and keep you out on course for hours and hours. Making sure you are protecting your skin is important.” Just because you start an event in arm warmers or a jacket on a chilly morning doesn’t mean you won’t need that sunscreen later in the day once you start peeling off layers.

Wide open roads and vast scenery are common at many gravel events. (Photo by Justin Balog / Mixed Media Machine)

Pro Tip #7: Be Smart About Your Stops

Whether you’re doing a supported or unsupported gravel event, you’re going to have to stop at some point, often several times during a long event. “Stops can add up, but they are important,” said Bowman. “Every time you stop during a race - even if it’s only a minute - when you do that multiple times during the race, it can really add up in a longer format race. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stop... sometimes taking the time to get more water or go to the bathroom can make a huge difference in making you faster overall.”

Pro Tip #8: Enjoy the adventure

Last but not least, remember to have fun. After all, you chose to do the ride. “Keep in mind that it’s an adventure. Enjoy the adventure,” said Bowman. “With gravel, it’s typically more about you vs. the course, and it’s not so much about the other racers. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to getting to the finish line.”

Lead photo of this article featuring The Meteor // Intelligentsia Team by Daghan Perker.