Wednesday, April 20, 2016

All things gravel!

Tuesday Gravel Adventure rides have been stellar lately thanks to cooperative weather, folks ramping up for Barry Roubaix and just a general spring fever for riding. The groups have been ranging from 30 to upwards of 70 with all kinds of familiar faces coming out of the woodwork. Seeing everyone out having a good time and chatting on the social lap has definitely put me in the social bike riding mood! The Salsa Warbird has well over 1500 miles logged on it with plenty more to come and has been a favorite of mine to ride lately. Lots of folks from the area have been gearing up for the big gravel races, and with Barry Roubaix behind us things don't seem to be slowing down. There's a large Michigan contingent heading to Dirty Kanza and a lot of folks have had questions for me about setup, training and nutrition. This got me thinking about getting a post out there on the many facets of gravel. Here's a quick rundown on what I've been using and liking:

Tuesday Gravel selfie

My Salsa Cycles Bird of War

Food storage and access has been on point with my new Oveja Negra Threadworks Snack Pack top-tube bag. I went with the Oveja Negra due to size constraints of the Warbird's top-tube and not wanting my legs to rub the bag when standing. The straps that secure it to the bike are ample and burly, and i like that the steerer tube strap has multiple positions. The construction of the bag is top notch which i would expect for a $50 bag. The sides of the bag are stiff enough to make it easy to get in and out of, and i can leave the zipper open on less bumpy rides for quick access to treats. I used it during the Barry Roubaix 62 miler with good success, and i was happy to be able to grab handfuls of chews and beans without rifling through my jersey pocket. On rougher roads you will for sure want to keep the zipper closed or risk losing contents. Pro-tip: find a small plastic container that fits inside and dump chews/chomps/salt pills and other snacks directly into it to avoid making a mess of the bag and for quick snacking!

Tires are always a source of discussion when gravel riding comes up. Dirty Kanza is a special kind of event that requires close attention be paid to wheel/tires as the course can do some serious damage! Lately i've been testing the Teravail Cannonball and Galenas (38c and 32c respectively) in the 120 TPI versions. The Cannonball is touted as being the official tire of DK200 so naturally i had to give it a shot. I prefer to run tubeless on gravel (and virtually all surfaces) so it's important to me for a tire to not only setup easily, but stay setup tubeless without a bunch of maintenance/headaches. I'm pleased with how the tires setup on my Ailerons and have been holding air rather nicely. I rocked the Cannonballs on some fairly long rides and was happy with how well they roll for a wider tire. Compared to the WTB Nano 40c, which is another good tire, they're definitely faster. One downside that gets noted frequently on this tire is the lack of a supple feel, but for a lot of the riding i do, i'm happy to forgo some ride quality over not having blown out sidewalls or frequent flats. Coming into Barry Roubaix i knew the course was going to be fast so i switched up the Cannonballs for the Galenas to gain a bit of speed. Like their wider brethren the Galenas setup tubeless easily and the tire profile goes well with the Ailerons. I had zero issues with them at Barry Roubaix despite the innumerable potholes, rocks and loose gravel. All around both of these tires are great options!

Teravail Cannonball 38c 120 TPI tires on Velocity USA Ailerons

While i have been using Ailerons for sometime now, i feel they're worth mentioning again. I'm getting a new set built up for Dirty Kanza to better match my bike and to also give me another wheelset to have a tire option ready to go for the race should i need to change at the last minute. My specific build of the Aileron through Velocity USA is a 28 spoke count disc setup with Sapim spokes, alloy nipples, industry nine hubs and Velotape and valves to finish them off. I love how burly this rim is and how well it deals with rough terrain. After about 4,000 miles of abuse on my current set the only thing that needs replacing is the wheel bearings! I've had these bad boys out on single track and cross races with tons of root and rock strikes and minimal damage to the rim. They've also only been trued once since they were built which is pretty awesome. 

