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What Is the Difference Between Riding Gravel and Racing Gravel?

Riding Gravel VS Racing Gravel

What Is the Difference Between Riding Gravel and Racing Gravel?

I am writing this on the plane on the way to Emporia to race Unbound Gravel 200. This won’t be the first time I’m doing Unbound, but something about this season hits a little different. No, it’s not just the pandemic bike racing difference, though like most people, I spent a lot more time on two wheels than I had previously. Rather, this is the first season I’ve set out to compete at every event I went to.

This might sound very weird to some people. Surely I’ve been “racing” gravel since 2019? Well, that’s the beauty of gravel events. Mass participation in nature, anyone can sign up and have a great day in beautiful places with the logistical support to make the adventure possible. That idea of riding longer and going to interesting places is what got me into gravel racing in the first place.

No, there’s something different about racing and doing gravel events. At the extreme, I’ve seen people modify race numbers for maximum aerodynamic efficiency, post helpers at rest stops so that they can do a rolling water stop or organize pacelines to help one rider. That’s not even the kind of racing I’m talking about. I’m talking about riding so hard that most of the course is a blur and going deep enough to stay with groups that you barely remember any of the scenery. I’m talking about risking being able to finish because you lit your entire book of matches keeping up on a climb or taking risks in gravel descents to stay in a front group.

What Is the Difference Between Riding Gravel and Racing Gravel?
Gorge Grinder 2022 was gorgeous, the focus was on racing. Photo credit: @lapierrephoto

I’ve done all of those by the way. Photos from the Gorge Gravel Grinder tell of epic vistas with Mount Hood in the background, but my clearest memories on the day were of hanging on the back of the group going up the big climb and pushing in the crosswinds to bridge to a group ahead. Similarly, my memories of Ephrata were not of the scenery or the course, but rather of pushing on the descents to stay with a faster group.

What Is the Difference Between Riding Gravel and Racing Gravel?
What Is the Difference Between Riding Gravel and Racing Gravel?
I looked a lot happier at the top of Double Peak at BWR 2019 than the last climb of SBTGRVL 2022. Photo Credit: Belgium Waffle Ride and SBTGRVL event photographers

In all of this, I ask myself the question. In getting stronger, am I losing some of what drew me to gravel racing in the first place? I used to approach these events as something to complete. I would pace myself along the course, saving my energy so that I would not be suffering too much towards the end. In pursuit of being competitive, I stopped being conservative about pacing and started letting the race dictate my pace. No longer was I aiming to finish strong. Instead, I was pushing hard then hoping that my fitness would carry me through to the end.

So far this year, this approach has worked well enough. I’m proud of my results in races as someone who grew up not playing any sports. I’m keeping up with riders much stronger than I once thought possible. I do know something is different though. I’ve taken far fewer photos during events this season, and my time spent at rest stops has also declined. Have I lost something about doing gravel events though?

What Is the Difference Between Riding Gravel and Racing Gravel?
Bikepacking the Oregon Outback. Photo by author.

I don’t think so. Sure, I am spending less time looking around, but riding your bike fast around other people is just fun. The skills I learned doing gravel events have allowed me to organize my own adventures and go on bigger adventures with friends and teammates. I never would have gotten into bikepacking had it not been for the fitness I built up to complete these gravel races.

In a way, gravel events opened up a world of long distance, adventure riding to me. It made the farm roads of the Midwest or the forest roads of the Northwest seem less foreign somehow, and it opened my eyes to a whole new set of adventures. For some of us, these events aren’t just races. They are a playground where riders have a chance to face adversity in a controlled setting. Each challenge conquered becomes a tool for the next adventure. My world has become broader because I started doing this, and isn’t that what gravel riding is all about?
Words by Claire Law from the Breakfast Racing Team, a cycling organization supported by Ritchey and based in the Seattle area.

Breakfast Cycling Team

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