Gravel Racing Decoded: What Is Gravel Bike Racing?

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The new world of gravel racing is vast and diverse. There’s an event out there for every gravel bike racer!

Since the introduction of gravel bikes a few years ago, gravel bike races are popping up all over the place, taking in some of the most beautiful gravel roads, dirt forest paths, and single-track in the world.

These events range from self-supported ultra-endurance bikepacking races to fully-supported events more similar to a one-day Classic.

But what actually is gravel racing? And presented with such a wide choice of gravel bike races, how can you choose which is best for you?

To get you up to speed on gravel-grinding events, we’ll be covering:

  • What Is Gravel Racing?
  • The World’s Best Gravel Bike Races
  • Are Gravel Racing Bikes Really Necessary?

Ready for the lowdown on all things gravel racing?

Let’s get going!

Gravel Racing Decoded: Title Image

What Is Gravel Racing?

Cycling’s newest discipline – gravel biking – is rapidly gaining traction, attracting riders from all different areas of the cycling world, from downhill mountain bikers to rouleurs of the road.

Since the birth of these bikes, they have been notoriously difficult to define, given the diverse range of possible setups and purposes.

The variety of terrain, length, and styles of the courses can make gravel racing equally challenging to characterize.

Some are similar to cross-country mountain bike races, almost entirely off-road, riding around the countryside on gnarly singletrack – pushing the boundaries of what’s possible on a bike with drop bars.

Others are a little more similar to road bike racing, on a mix of tarmac and hard-packed gravel roads – enabling the riders to reach blistering average speeds, while retaining the off-road feel to the event.

However, although gravel bikes are rather new, gravel racing is not.

A cyclist riding a burgundy bike at a gravel racing event.

Long before the inception of the bicycles themselves, the first gravel race was arguably held in 1994, the Paris-Ancaster.

Taking place in Ontario, Canada, on the same day as the infamous Paris-Roubaix, it was initially organized as a tribute event to the legendary cycling Monument.

Inspired by such an intense race, naturally, the course was designed with the intention of challenging terrain and to some extent, enjoyable suffering.

The route was around 70 km, traversing a mix of paved and unpaved roads, including gravel roads, dirt tracks, and even a bit of single track.

Many of these early North American gravel-style races came out of community-organized group rides, which gave them a distinct focus on participation and fun.

To this day, modern gravel bike races retain their grassroots feel, with the events, for many, more about finishing – whatever your average speed -as they are about competition and winning.

Without the need for a precise definition, a good way to characterize gravel racing is exactly this attitude.

The events are united by inclusivity and a focus on the enjoyment of the experience, even if those at the front of the race are still achieving an incredibly impressive pace.

Two gravel bike racers round a corner.

The World’s Best Gravel Bike Races

Just like any cycling discipline, organized gravel racing events take on a variety of forms.

Whether you’re an endurance rider, bikepacker, or a one-day high-speed specialist, there’s a gravel bike race out there for you!

One-Day Races

Many of the most famous gravel events are timed, single-stage events taking place on an individual day.

These have a large range of distances, some are even over 300 km! However, even the longest races usually have options for a shorter course, the shortest of which is usually around 40-60 km.

Some of the best single-stage gravel races include:

  • Unbound Gravel – Arguably the biggest event on the gravel racing calendar, Unbound takes place on the long, beautiful gravel roads of Kansas. The primary course is 200 miles, but there are options for an endurance-style 350-mile course, as well as shorter routes starting from 25 miles. It is a requirement to bring with you a support crew member to assist you at designated checkpoints.
  • The Rift – An extremely unique course for any bike race, the Rift takes place on the lava fields of Southeastern Iceland. Considered a difficult route, the race includes many tough climbs up volcanos and mountains, as well as long, empty, beautiful stretches of packed volcanic gravel, and even a few river crossings! It is a self-supported 200 km route, with options for 45 and 100 km as well.
  • SBT GRVL Steamboat Gravel is a classic American gravel race. Taking place in the beautiful mountains of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, this is a supported race on “the most beautiful gravel roads in the world”. Not for the faint-hearted though, this is a 140-mile course with 2800m of climbing, all at an altitude of over 2000m! There are also shorter options, starting at 37 miles.

Multi-Stage Races

Some gravel races have multiple stages, taking place on different days. These tend to have shorter individual stages than the one-day races but can cover vast distances over the course of the whole event.

Some particularly famous multi-stage gravel events:

  • Gravel Epic Switzerland – This is a stunning two-day gravel race beginning in Valais, Switzerland, and passing through some of the most beautiful sections of the Swiss Alps. It is a 200 km supported route over two stages, with fully-stocked checkpoints to help you on your way. There is also a 120 km option, around 60 km each day. Part of the Gravel Epic Series, there is a similar race in Morocco.
  • TransRockies Gravel RoyaleAn epic 400 km route through the Canadian Rockies, this is another mountainous gravel event that’s not to be missed! Towards the more luxurious end of the scale, it’s a fully supported route with all meals included, as well as some lovely amenities for your camping. The race takes place over four stages, each day covering 100 km and nearly 2000m of elevation.
  • Italy Divide – An extreme, ultra-endurance, self-supported bikepacking gravel race, the Italy Divide covers over 1250 km! Starting in the preserved ancient city of Pompeii and finishing in Verona, the route traverses the Apennines through the center of Italy. Bringing all your own gear and camping every night, this is the ultimate bikepacking adventure. There is no specified number of stages.