Velocity wheels taking me places

Drivetrain boils down to personal preference in many cases as far as whether you want Shimano or SRAM, but i feel that it's the details behind how you set it up that can make a big difference. I'm currently running a SRAM Rival Hydro setup 1x11 on the Warbird. I chose the Rival 1 derailleur overl the standard 2x model for the additional cassette capacity but mostly the clutch and chain retention. It's essentially identical to the Force CX1 model without the extra hefty price tag. The cassette is a SRAM XG-1190 one piece model in 11-32 range. I prefer the one piece cassettes for their lightweight and simplicity over multiple cogs/spacers and am willing to pay the extra cash. KMC chains have a home on all of my bikes as they've treated me well. I like the design of the quick link, their strength and how well they wear. For my chainring i prefer Wolftooth and run them on all my 1x setups. They have boatloads of options on their website, are made in the US and have outperformed the other brands i have used in both mud shedding and wear (aside from Stainless models). The chain retention is top notch for 1x systems even as they continue to wear over time. For the riding/racing i do i prefer the 42T size, but for shorter/faster events i jump up to a 44T. One area that frequently gets overlooked on bikes in general is the routing/setup/quality of the shift cables. As ratios have gotten tighter from 9, 10, 11 and now 12 speeds this is even more crucial. For a bike that faces the grueling task of Dirty Kanza and other gnarly races i prefer a full length housing with sealed ferrules and cable lube. I happen to have some old stock of Gore Ride-on cables for those that remember them. They actually utilize a 5mm outer housing, an inner "lube" liner and the shift cable itself as opposed to just housing and cable. Nowadays Jagwire makes a similar setup called the Road Elite Sealed Shift. You'd be amazed at just how much an improvement proper cable routing (no tight bends, proper housing length, no unnecessary splits) and quality can make in the way your bike shifts!

SRAM Rival 1 rear derailleur

SRAM XG-1190 cassette

Wolftooth 1x 110 BCD chainring

Jagwire Road Elite Sealed Shift kit

Bartape is also an items that can get overlooked, there's many brands and styles out there and I've long enjoyed the Lizard Skins DSP bar tape. They offer it in several thicknesses which is a huge bonus for rough road riding. I prefer to run a thicker bar tape on my Warbird to help soak up vibration and shock as much as possible. The only downside to the Lizard Skins tape is the cost. With that being said i have been really enjoying the Synapse Gel bar tape from Cannondale. It's held up well for over 1500 miles, wraps well, and comes in an awesome green that looks killer on the Warbird for about half the price of the Lizard Skins. Pro-tip: they've got it in stock over at Grand Rapids Bicycle Company and i'll bet they can wrap it for you if you ask nicely!

Cannondale Synapse Gel tape in bomb A$$ green!

A power-meter is one of the best training tools available to cyclists today. While a heart rate monitor may be the cheaper option, measuring your power output on the bike is the best way to take the "static" out of your true performance. By static i'm referring to fatigue and other outside factors that can cause your heart rate to vary. Power is simply the amount of energy you're putting out to propel yourself. Just like any tool you can use it as another simple metric or spend days sifting through the data. Personally i like power to not only check how my fitness is progressing but also how i'm handling fatigue and other issues. On any given day you may have the same heart rate but the amount of power you are putting out may be vastly different. I use power when performing intervals and other structured workouts as not only a metric to aim for but also a sign of when to call it quits. As we all know, some days are better than others, and if you're not "hitting your numbers" it's often a sign from your body to give it a rest as opposed to further digging yourself into a hole. I have been running the Stages crank based power meter on 3 of my bikes with good success. It's relatively cost effective compared to other options, but you have to keep in mind it only measure the left leg and doubles that number so it can't give you left/right balance and efficiency data. It runs off a simple coin cell battery and is both Bluetooth and Ant+ compatible. I use a Garmin 1000 to talk to mine and record the data.

Stages Hollowgram power-meter

Water bottle cages are a seemingly inane item to spend much time talking about, but they;re not all created equal. I like to run 2 cages on my bike most times, although there is room for a 3rd on the Warbird frame, even if i'm using a Camelbak because i don't like putting sports beverages in my hydration bladders. Really a bottle cage just needs to perform a few tasks; hold my bottle, don't let me bottle fly out, let me get my bottle when i need it and don't break. This seems relatively simple, but I've found my share of bad bottle cages over the years and cost doesn't necessarily guarantee a fool proof bottle cage. My favorite cage has to be the King Cage Titanium model, but the downside is that it will set you back about $60. They look classy and I've never had one break. I only have them on my handmade steel hardtail due to the price, so with that being said i keep Velocity Bottle Traps on the rest of my bikes. The  Bottle Trap is available in a slew of colors, it's made of recyclable plastic in the event of catastrophic failure and it does what it's supposed to for the low cost of $6.99.

