Water stop etiquette for gravel racing

I’ve seen a bit of recent debate and controversy over water stops in gravel racing and what the proper etiquette is. The core question seems to be whether we are obligated to stop with the group you are with or can a water stop strategy be used as a strategic advantage to push through when others stop?

Like many of the unwritten rules in bike racing, I think the answer is probably “it depends”.

I’ve raced a good bit of gravel and have been lucky enough to get some decent results in regional events (I’ve seen gravel racing from the front and I’ve seen it as pack fodder also). Here’s my take on it:

  • If you aren’t in contention, nobody cares (or should care). Whatever “rule” does exist should only be relevant to groups in contention for podium positions. If somebody wants to blow through a water stop and ride alone the rest of the day to move up from 35th to 25th, go for it. This can be a grey area when you have age group awards within the race, but the overall finish position seems to be the primary concern.

  • If you are in a group in contention for win/podium, this seems to be where folks get all worked up about the “unwritten” rules. As much as I love the relaxed gravel racing vibe, I don’t think there is any obligation to stop with the group you are with at a water stop. Some people compare it to pulling over on the side of the road to pee as a group, but I don’t think it’s a fair comparison. I won’t ride way from a group even if I don’t need to pee because it’s just a pause for the race and nobody should get an advantage based on that. However, If I make the strategic decision to start the race with an extra 7 pounds of fluid on my back (plus the aero penalty of a hydration pack), I think I’ve earned the right to skip a water stop and use that as a tactical advantage over folks who didn’t pack enough water for the entire race. I pay a significant price to avoid the water stop and I need to make that decision before the race starts. It would be really dumb to pack all the extra water if I was going to stop. We have a local race where the race director mandates a 30 second water stop (whether you need water or not). You know that going in, so it’s part of the written rules and you can plan accordingly.

Anyways, I think the complaining about water stops is mostly just another reason to complain. Not stopping as a group does not ruin the vibe of gravel racing in my opinion, it just ticks some folks off who refuse to start with more than 2-3 bottles. I find that some hard-core roadies struggle with the idea of wearing a hydration pack in a bike race. I prefer to race without a pack, but I also like to be competitive and I’ll use the tools and strategy available wherever I can to improve my results.

Thoughts from others in the gravel racing community?

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I think it’s a pretty stupid discussion when it comes to racing. It’s a competition, if someone is able to sustain longer without water, or maybe wears a larger heavier pack to not stop as often, why should they have to stop and wait. I’ve never seen the entire field in F1 take the pit if some teams make poor decisions on tire choice etc. gravel riders seem to care more about making races a fair safe space than a competition.

There are some unwritten cycling rules I love like how the field doesn’t take cheap shots and attack if the race leader has a mechanical, but that’s out of their control. Choosing to not adequately prepare for the race is a choice that other competitors shouldn’t be punished for.

Between the crying about water stops and people using aero bars, it’s hard to take some of these people seriously

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There is already a long thread discussing this here. UNBOUND GRAVEL predictions

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I know nothing about the gravel scene, and don’t really care, just asking. Aren’t feed zones and nature break zones kind of neutralized in the pro peloton. I’m sure it’s not unheard of for someone to attack out of those zones, but seems like it’s not unheard of for folks to be somewhat cooperative even if it’s a race.

Dylan nailed it:

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It is a tactics move and totally fine IMO. If you can hang with the lead group with an extra 10-15 kilos on you, you deserve to roll through any refueling options you deem fit. Mandating everyone stop as a group, you might as well just run the race from the last refuel point. Bikepacking races don’t have this ordeal over sleep, and it’s no different here. The tactics are what make it racing, and make it interesting. Has it even mattered? Has someone skipped a feed zone and actually won because of that move?

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Not at a high level, but people with social media reach have race shamed others for it.

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As a non-gravel racer…

It’s a strange debate and I can’t really see how it matters. If you skip the stop and ride alone, and the group catches you again, all that happened is that you wasted energy and missed out on a bit of rest. If you press on alone, and they don’t catch you, what were you doing in pulling them along in the first place?

Seems like something that is made up by those that aren’t quite strong enough to win alone, but have a good sprint…

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I liken it to motor racing. People aren’t shamed because one driver was better able to manage their tires and fuel over another.

Why should cycling be different?

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You are conserving energy knowing that after the aid station you will be alone. This isn’t a spur of the moment tactical decision, you know you’re going to do this from the start.

Thats not what I mean - I mean it’s like a solo attack in a road race, if you’re strong enough to stay away, you’d be stupid to ride in a group instead and chance a sprint. Irrespective of how much you rode in a group before that.

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You’re missing the point. This isn’t a move you wait for the right time to use. It’s preset that you will roll through aid station with X miles to go, you’re not leaving it up to a sprint finish. Maybe the rider isn’t strong enough to solo from the gun, but the time advantage of not stopping might give them a big enough gap that the group can’t cover with the remaining distance.

I consider this a tactical decision. If we’re talking about 100 mile races, I can go on two bottles and a pack 90% of the time. Given the uncertainty of how these races shake out, I will often opt to carry the pack and not stop.
This came up at a race in CO in May, our lead group was rolling into an aid around mile 50. One guy asked if we would sit up, I told him no way, rolled out and rode off the front for the rest of the day solo.

At a different race, we were in a group of 4 sitting 4th-7th and came into the last aid and agreed to ride together. We weren’t in any position to catch the leaders and were just riding out the race together.

So, it depends. No shaming people for it though, that’s idiotic.

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Yeah, the irony getting pushed where some want to grow and expand gravel racing, while somehow avoiding the rules and pitfalls of other disciplines, is too funny at times like this.

Color me a skeptic to the “keep gravel, gravel” perspective while remaining open to exposure that comes with big name riders and sponsors. Good, bad or otherwise, gravel is headed down the same road that we saw with MTB in it’s evolution.

Maybe they will retain the essence they want, but it seems destined to fail to me, at least with the marquee events. Local stuff and smaller events may well keep up the original feel, and I hope they do for all that want those events.

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By injecting ‘Unwritten rules’ at that! :rofl:

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:laughing:

“Guys, they aren’t real rules, they’re unwritten rules… and they’re in my head… and they advantage me”

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Anyone who does not understand this has never ridden at the pointy end of of this type of event. The people trying to win are not dick’s like the guys battling over 329th :wink:

Gentlemen’s agreements on how to handle rest stops are common in anything with rest stops (I.e. Not a road race with feed zone support). No one has to agree to anything. But, if you agree, you need to stick to your word.

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totally! if you agree to stop and don’t that just means you are a douche. But just because the majority of the group wants to stop, doesn’t mean you need to. Racing isn’t a democracy.

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The grassroots moniker is what gets me. You have guys showing up with RedBull, Garmin, Rapha, Wahoo, etc sponsorship on bikes and tires not released to the public.

Sure, smaller events, I hope they stay that way, but races like Unbound are pro races at the front, and should be raced as such.

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Also, I could be wrong but I think at Unbound the rest stops are required. So you have to have a crew and you have to stop. So in that case I think it’s not so bad to have a bit of an agreement to just slow down a tad so everyone can refuel and everything before racing resumes. But overall I love the theory of the gentlemen’s agreement but in practice I don’t 100% think it will stay that way or work out.