How to finish a 100km gravel ride when you’re not ready?

Look, the right thing to do for any race is to be prepared. Gravel bicycle riding, especially in Iowa, can be really hard. There is weather and hills and gear and stuff just happens. So, really the best strategy for any race or ride is to look at your goals and prepare for a couple months (at least) ahead of time so your body, mind, and gear are ready for a great day in the saddle. That’s the smart and pragmatic thing to do.

But, what if that doesn’t happen? What if you signed up for a race a couple days ahead of time because the weather looked great, you’d had a terrible month at work, and you hadn’t been on the bike or trainer in so long you’re not really sure where your cleats were? Hypothetically speaking… what then?

Well, I’ll tell you how this guy finished a 100km (62mi) gravel ride with over 4,000+ feet of climbing and what strategy I used to achieve that finish. I wouldn’t suggest this strategy to anyone attempting their first race. But, if you’ve ridden your bike through long days in the past (100km or 100mi) and you know your gear and body pretty well, I think this is a workable strategy for someone looking to finish strong without bonking.

Spoiler alert: it’s all about proper fueling

Don’t be in a bad place

Maybe this goes without saying, but I’m going to say it. If you’re injured or in a bad place with your diet or mental health, very few strategies are going to help you. You have to have a baseline of fitness and you can’t be healing from injuries and think things will work out; especially when you consider how much long gravel rides are a mental game. So, if your heart isn’t in, don’t do it. Fix those problems before you go out and push yourself when you’re ready.

Thankfully, I was in a good place for CIRREM. I mean, work had been stressful, but my spirits were up and the temperature was up, and I just wanted to be outside. I had heard about CIRREM before and 24 Hours of Cumming, which I believe share a similar route, and thought it would be worth it to experience everything Southwest Des Moines gravel has to offer. So, I reached out to my buddy Joe (who had been on the trainer for the last two months doing the hard work) and asked him if we wanted to turn his planned 40 mile ride into ~64 mile race on unknown roads with questionable conditions. Joe was totally game. That’s why I like Joe.

What to measure for success

There are three things that I keep track of when I’m riding.

  • Relative perceived effort
  • Heart Rate
  • Power

Each of these “metrics” helps me tell a story about my body, but none of them are useful if you haven’t ridden a couple months with them (in my opinion). With the three types of measurements put together I find I have a leading indicator (power), current indicator (relative perceived effort) and a lagging indicator (heart rate) that lets me monitor what I’m doing and how it’s affecting my body. More about that later…

Since I knew that I hadn’t been on the bike for a month I rightly assumed my fitness would be down; I made the wise decision to not “race” this race. In fact, I wasn’t even considering a goal of hitting a “good” time or a personal best. For CIRREM 2021 my goal was to finish without bonking or running out of energy.

If any of these measurement are knew to you or you just need a quick refresher, here’s how I think of them.

TypeDescriptionScale
Relative perceived effortAlso known as RPE, is used a lot in running. There are a few different scales, but I like Matt Fitzgerald’s. Runner’s world has a good description of the scale. Basically, it’s categorizing your efforts by how hard you’re breathing. Easy is normal breathing like when you’re walking in the park on level ground. Moderate is breathing with effort, but you can talk. Hard is when you’d rather not talk while riding, but you can in a pinch. Max effort is serious breaking, like you’re gasping for breath.

No equipment needed for this, just a little self-awareness.
– Easy
– Moderate
– Hard
– Max Effort
Heart rateFor heart rate to be useful, you need to know your max heart rate at least. This can be found with some math for most people, but also a stress test (ie go as hard as you can) can give you an idea.

Another number that’s helpful, although trickier to find is your Lactate threshold or “sweet spot” training zone. This is training hard, but no so hard you can’t hold the efforts for a long time. Bike Radar has more on this.

