Getting ready for your first (or next) long-distance gravel ride? No matter if you’re gunning for the podium or trying to lay down your personal best, these 6 training tips from Sage ambassador and coach Jacob Rathe will help you train smarter and perform better.
Portland-based Sage ambassador Jacob Rathe has spent the bulk of his life on two wheels. At the early age of 13, Rathe knew he wanted to be a competitive rider. From mountain bikes to road bikes, Rathe competed in every discipline and at every race he could find. By the time he was 16, Rathe had podiumed on the national stage in three different disciplines. That hard work paid off. A year later at just 17 years old, he was a full-time professional road cyclist.
His road racing career took him all over the world competing in classics like the Tour de Flanders and the Paris-Roubaix. And while his road racing career saw a number of successes, it was also fraught with injury. For years, Rathe dealt with nagging pain and restricted blood flow to his left leg due to external iliac artery endofibrosis, a common condition in elite cyclists.
“By the time I was 22, my body just kinda fell apart,” says Rathe. “It had been years coming, and it’s what happens when you’re only bike riding and not really doing enough other stuff.”
In 2018, Rathe left the competitive road circuit. He’s still chasing big goals on and off the bike, both as a competitive Nordic skier and gravel rider. When it comes to gravel, Rathe says there’s undoubtedly been a learning curve, despite some similarities between racing road and racing gravel. In 2019, his first two gravel races at Belgium Waffle and UNBOUND Gravel (formerly DK) ended before the finish line due to a flat tire and a crash that broke his bike. But at his third race at SBT GRVL in Steamboat Springs, Rathe found his stride, placing third in a stacked competitive field.
“My gravel career started pretty disastrously,” says Rathe, “but that’s just part of learning. Racing gravel reminds me of racing the classics in Europe. The course beats you down as much as the competition.”
When he’s not training for his own goals, Rathe is helping other cyclists achieve theirs through his coaching business Rathe Athlete Development. Whether you’re training for your next gravel race or gearing up to tackle a COVID-safe, DIY adventure, check out Rathe’s 6 training tips for endurance gravel racing.
#1 BUILD INTENSITY
“If you want to be with fast people until the finish line, you’re going to have to make it through some tough moments,” says Rathe.
To do that, he recommends following a training plan (Rathe provides free consultations for interested athletes). At the very least, start building climbing intervals into your rides. Begin with intervals that are 1—2 minutes in length at a pace near your threshold (either above or below threshold) and repeat. Eventually, aim to build interval duration to 8—10 minutes.
#2 PRACTICE NUTRITION
Nothing derails a race more than poor nutrition and hydration. Rathe says it’s important to dial in what food works for you, your taste buds, and your stomach before race day.
“When you’re out there for 8 to 10 hours racing gravel, it’s really a night and day difference between having your food dialed and not,” he says. “It really can be the deciding factor between a good gravel race and a complete disaster.”
Rathe tries to eat real food every 20 minutes to keep a steady drip of sugar and calories in his system. If he’s planning to race in the heat and/or at altitude, Rathe says he gets aggressive about hydration and makes a point to stop even briefly at aid stations.
“You need to sacrifice that time to refuel because it could later save you 30 minutes or an hour if things really go south.”
#3 DIAL IN YOUR GEAR
Having the right bike, the right wheels, the right tires, and the right tire pressure will also make or break a gravel race. This topic alone could warrant an entire series of articles, but in general, Rathe says it’s important to match the gear you’re running with the terrain you’ll be covering. And when it comes to tire pressure, Rathe cites the wisdom of professional cyclist and ENVE Composite Marketing Manager Neil Shirley.
“His rule is that your tire pressure should be low enough that you tap the rim a couple of times in a race, but not low enough that you destroy your wheel. Higher pressures give that chatter feel, and that’s speed going out the window. Play with that pressure ahead of time.”
For longer gravel races, Rathe (who’s about 170lbs) typically runs his tires anywhere between 28 and 32 psi.
#4 STUDY THE COURSE
“Each race has its own kind of thing,” says Rathe. “Knowing what you’re up against and the weather and wind direction and what to expect, it’s overwhelming but it’s really important. You don’t want to just wander in without having a plan.”
To do this, Rathe studies the elevation profile of the course and breaks it up into smaller chunks. Mentally, he says it helps to know where the climbs are and where there may be easier miles interspersed for recovery.
#5 FIND A COACH OR MENTOR
Rathe says talking to people—whether they’re coaches or fellow racers—is probably the single best way to ride smarter and race better.
“You’ll probably learn things the hard way, but the more you can educate yourself, the higher chance you’ll have of making the [race] experience as good as possible the first time.”
#6 JUST DO IT
“It’s intimidating, but the only way to get ready for [a big gravel ride] is to do it,” says Rathe. “The more you do it, the easier it will become. Get ready for some bumps in the road. It might be a complete disaster, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s gravel racing. Have fun.”