How To: Gear Up for Gravel Road Bike Racing

This spring I rode my bike more than 400 miles on gravel roads in races around the Midwest. The bumpy, muddy, and hilly courses were all un-supported, meaning I had to carry everything I might need for up to 100 miles on the road.

As I prepared to toe the line at three different races, I honed in on my ideal bike setup and gear. While it wasn’t perfect, this system did get me across the finish line mid-pack in two of the major events. (The other race, well, you can read about it here: “Bike racing 320 miles across Iowa… on Gravel Roads.”)

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Archetypical gravel epic: Minnesota’s Almanzo 100

Here’s a look at my go-to gear for grinding along gravel roads. All of this equipment has gone through the gravel wringer three times and has (mostly) lived to tell the tale on the other side. —Amy Oberbroeckling

Detours Bike Bags — Paired together, the Slice and the Wedgie from Detours carried the most essential gear on my bike. I loaded up the Slice top-tube bag ($19) with quick-energy food that I could grab and eat while pedaling along.

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Detours’ Slice top-tube bag keeps food and other small items up next to bike handlebars for quick grabs

The Wedgie saddle bag ($20) stayed firmly in place and didn’t bounce around even on the roughest roads. The medium-size bag held everything I needed to fix a flat and still had enough room for my iPhone.

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Wedgie saddle bag

Frame Pack — Carrying as much weight as possible on the bike is key on a gravel race. A sore back is last thing you want to think about when you’re chasing the race pack uphill 80 miles into a course. I loaded my Jandd frame pack ($35) with a 2-Liter water bladder and the food I needed to keep within arms reach.

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Frame pack on the author’s bike

Navigation Device — For many gravel races navigation is based on cue sheets that give turn-by-turn directions based on milage. For accurate distance, I relied on a Garmin Edge 810 so I didn’t make any wrong turns along the way.

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Garmin’s Edge 810 kept me on the right track

Beyond basic functions like milage and speed, the $500 unit has a large color touchscreen, maps, and GPS features. I tracked my data over a whole race, too, including elevation, speed, time, and several other stats. The unit’s maps were onscreen as a backup in case I got lost. The top-end device worked flawlessly through three gravel epics.

Cue Sheet Holder — Since losing my cue sheets 10 miles into the first gravel race I ever did a couple years back, I’ve experimented a lot with devices to hold them. This year, I attached the Cue Sheet Holder ($7) from Banjo Brothers to my handlebars and never missed a turn. I also found that laminating my cue sheets before putting them in their holder kept them from folding up (and kept them dry from the rain if removed from the case).

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A Cue Sheet holder was key for navigating unmarked courses

On-The-Bike Energy Food — On long rides, it’s easy to get tired of consuming the same food and drink hour after hour. I found myself continuously reaching for my packs of CLIF Shot Bloks, especially the new Chocolate Cherry flavor. These little gummy blocks taste great plus they are stocked with 50mg of caffeine, giving an extra burst of energy.

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Chocolate Cherry CLIF Shot Bloks pack 33 calories a square

For hydration, I alternated between water and Endurance Fuel from Tailwind Nutrition. Two scoops of this powdered energy drink in my bottle provided 200 calories and electrolytes, along with a light taste (not too sweet), which kept my stomach happy.

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Endurance Fuel from Tailwind packs enough calories and electrolytes to keep you going all day

Bike Light — Tiny in size but not in light output, the Stella 300 from Light & Motion ($149) mounted to my handlebars and let me pedal along technical gravel roads into the late hours of the night. Its battery lasts all night if you alternate between settings and work to save juice. Or run the 300-lumen torch at full blast for up to almost 3 hours straight on full charge.

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The Stella 300 is tiny but powerful

Bike Shorts — When you’re spending more than 7 hours in the saddle, having the right pair of shorts is crucial. Lightweight and breathable, the Perla short from Castelli ($80) kept me cool and comfortable for hundreds of miles on the bumpy gravel roads this year.

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—Amy Oberbroeckling is assistant editor at GearJunkie.

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