You’ll need a heart rate monitor for this; I use Garmin’s HRM Dual Heart Rate Monitor. It works well for me.
~45 to 185 bpm
PowerPower is a measure of how much force your body is putting into the pedals, crank or rear hub of your bike. Takes special equipment, but it’s a very accurate and consistent measure of effort. Unlike RPE, which is almost complete subjective and heart rate, which can be impacted by heat, cold, or sickness, power is a strict measurement of the force your legs are putting into the bicycle or rate of energy transfer.

There are a number of ways to measure this, but I have Garmin Vector pedals so I can move them from my road, to gravel, to trainer, rental bike whenever I need to.
0-1000+ Watts. 1 watt is one joule per second.

Picking a strategy

I knew I needed to sustain my effort indefinitely and not risk running out of energy; I just didn’t want to bonk. I acknowledged the fact that I could only control was how much energy I exerted and how much fuel I consumed. From previous experience I knew that if I can keep my heart rate below 160bpm, preferably at 145bpm, I can go for a really long time.

Also, I know that if I eat and drink every 30 minutes, I haven’t yet given myself a stomachache or had issues with food coming back up. Your mileage might vary there.

So, that’s the strategy I picked. Keep the heart rate down, try to keep at a conversational level of effort (i.e. I should be able to ride and hold a conversation at the same time) and keep eating and drinking throughout the ride. Here’s specifically what I ate and when I drank at least:

TimeFood
:30Banana – I like to start with real food at first. This usually helps prime everything and keeps me excited to eat more later. Take a drink.
1:00Gel – specifically a Hammer gel. 90 calories, no caffeine. Take a drink.
1:30Almonds – Handful from a zip lock bag. I love these when I’m snacking at work. They dry my mouth out on a race, so I try to eat them early on. Take a drink.
2:00Gel – Hammer 90 calories. Take a drink.
2:30Clif oat bar or SIS dates bar – something chewy with some flavor. Take a drink.
3:00Gel – SIS 90 calories with caffeine. This is usually when my body starts to complain. I don’t drink caffeine usually, so I get a nice effect when choose to have it on a ride. If you’re a regular caffeine drinker, you might need more to get the effect you want. Take a drink.
3:30Clif oat bar or SIS dates bar. Take a drink.
4:00Gel – Hammer 90 calories. Take a drink.
4:30Gel – Hammer 90 calories. This is usually the one I least enjoy. Take a drink.
5:00Gel – Hammer 90 calories. Hopefully I don’t need this one. Gels are easy to pack, so I grab a few extra. But, I usually don’t love them at this point and they really can’t do much good with only 30 minutes or so left in the ride. Take a drink.
Smiling at the beginning

Pros and Cons with this strategy

The pros of this strategy is that I know it works. Eating every 30 minutes really sucks after about hour 3, but I know it works for me. After the 3rd hour or riding I’m not sure whether the food is doing me much good as fuel, but it certainly helps me from getting muscle cramps, which is certainly a benefit. The other pro is that this method is stupid simple. I just look down at my watch and if it’s on the hour or half hour I eat. Usually after 3 hours of riding my brain shuts off, so I need a really clear guideline on when and what to eat. I alternate gels and “real” food for that reason as well. I don’t have to think hard about what to eat next. If I just had a gel, I get real food. If I just ate real food, I need to have a gel. Simple.

The cons for this strategy, it’s not very sophisticated. I’m guessing I could fuel a bit smarter and get more stamina and maintain more strength. I have some theories on this and I’m even going to ride most of June with a continuous glucose monitor so I can start planning my nutrition better. I’ll let you know what I learn there.

The final con is that it usually takes a whole day for my “bowel movements” to go back to normal after an eating routine like this. It all works out in the end (pun intended), but I need a day of normal food to get me there.

And, smiling at the end…

Conclusion

If you’re not really prepared for a ride, at least go in with a plan. I would suggest the plan includes taking it easy and pacing yourself carefully. Very rarely does someone who is not ready for a 100km race come out the end saying “I wish I had gone harder”. It’s better to end up a day of riding saying, “I did fine and felt good, just took it easy” than bonking and having to get a ride back to the finish.

Have you tried something like this before? What was your plan? Let us know in the comments and help your fellow procrastinators out! 😉

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