Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Musings on endurance gravel riding and racing

As spring descends upon the Midwest slowly and un-surely, attentions are shifting from fat biking to gravel road riding. With events like Almanzo, Trans Iowa, Dirty Kanza and many others looming on the horizon it’s no wonder why folks have gravel on the mind. Even with the season finale of the Great Lakes Fat bike Series on the docket this weekend I find myself looking down the road and preparing for the two big gravel events on my calendar; Trans Iowa V13 and Dirty Kanza 200. This spring I’ve had the pleasure of speaking at two awesome events about gravel riding and inevitably have fielded questions surrounding Dirty Kanza, what my training plan looks like, what I plan to fuel with, what bike I’m riding, and the list goes on. As I was sitting at my desk doing most things except work on this sunny but cool Michigan day I found my mind wandering over details surrounding Trans Iowa and figured while I was thinking it over I might as well document my musings for others to ponder as well.
I like riding my bike, talking about bikes and thinking about bikes

Every day I find that I spend a small chunk of time looking at weather apps on my cell phone and laptop as I plan my training for the evening and subsequent days. This time of year the weather here on the west side of Michigan can be said to be turbulent at best ranging from 65 degrees and sunny to 32.1 degrees and sideways freezing rain. As I write these thoughts down it’s currently sunny, mid 40’s Fahrenheit and sustained winds of 20+ mph with gusts of 50+ mph. Some folks might look at the conditions and opt to ride the trainer or chose a route as sheltered as possible on the many bike paths we’re fortunate to have. Although I’m not super excited to go out and ride race pace into a headwind just to go 10 mph I know that it must be done. This brings me to my first point about conditions and riding; regardless of weather (barring tornadoes and the like) it’s important to ride outside as much as possible if nothing else than to build mental toughness. There’s no guarantees on race day that the sun will shine and the wind will sit idle whilst you pedal gracefully over hill and dale. With the spring gravel season comes challenges of all sorts, and the better prepared you are to deal with whatever mother nature has to dish out the better off you’ll be.
As Danny Hill would say 'There's never a bad day to take your bike for a walk"
Photo credit: TBL photography

Now that I’ve set myself up with this stellar segue I’ll move onto my next point; mental toughness is something that can be trained and is every bit important, if not paramount, in endurance racing that it deserves the proper attention. Personally I feel that you can acclimate yourself to poor conditions and adversity over time, and that you don’t need to be born with a steel trap of a mind to succeed at pushing your bike through miles of mud with a smile on your face. As I mentioned previously, I don’t necessarily enjoy riding into 20 mph headwinds, but sometimes that’s the card you're dealt and you just have to deal with it. Neither cursing nor pleading not weeping will cause the wind to abate should it decide to lash you into tatters. One thing you can do is head out on your bike on a windy day and pedal many miles into the gale at a steady and consistent effort, keep your calm and acclimate to riding in said wind. You’ll never become proficient at dealing with 40 degrees and rain if you don’t get out into it and find out what gear works best and how to keep comfortable. Don’t let the weather get you down, bundle up and get outside to work on your mental toughness intervals, I can assure you that those rides you never wanted to begin in the first place will pay dividends later down the road.

There are many tools available these days to the masses for measuring, tracking and quantifying your training. With Strava, heart rate monitors, power meters, GPS units and other modern conveniences it’s never been easier to take a scientific approach to training. I happen to believe in these tools and embrace them on a regular basis to help reach my goals, but there comes a time when your GPS may die, your body may be out of sorts and your cell phone is in a tizzy. As great as it is to keep tabs on the numerous metrics of cycling it’s also great to spend some time with just you and your bike. This past weekend I set out for the inaugural trip on my new Salsa Cutthroat which is not yet equipped with a power meter. At first I caught myself looking down frequently at my Garmin pondering where that magical metric of watts had gone and what I was to do without. Then I remembered a time not long ago where perceived effort was relied upon and we mysteriously listened to our bodies to tell us how hard to go, ah yes, those were the days. I spent the better part of 8 hours listening to what my body was telling me as I battled the cold and wind, and remembered a few things that maybe I had been neglecting. It’s good to get out and push yourself on the bike without staring at a screen every 13 seconds, and I would argue critical to keeping in tune with your body. This doesn’t mean you still can’t wrack up those miles on Strava and track your data if you so choose, but I’d recommend at least once every few weeks to lock the screen on your Garmin, throw it in your back pocket and just push the pedals.
Sometimes the "roads" on Google aren't all they're cracked up to be, who cares, ride it!

One aspect of Trans Iowa that I am both looking forward to and concerned about all the same is the sole use of cue sheets for navigation. The trappings of modern times have caught me once again relying upon my fancy Garmin think box to effortlessly guide me through the most complex of routes. I’m no stranger to cue sheets and navigation by janky maps by any means, but it’s not something that I practice on a weekly basis. If a race/ride/tour relies solely on cue sheets for directing the route, then I highly recommend using then on some rides to get used to what works and what does not. Some of the fanciest cue sheet holders on the market are useless if they’re not intuitive for you to use and can’t keep your sheets dry. In the past I have relied on homemade solutions such as plastic baggies, cut up milk jug plastic and zip ties to handle these critical pieces of knowledge. If you’re looking for ideas, check out Joe Meiser’s  blog post on a DIY cue sheet holder here: http://salsacycles.com/culture/diy_joes_cue_sheet_holder.  Whatever method you use, go out and practice with it to see how well it works for you.
Note the beer can for size reference

