Hit the Rocks: Why You Should Gravel If You've Done Triathlon
by Chris Bagg, image courtesy of LiFT Creative Studios and Steve Driscoll
Ed. Note—it's January, 2020, and many of you have wrapped up your racing for the year. Like schoolkids on the first day of September, though, your thoughts have already turned to this young season upon us, and the adventures you'll have in the summertime. Why not make 2020 a nice round year and do something totally fresh?
In April of last year, I did something in the endurance world I hadn’t done in a long time: I tried something completely new.
In about two decades of endurance hobby, I’ve done a lot of firsts: first 10k, first half-marathon, first marathon, first triathlon, first bike race, first half-iron, first criterium, first time trial, first cyclocross race, first ironman, first 10k swim. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few in there, but you get the picture, and you’ve got a similar list yourself, I’ll bet. One nice thing about endurance sport is that although the manner of transport changes, the idea doesn’t change: go somewhere that’s not here, and try to do it with as much efficiency (and, maybe, speed) as possible. Your lungs and veins and muscles don’t know the difference, they just chant go go go as long as they are able to. Endurance asks you to make some small changes in technique, but you don’t have learn how to kick a different ball, or swing a different stick, or hit a different widget each time you venture into a new event. Still, though, rolling up to the start line of my first gravel race, I felt that shiver of new that many of us haven’t felt in many years: what would this be like? Can I do it? Am I too confident? Am I not confident enough? Will this be bonkers? What if I flat? How do tubeless tires work? How fast will this be? Will I fit in?
The race was the Yamhill Gravel Fondo, a small affair nuzzled into the forests of Coastal Oregon, and although the sun shone clear and bright (a relative rarity in our part of the world in April) the air was cold and sharp. The start line felt like a cyclocross race from the 1990s, a motley mix of road racers and off-road specialists, and when the race began, the official simply yelled "go!" and scuttled out of our way. Within a few minutes, some of the aspects of gravel racing became clear:
- Keep your mouth closed—gravel does indeed fly everywhere.
- The whole road is yours, except where there are, of course, other cyclists, careening from one apparently clean line to another. You pretty much don't see cars. The cars you do see quickly make way for you.
- People start quickly, as they might in an aggressive road race, but they also start friendly, with jokes and greetings abounding as we rolled down the road together.
Thus began my first year of racing gravel with the Wattie Ink.-sponsored Caffeine and Watts Racing Team. I raced around Oregon in April, racking up as many miles as possible before heading to the Belgian Waffle Ride in Escondido, California. That party on 4000 wheels provided another stepping stone to the iconic Dirty Kanza 200 in Emporia, Kansas in early June, an experience I’ve described as “a long, interesting, not-very-comfortable hallucinatory trip” (and one that I am most certainly returning to in 2020). My teammate James Walsh managed 20th place on that day in June—a pretty remarkable accomplishment for a young team.
image courtesy of LiFT Creative Studios and Steve Driscoll
In the coming weeks we'll announce the Wattie Ink. Gravel Team, on which you can score your own “first gravel” experience. Why are we doing this? Many of you know us as a triathlon apparel first and cycling gear second. The big reason is that we can’t help ourselves—we’re pretty stoked on the sport, and we think you might be, too. Secondly, gravel racing is a great fit for triathletes who might be looking for something new and different. Consider the following:
- Due to the high resistance of the road surface, much of your day during a gravel race is done at low RPM, and many triathletes ride at a lower cadence in their training and racing
- Gravel events are loooooooonnnnnnggggg, and nutrition is incredibly important, in ways that may not be as important for a two- or three-hour road race. Triathletes deal with nutrition all the time, and have a leg up (ha) on their competition.
- Although you start gravel events with thousands of people, you usually finish alone (or at least spend a significant portion of your day alone). Triathletes race alone (well, you’re supposed to race alone), and many of us do our longest rides alone. You’ll have a little more mental armor than your roadie converts.
Here’s a short recap in images of where we went and what we did this past season—we hope you find yourself inspired by it and decide to join us in 2020!
Team Rider James Walsh at the midway point of Dirty Kanza, image courtesy of LiFT Creative Studios and Steve Driscoll
Riders Delayne Hart and Walsh the day before Kanza
James at the finish of DK200, image courtesy of LiFT Creative Studios and Steve Driscoll
Your author, having not the best day at SBT GRVL, image courtesy of LiFT Creative Studios and Steve Driscoll
James Walsh in action late at SBT GRVL, image courtesy of LiFT Creative Studios and Steve Driscoll
The roads at SBT GRVL are unlike any you've ever ridden, image courtesy of LiFT Creative Studios and Steve Driscoll
Team rider Paul Thomas, hanging with the front of the race, image courtesy of LiFT Creative Studios and Steve Driscoll