Racing gravel on a road bike 101

Any tips on using road bikes for a gravel race?
I heard a lot of people were using road bikes for BWR and I just was informed about my states gravel state championships so I thought I would give it a go.

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Seems like it’s all about the tires. I know very little about gravel myself, but I think the right tire depends on what the course is like, both as far as mix of pavement and gravel, as well as the type of gravel.

Vegan Cyclist has a video of his BWR where he discusses his decision to go with his road bike/tires (not that I see him as an expert in gravel but it’s his experience)

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I dont know about using them in a race, but I did a 50 mile gravel ride on my road bike this past weekend and my biggest take away was wear gloves. The extra vibration from the rougher areas gave me some blisters I never get when riding road.

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First, you need info on the course and specific dirt/gravel composition of the road(s) involved.

  • “Gravel” can run from pavement level smooth dirt and crushed rock that rolls super fast and smooth, to oversized river rock floating on mixed dirt base, to rough double-track roads with mixed dirt and rock.

  • Essentially, there are a WIDE range of types of gravel. Those variations will lead to very different tire options via size and tread condition. Add in tubed or tubeless (highly recommended) and other factors and you have a lot to consider.

CyclingTips had a good, short discussion recently:

Inspired by their graph, I made a Google Sheet to cover some considerations on tire size via options selected by the rider.

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Yeah, he rode 28mm tires and felt they were narrow. I think BWR has 40 miles of sand/gravel of the 120 mile or so distance.

@bhrylski, I can’t imagine riding my road bike on pure gravel, my bones would ache for weeks.

depending on how packed the gravel is I’d say 30mm tires minimum. You might want to double-wrap your bars as well.

If you can pre-ride the course I’d definitely give to a go.

Best of Luck and enjoy!

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Any idea about going for tubulars?
You can run lower pressures and are less likely to flat than with clinchers, but if you do flat, you are SOL.

No gravel is created equal so, if its chunky, you’ll have a rough day. If it’s pebbles/sandy a low pressure tubular could work but you’ll be rolling the dice. Tubeless?

I’ve used my road bike on gravel rides of 40-50 miles. Pretty tame gravel though. No issues whatsoever.
If I can squeeze 28s on my Emonda I’ll be using that for Steamboat Gravel. There are no sketchy descents or small loose rock gardens.

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BWR is a road race. Not a gravel event despite what the marketing sells it as.

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If your only choice is to use a road bike, put the biggest tires you can fit on it. If it’s only 28mm, then so be it. Then decrease the pressure to a maximum of 80psi. (I’ve done this – it wasn’t so bad)

If you can fit 30s, then pump up to 65psi max. If you can only fit 25s…I’d borrow a bike. Harder men than me have ridden 25s on dirt, but you’re gonna get beat up bad.

However, if your gravel race truly has “sand” in the mix - then you’re screwed and none of this will help you. If the gravel is chunky, you’ll be sore as hell. If its a dirt road with loose rocks, you’ll be ok.

Good luck :metal:

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I did the BWR (60/40 = road/not-road) on a pair of 700x32 WTB Slicks (tubes). Never got a flat. Kept pace on all sectors. Luck is a factor, but at the end of the day, any smoother tire with a broad width (30-34mm) is sufficient for most gravel races. My .02.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. BWR is a “road race” in that has 60% road and everyone is “Racing” 100% of the time, but it is most def. NOT a tame gravel ride. That other 40% is everything from packed fire road to freaking goat trails with shards of rock and drops that would make a MTBer pucker. It’s a freaking beast.

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All great responses. Depends on % of gravel and its texture. Widest tire and lowest pressure.

Some additional points to consider:

  • Your bike will handle differently, especially on descents and fast turns. Anticipate and go to your comfort level early. Moderately fast flats and climbs won’t be all that different, but watch for losing traction on back/front (adjust weight distribution)

  • If you can fit something like a 35 on the front, watch for more wheel flop (slow steep climbs) and toe overlap given bigger size/weight

  • Depending on length/terrain, consider a bit more comfortable position and/or more comfort on bars/hands.

My experience is on an older generation Spec Diverge and a current Canyon Endurace. Both are on the road bike of the spectrum and both did well on varied conditions with a 32-35s front and or back. I was particularly concerned with the Endurace as it is much more racy (short wheelbase, lower front position), but it was fantastic. And my bike handling skills are modest.

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It was supposed to be tongue in cheek as all the gravel people out there were calling it that on social. It’s a great event for sure.

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Will depend on your bike handling skills. I rode BWR on a CX bike w/ 32c file tread CX tires and was comfortable on it, but, not a contender. There was lots of sand this year, so, the more sand, the more tread.

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Unless the gravel is tame, I think it would be hard to “race” gravel on a road bike.

On the descents, it would be difficult to keep up with a rider on a gravel rig with appropriately sized tires. And also on fast flats with washboarded sections or loose / rough sections.

For example, from the DK website:

“A 35c cross tire will roll the fastest… but you will pay a huge price in ride quality. We recommend nothing narrower than 38c. The most important tire characteristic… NEW.”

I think you certainly could ride a gravel course on a road bike. You’ll just need to ride slower in the rough sections.

I have 35/37 on my bike (max size I can fit) and on some sections of rougher gravel around me, my friends on 40-45s breeze over while I have to significantly slow.

You can probably get by with 28s, but there’s a number of sections where you’d benefit from wider.

“Road bike with 28c tires will be able to complete this event but will be at a significant disadvantage on certain sections of the course (i.e. Fly Gulch, Salt Creek, Mystic descent & County Road 29 to name a few). If you decide to take on this adventure with a road bike, be sure to pack a few extra tubes as walking isn’t fun.”

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I fit 28’s on my Emonda '17. Ive done a gravel race on it before, but it was mostly pea size gravel that was crushed and it was 50% road too. I did however get asked afterwards, how I made it through the day but my background is XC racing. I have also done the same race on my crockett with 35’s with file tread. Always have to sit in on the road sections…

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I’ll probably run my cx bike with panaracer gravel king sks. May come check out some of the course when I get back from Tulsa Tough.

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Depending on the type of gravel you’ll be racing over, I would say go for it. I recently have been riding/racing gravel on my Venge, which fits up to 32 mm Panaracer Gravel King tires. Running them tubeless at 50 psi was perfect for the gravel at Barry Roubaix, which is has a lot of packed dirt roads as opposed to true gravel. But I would run that setup in a lot of races as long as the gravel wasn’t big chunky rocks and the conditions were dry. I would even be confident on some singletrack sections.

At Barry Roubaix I was the first one out of the Sager Road section, which is the most technical section of that course. I think the most important thing is to have sufficient technical skills, and to trust that road bikes are incredibly capable these days. You can do a lot more on a road bike with 25mm tires than people usually think - it might not be the best setup out there, but you can make it work.

Here’s a video of me racing BR this year on my road bike. The technical section starts at 2:20.

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