While we’re on the topic of practice, I would extend that to not only cue sheets and the actual act of training, but all aspects of your setup. If you’re planning to run a frame bag with a hydropak, top tube bag with snacks, clip-board style cue-sheet holder, Velcro strap tool pouch and dynamo powered lights on race/ride day then you should also be riding that setup on your long training rides. It might be less of a pain for me to head out with just a few bottles and repair kit in my jersey for my longer rides, but I’d be in for some surprises if I didn’t load my bike down with the actual weight and gear I’ll be using for 300 some odd miles of gravel in the middle of Iowa. This isn’t to say you need to have every gel pouch accounted for (it wouldn’t hurt…) but get out on your bike as you intend to have it outfitted for your big event and see how it feels. You might find that you don’t like the swaying of your seat bag, or that the zippers on your frame pack aren’t easy to handle with gloves, or that that water bottle on the underside of the downtube is useless once covered in “animal dirt” (credit goes to Joe Perry’s kids for coining this term for poop which I’ve become fond of).
I don't mind animal dirt on my tool kit Keg

What do you do for nutrition? This question sounds easy at first glance, but don’t be fooled, there are many facets to nutrition on the bike. For 2 and 3 hour events nutrition is a more straightforward discussion. When it comes to 24+ hour epic rides then it becomes a bit more complicated, and more factors come into play such as how you plan to procure nutrition en-route when there’s no support. Just like most people I have drink mixes, gels, bars and chews that I rely on frequently during both training and racing, but it can be cumbersome and not ideal to carry 24+ hours’ worth of fuel on the bike, and that you might not be able to stomach one more sour apple gel… On many of my long rides I happen upon gas stations and convenience stores, and have come to look forward to the surprises that lay awaiting me inside. On many self-supported endeavors one must “live off the land” and it’s good to know what cured, salted, canned and pickled items suit your fancy. There’s nothing quite like stuffing a greasy piece of pizza, slugging a can of Mountain Dew and polishing off a king size Snickers when you’ve over-stayed your welcome at bonk town (unless you are vegan I suppose). If you’re planning to undertake any such events then test the waters on what items outside of your favorite drink mix, gel and chew you prefer. For the record I’m partial to Combos, beef jerky, Mountain Dew, Snickers, those pickles in giant questionable jars and whatever style of donut, be it fresh or stale, is on hand.
Embrace the country store oasis

Have you ever had to repair 6 flat tires in the middle of Kansas on a 90 degree day with no shade? Well I have and let me tell you that I’m glad I’ve gotten quick at it over the years. Another facet to these endurance events is the sparse or complete lack of outside assistance. If you’re out on a long ride and you’ve got the time to spare it wouldn’t be a bad idea to pull over, pretend you’ve got a flat and replace or put a tube in your wheel. This might sound a bit ludicrous, but just because you’ve swapped out a tube at a clinic 3 years ago doesn’t mean it will go as smoothly out on the road with tools that you may or may not have ever had to use. Test out whatever method of inflation you plan to carry on you. I’ve had a pump that would pull out valve cores if they weren’t tight enough, and I’ve had a CO2 inflator that did a fantastic job of freezing itself to the valve core. You don’t want to find out that the bargain bin hand pump you got on Alibaba is only good on Schrader valves out in the middle of a cattle pen in Kansas. This same theory applies to your multi and chain tools. Find an old chain and press a link out of it to be sure you know what you’re up to. Make sure that multi-tool covers every fastener on your bike and that you can actually reach them all with it. I’ve had a few of those weight weenie super-stubby edition tools that were worthless when it came to tightening down a loose seat clamp. One more nifty hint that I should have heeded myself; if you use a strap to lash a tube to your bike do yourself a favor and put that tube in a Ziploc bag first. Putting a gritty tube in you tire will assuredly lead to future issues down the road….
Note the un-wrapped tube meticulously exposed to all things dirty and sharp

These days one could write a dissertation on what gravel tires to run at what event and with what pressure, but we won’t delve that far into it. Whether you prefer 650b wheels with a nice 47c tire for cushion or 700c wheels with 32c tires at 97 psi, go out and ride them as much as possible setup that way you plan to race them. If you’re going tubeless then try out the sealant of your choice and play with the pressure, same goes to using tubes or tubulars if you’re a gambling person. Don’t just ride them on paved bike paths, take them out and give them a proper thrashing, try and simulate whatever hellish terrain you think they may face at Dirty Kanza or Barry Roubaix. You might even want to try out more than one pair to see the difference they make for your riding style and comfort preference. If you’re going to spend $$$ on an entry, hotel, gas and food to knock DK200 off your bucket list it won’t kill you to spend an extra $$ on tires you really like. For what it’s worth I’ve put many miles on Teravail Cannonballs and WTB Nano 40c tires with good results.
Ride good tires

Last but not least, don’t forget to have fun while you’re loading up on base miles for the event of your choice. Don’t get me wrong, some rides may and should feel like a bit of a chore, but take time to enjoy the scenery around you in the places your bike takes you. I often find that I’m most at peace and relaxed when I’m cruising down country roads in the middle of nowhere Michigan. Use the time to explore some new territory instead of just clocking laps on the same old route. Take the time to link up with like-minded and paced riders to share the hours with. Remember that you’re doing something that makes you healthier and happier (most of the time haha!). You’d be surprised what you can achieve if you keep a positive attitude and push yourself a bit further every ride.
Some not-so-serious riding...