by Andrew Randell and Steve Neal of The Cycling Gym
Gravel is king, at least in our books. We love the sense of freedom and quiet roads. Riding on the gravel is definitely a different beast than being on the asphalt.
Andrew’s experience of riding back-to-back events one weekend during the summer of 2019 really brought those differences to light. Day 1 was El Bandito, held about 90 km east of Toronto. It is a 121-km grinder of a race featuring plenty of sandy sections that suck at the wheels and a lot of rolling terrain. Although the ride was well-paced, the day was still draining. Day 2 was 160 km, this time on the road for a charity event, Ride for Karen. Without a ton of miles in the legs, Andrew was nervous about what Day 2 would bring. To his shock, the second day was a breeze. After having spent the previous day on the gravel, with the legs constantly under tension, the pavement felt so smooth and easy that the legs had no issue churning out the miles.
When you’re on the gravel, your legs are constantly under tension. There is always resistance from the gravel surface, so you need to train the legs to sustain this tension. Tension on the road only happens when climbing or when you make a determined effort.
Most road riders, when they are asked to ride under tension at 60 to 65 r.p.m. for an extended period of time, find it quite challenging. They can do it at first, but then the cadence creeps up.
To ride well on the gravel, you need to perform across a wide cadence range, from 45 to 75 r.p.m. You need to be able to spin at these rates on the hills and the flats, and all while your legs are under constant tension. You should practise low-cadence riding on a variety of gradients, learning how to pedal while staying in the saddle and keeping the wheels in contact with the gravel. In almost all events – and on the best rides – there will typically be some steep, challenging piece of road that you need to take on.
To develop the ability to ride at a lower cadence, start doing tempo sessions, say 4 x 10 minutes with 2-minute rests between efforts, at 70 to 75 r.p.m. on the gravel. Then, you can progress the workout in two ways. One would be to lower the cadence goal. The other would be to extend the time of each effort, increasing the cumulative time spent riding tempo. You should also vary the terrain on which you do these exercises.
Another workout we quite like is a progression ride. Pick a route that will have something in the range of 30 per cent hills that come mainly at the end. With the flatter start to the ride, you can better control your effort, keeping it mainly at an endurance pace. Then as the ride gets into the hills, you can ride more by feel, progressing your effort. Increase your pace as you feel appropriate, ride under tension, and practise across a variety of terrain. You’ll have fun and accomplish a bunch of your training goals on gravel all at once.
Keep in mind that these gravel rides are typically quite long. The goal should be to build your ability to ride at tempo, with the legs under tension, for as long as an hour or more at a time. Then you’ll be ready to blast the final hour of rollers in your favourite gravel event.