Gravel Grinder: Biker Reveals Endurance Tips For Racing Long Dirt Roads

Update 08/24/13: Monika Sattler took first place (women) in the Gravel World Championship bike race in Nebraska.

Minnesota-based bike racer Monika Sattler focuses on the upcoming genre of gravel-road racing. She is no stranger to pain, and over the past few months she has competed in and placed high (or won) at some of the biggest gravel races in the Midwest, racking more than 1,000 miles on gravel this year alone. This weekend she is racing at the Gravel Worlds Championship in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Update: She took first place in women at the Aug. 24 event!) We caught up with Sattler before her race to get a few tips.

Tips below by Monika Sattler:

Comfort Is Key — For me, the most important aspect of endurance gravel riding is to feel comfortable on the bike. People race on all sorts of bike setups, from mountain bikes to steel touring rigs. For me, my go-to ride is my Foundry Auger, a cyclocross bike. It has a wide wheel base for comfort and disc brakes so I can stop in any condition. The key is to experiment with different setups and know what’s going to be comfortable for many hours on the saddle.

Foundry Auger CX bike

Eat To Keep Rolling — The most important part of endurance racing is food. Every hour I consume 100 to 200 calories in energy gel or drinks. Every four to five hours I have a “meal” from a gas station. That could entail anything from a turkey sandwich to burgers, pizza or apple pie. For me, food has to be delicious and sit well in my stomach.

Real Food — I’m a fan of real food while for my long races. No matter how many hours I am into a race, I can be sure cinnamon rolls will taste delicious every time. Energy gel? Not so much. Caveat: It’s important to know your gut before the race and only eat foods that you know will sit well.

Chow time! Sattler putting in some calories halfway into a race

Load Weight — The longer the race, the more gear you will need to carry on your bike. Get plenty of miles on your bike loaded up before race day. I learned this lesson the hard way when I filled my tires too high on one of my first gravel races. As soon as I took off on the gravel I was bouncing uncontrollably on my bike. I thought my headset was loose. I had to let about half of the air out before I could get back on my bike and ride.

Books For Motivation — When I tell people I’m riding my bike 300 miles on gravel roads they think I’m crazy. In my mind, though, there is always something more epic being done. To prep for races, I read about other racers’ endurance challenges. I’m currently reading “Surviving the Extremes” by Kenneth Kamler. Reading about extreme experiences of endurance athletes get me in the right mindset. It makes my 300-mile bike race seem less crazy.

Think Happy Thoughts — It sounds cheesy, but it works. There is always this moment during a race when giving up seems like a great option. My shoes are too tight, the tire pressure is too high, and the sun is too bright. Every tiny annoyance becomes a reason to quit. Instead of giving in, I tune out the pain and think of something positive, like the encouragement and support of my friends and family.

Remember Why You Ride — When you’re racing and feeling the pain, it’s important to remember why you signed up in the first place — to have fun! I love endurance gravel racing because it’s just about me and my friends having fun on remote roads in rural areas. The start and finish lines are the formality that brings all like-minded cyclists together.

—Monika Sattler blogs at “Ultra-Endurance Gravel Racing Blog.”

Sattler in hot pursuit on rural gravel

Amy Oberbroeckling

Amy Oberbroeckling, an Iowa native, joined GearJunkie out of college and brought a passion for endurance sports as well as a flawless record in arm wrestling matches against famous rock climbers. Find her biking, trail running, cross-country skiing, camping, or tipping back a cold IPA.