Enduro Gravel Races

An Enduro race is a route that is not competed against the clock from start to finish, but instead, some of the more significant or challenging shorter sections are timed.

This provides an interesting feel to the race. Since it is neutralized, when you’re not on a timed section, you can take it as easy as you like (within reason, there are usually cut-off times!), and give it your all on the timed sections.

Some of the best Enduro gravel races:

  • Dukes Weekender – Taking place in Aberfoyle – affectionately referred to as ‘Gravelfoyle’ by gravel aficionados – this is a beautiful 75 km loop through Loch Lomand and the Trossachs National Park. It consists of six timed sections, often the brutal climbs, and the rest is easy riding, with an eight-hour cut-off. There is also a junior option which contains only three timed sections.
  • Grinduro – Originally founded in California in 2015, one of the most famous Enduro gravel races is Grinduro. The success of the event has led to Grinduro races in Pennsylvania, Wales, Germany, and Australia. Every route is around 60 miles off challenging up-down terrain, but only four segments are timed, each between 5-7 minutes.

Are Gravel Racing Bikes Really Necessary?

This is a complicated question. The answer is dependent upon your gravel racing intentions. Many individual races can easily be entered with a different kind of bike.

For example, a race on a mix of hard-packed finer gravel and road can usually be completed on a road bike, assuming you use some slightly wider tires, like 28mm (make sure you drop the tire pressure!).

This is exemplified by the recent UCI Gravel World Championships.

Every podium finisher in the men’s race was a road cyclist, riding road bikes. The race was won on a Canyon Ultimate CFR road bike, albeit, with some alterations.

Gianni Vermeersch had replaced his standard road tires with a 33mm cyclocross tire at the front, and a 35mm at the back (given that the max clearance on this bike is 32mm, this is pushing it!).

Another example of road bikes on gravel is the spring Classic Strade Bianche – meaning “White Roads” – named for the stunning white gravel roads of the Tuscan hills that the race traverses.

This is raced yearly with every entrant using a road bike, although mind you, it doesn’t look like the most pleasant experience.

A gravel bike racer rides through a forest trail.

A point to consider here is that these are professional cyclists attempting to beat out other professional cyclists, so every tiny amount of extra speed given by the aerodynamics of a road bike is extremely valuable.

They are also incredibly talented bike handlers, and have a huge amount of practice staying on the bike on loose surfaces.

However, the likelihood is, if you’re an amateur cyclist, the extra 10 Watts you might gain by using a more aerodynamic road bike is not worth the risk, pain, or discomfort.

A gravel bike is designed to be far more comfortable, and employs techniques such as wide tires with a lot of tread and flared handlebars, which is not very aero, but does allow for much safer handling over loose off-road surfaces.

In addition, a road bike groupset will not have compatibility with suitable gearing for an amateur in a gravel race.

Many gravel races include ridiculously steep climbs, and off-road, that’s not an easy task. To combat this, many use a gravel-specific groupset, allowing them to fit a large sprocket on their cassette.

Shimano GRX groupsets, for example, are compatible with up to a 42-tooth sprocket on the cassette.

A mountain biker gravel racing through the mountains.

Some races might be suitable for entry on a mountain bike. This is definitely a safe choice, but has the exact opposite problem of a road bike. It’s going to be difficult to keep pace with those on gravel racing bikes since the riding position is just so much less aerodynamic.

Your position on the bike accounts for over 80% of aerodynamics, and this will have a huge effect when traveling over 15mph.

Essentially, if you only want to enter one type of event, you can probably use a road or mountain bike, depending on the race.

The inclusivity of gravel races means that there is absolutely no requirement to go out and buy an expensive new gravel bike, you can just ride it on what you’ve got!

But if you’re planning on riding lots of different kinds of events on different courses and terrains, it might be a good idea to invest in a gravel bike.

That’s not to say you have to have one, of course, but they do provide a certain versatility which will allow you to enter any of these events without worrying about safety, speed, or comfort.

The most important thing in any gravel race is just to enjoy your ride!

Found this guide helpful? Check out more from the BikeTips experts below!

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Jack is an experienced cycling writer based in San Diego, California. Though he loves group rides on a road bike, his true passion is backcountry bikepacking trips. His greatest adventure so far has been cycling the length of the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia, and the next bucket-list trip is already in the works. Jack has a collection of vintage steel racing bikes that he rides and painstakingly restores. The jewel in the crown is his Colnago Master X-Light.

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