Bottle Trap by Velocity USA

Moving along, lets get into discussing nutrition. This can be a more personal taste/need based item, but i'll share what i use and you can go from there. Everyone has different needs when it come to nutrition; some people battle cramps, other battle nausea, some don't like sugar or certain flavors, and some prefer solids over liquids. My best advice is to try out several different kinds and options on your training rides before implements them in a race or other bigger event. I prefer to use Skratch Labs and Infinit Nutrition for the majority of my liquid needs. I like the flavor subtlety of the Skratch mix but the Infinit packs a lot of good stuff into one mix. A downside of the Infinit is that it can be quite sticky so beware of leaky bottles or spills. For long rides i'll use the Go Far by Infinit or the Orange Skratch Labs mix. For shorter stuff i prefer something with some caffeine to give me that extra boost. Be sure if you do use caffeine that you test it out to see how sensitive you are to it as some folks don't need much to get them revved up. When it comes to gels my go to has always been Powergel Strawberry Banana because it has more sodium than most other brands which i need to stave off cramps and it's less viscous than some brands so it's easy to ingest. For long rides i like to interchange chews with gels so that it's not all the same texture/flavor. For really long rides i also prefer to add in some "normal" food of a solid nature to keep from getting "gut rot" by just drinking flavored drinks and sugary gels/chews.
For "normal" food i prefer to eat items that are more savory and salty to offset the sugary stuff. Beef jerky, plain potato chips, crackers, trail mix and other quick snacks are great items to give good energy and are easy to ingest at a quick stop or on the bike. Granola bars are okay but beware that they're not overly sweet or difficult to chew/swallow. ERG energy bars are a good balance of sweetness, nutrients and are easy to chew and swallow. I find that Clif Bars and more dense varieties can be too dry or dense and difficult to get down especially while putting in any effort. Pro-tip: for a sour stomach or to help prevent intestinal distress try carrying a to-go package of applesauce to help settle your gut as it has a more neutral flavor and is part of the BRAT diet for digestive issues (i eat it during all of my long races).

Proper nutrition on the bike will get you through that long ride or race but it's equally important to fuel up and take care of your body the rest of the week too. I'm not going to get into daily diet tips or overall meal plans but rather recommend some items/ideas to help along with a healthy diet. One things that endurance riding and training does is drain your body and gut of good nutrients in an effort to keep you moving. It's important to get these vitamins, minerals and bacteria back in balance to keep from getting sick or worn down. I have a few vitamins that i supplement my regular diet with because i don't get quite enough in my normal foods such as C, D and E. To keep joints healthy i like to add on a joint compound to keep my knees and ankles moving freely. I realize that the use of supplements is debatable so feel free to agree or disagree with any of this, it's simply what i have been doing for a long time and seems to work out. I have dabbled with getting probiotics in my system via foods (kombucha, yogurts, etc...) and via pill form and have recently found a good boost from taking Sound Probiotics Sport supplement. The majority of your immune system comes from your gut so it only makes sense to treat it well and take care of it. I've been taking this supplement for 6 weeks now and have decided to make it a part of my regular routine.

Sound Probiotics Sport

People always look at my bike saddles and cringe in dismay on behalf of my nether region. Yes, it's true, i use narrow firm carbon saddles with little to no padding. If it weren't for awesome padded bib shorts this would not be the case. When training or logging the hours it's important to pay attention to the position and fit of yourself to your bike. If it weren't for a good bike fit and setup then i wouldn't be riding the gear that i do. I'm fortunate in that I've been doing this long enough that i can setup a new bike to my needs rather quickly based off measurements i keep written down, saddles i know and trust and shoes/pedals that i keep around. You can spend all the money you want on a bike, but if it's not the right size or fit for you then it can be just as unpleasant as riding a Walmart steed. Take the time whether you go into Grand Rapids Bicycle Company and get the Guru fit treatment or enlist the help of a trusted friend/athlete to get you squared away. There are different theories on bike fit, but listening to your body is one of the best indicators. If you experience any numbness, back pain, joint problems or hot spots then you should probably enlist some help to solve the issue. Once a bike is setup and you're happy with it, be sure to record that info somewhere you'll remember so you can always go back to it if things get adjusted.

Skincare can be another neglected area in cycling. Some people prefer to use chamois cream and others not so much. I'm in the camp that uses chamois cream and can't get by without it for long rides and races. I've tried a lot of brands and my favorite one that i always go to is Soigneur Hors Categorie which has a touch of menthol. It has a good consistency that's not too runny and not too thick, lasts a long time between applications and is readily available through local shops such as GRBC. Soigneur also makes a great embrocation cream which is wonderful for the colder seasons, but can also be of use in the summer. I like to apply a small amount of embrocation to my upper and lower back along with my hips to help keep the muscles warm and loose during long efforts. My lower back is usually the first thing to start crying uncle on long rides and applying a small amount of embro keeps it warm and loose. Pro-tip: keep track of your embrocation cream and clearly identify it from your chamois cream to avoid maximum discomfort!

Soigneur Hors Categorie chamois cream

 Body work outside of training helps make training and riding all the more pleasant. I keep a leg rolling stick at work in my desk and bust it out when no ones looking to work those pesky knots out of my calves and thighs. A simple lacrosse ball works well to get into those hips and calves as well. If you have the connections or resources a deep tissue massage can do wonders to keep the body feeling good. One thing that i don't go too long without is a visit to Train Out Pain chiropractic for a good active release session with Dr. Jason Ross or his comrade Dr. Eric Graf. If Jason is good enough for the US Olympic team i suppose he can probably keep me straightened out. Not only do i see Dr. Ross to work out problem areas and injuries but also for strength training tips and exercises to help activate weak muscles and balance out the various muscle groups i need to perform my best. A good doctor can help point out your weak spots and recommend exercises to beef those areas up.

Speaking of all of this training and riding it's probably best to talk about what great options there are out there for making routes, riding with groups and testing yourself in fun races. I spend a fair amount of time marking the gravel roads that exist in West Michigan on It's a great tool that has gravel roads highlighted in yellow to help create fun routes. I like to use this map as a reference in combination with the Strava route builder (i have a prior blog that covers this subject) to come up with fun routes such as the Farmland 50 Fondo, the Tuesday Gravel Adventure loops and all of my bikepacking adventures up in the Manistee National Forest. If all of this sounds like a headache and you're like "come on Matt, all i want to do is go ride my bike on gravel with fun people then have a beer!" then there are options for you!


With gravel riding being a "thing" now there are more group rides and Facebook events than ever out there to jump in on and experience for yourself. Yours truly has a group ride every Tuesday departing  from Townsend Park in West Michigan for a two lap gravel adventure. The Tuesday Gravel Adventure is composed of two laps; the first lap is group/social pace and the second lap is a fire breathing free for all. It's a great way to get comfortable riding in a group, to learn new roads/routes and to get a good training ride in with friends. Check out the Facebook group for more info; Tuesday Gravel Adventure group. Here in West Michigan we are lucky to have so many great bike shops, teams and groups to ride with so don't hesitate to search out something that fits your schedule and desire. Has all of that training got you fired up and ready to throw down? if that's the case then maybe you ought to get out and mix it up at a local gravel race!
Tuesday Gravel Adventure!

Everyone and their spandex wearing brother seems to know about the Barry Roubaix, and i can;t recommend it more as it's an awesome event, but the gravel season doesn't start or stop there! It's a bit late this year now to get in on the Spring Lowell 50, Melting Mann and Barry Roubaix but there are plenty more events to have a good time at. The Hellkaat Hundie makes for an awesome DK200 training race and is only 15 bucks on Bikereg. The Arcadian Grit and Gravel has gravel AND singletrack, not to mention beer and awesome scenery. The Sturgeon 100 may be a bit of a hike all the way up in da UP but it's worth it for the beauty and all you gotta do is send in a psotcard! If you're looking to travel then head out to Spring Valley, MN and bear witness to Almanzo 100. Dirty Kanza 200 may be sold out for this year, but it's not a spectacle to be missed if you love riding gravel and seeing new places. The list goes on and on and the fall has it's own set of sweet events.
Barry Roubaix Bling

That's a lot of info and whatnot in one blog post, so i'd say it's about time to wrap it up. Naturally these are my opinions and preferences so take that for what it's worth. My goal in this post was to get some info out there for folks who are curious about gravel riding/racing and share what i've learned in my time partaking. I'm on Facebook, Instagram and always finding my way to some beer tent at a race near you so don't hesitate to look me up if you've got questions or want to get in on some gnarly gravel grinding!