Tactics for high desert gravel racing.

By Flavia Oliveira Parks


Summer’s been hectic for Flavia Oliveira Parks – she’s been on the road, bouncing from race to race, since mid-June’s Dirty Dino – but we were able to catch up with her while she was in northern Utah, just after her podium finish at her first Crusher in the Tushar. She let us pick her brain about her approach to the race, including her tactics, her “maybes,” and her approach to learning from every race, regardless of how her result looks on paper.

To learn more about Flavia, check out her athlete profile. To get a view of the Crusher from the pointy end of the peloton, just scroll down for her comments, which are excerpted from a longer conversation and lightly edited and arranged for length and clarity.

On the opening climb

The first climb is definitely critical. It’s about 20 miles at 5-8% – 4,500ft of climbing. It was tricky because of how the men and women kind of came together, which had the potential to really blow up our category.

As the altitude starts to creep up, what you can do at the bottom of the climb and what you can sustain towards the end are very different. It would start to wear you out and weigh down your legs to the point that even the little rollers before you got to the top of the climb before the descent felt like – well, you could feel them. I was also thinking that everyone’s gonna be feeling fresh and maybe too excited. The altitude starts to creep up – what you can do at the bottom of the climb and what you can do at the end? It would start to weigh on your legs. There was a good chance that you couldn’t win the race on this climb, but you could lose it by going too hard and blowing up.

Initially, when we got caught by the men, right before the turn into the gravel, a bunch of us tried to ride the wave. We just made that little bit of an effort to stay better positioned in the front as we entered the dirt. There was a little bit of a bottleneck, and Sofia [Gomez Villafane], got a few bikes ahead of me.

For me to close that gap, it would have taken more matches than I wanted to burn, so I had to just let her go, and not worry about what Sofia was doing, because one or both of us could have blown up – that's what happened to Lauren [De Crescenzo], she tried to follow but couldn’t close the gap. Eventually, we settled in and me and Ruth [Winder] worked together, catching up to Lauren. And then it was basically the three of us for most of the day.

On gravel as a crumbling cookie

I tried to stay with the people I wanted to be competitive with. I knew the people I had to follow,  but Sofia got in a group of guys, so she built a three minute lead on us because she got in with good wheels, right? She had a solid group of people to work with. There's the way the cookie crumbles in gravel.

For my race strategy, nothing was premeditated. My goal was to put myself in the position to stay with the top contenders while also knowing that I have to respect my own limits. Maybe in hindsight, my biggest mistake was not being on Sofia’s wheel, because then, I wouldn’t have been four or five bikes behind her, so if I covered her move, I wouldn't have had to burn as many matches.

That’s what I mean by how the cookie crumbles. She put herself in the position where she could have good wheels to ride with, and I was just a few wheels back, fighting for position. I wasn't gonna burn all the matches to bridge the gap because of what Sophia was doing, and I had to just accept that and make my race from that point on.

On “hell”

After the fist climb and descent, the “pit” was like the pit of hell, because the sun is on your back and it's just a drag. It's a little sandy, so you're going slower, and there are more pronounced rocks and it's very step-y, with little inclines so gradual you don't even notice. When you look at the Col, you can see the mountain; but this thing? It's super deceiving, so it's almost playing tricks with your head. It's like “dang, I swear this doesn't look steep,” but it takes so much effort that you feel like you’re stuck in the same place, not going anywhere.

At this point, the heat starts to take it out of you, and there’s wind because that area is a little exposed. If you're not on the draft, then you're doing extra work, so you have that extra mental energy just to stay on the wheel. The Col itself is a much easier climb, because you’re just pressing on the pedals; but in the pit, you have to choose a line and dodge sandpits or rocks, and it's just a slow drag up. Wind, rocks, sand – It’s mentally exhausting, and you can’t go over your limit, thinking that this is where I'm going to drop everybody, because the Col will drop you if you do that, I think.

On the Col

When you finally get out of the pit, it's this monster. I started the Col with Lauren and Ruth, and the only things I knew were that I didn't see Sofia, and we didn't have any time gaps.

Once we hit the dirt, Lauren put a little bit of a dig in and Ruth couldn’t respond, letting a gap open. I wasn't quite sure what I should do: close the gap to get on Lauren's wheel or just race my race. I ended up just racing my race.

I kept Lauren at 10 seconds for the longest time, through the whole thing, but then I had to top off my bottle. Even though I never stopped, handling my bottle and getting it filled did slow me down a little bit, and Lauren never stopped, she just kept pressing on. I could still see her, but the gap got a little bigger.

On saying “maybe”

When I look back on any race, I always see things that I could’ve done better. I'm overly critical of myself sometimes, but they're always things you can improve and learn. Don't take me wrong – I'm satisfied with my race, but I didn't have a flawless race.

At Crusher, there's a part after the Col where I was mingling with other riders, and I couldn't tell anymore who was competing in which category. At the end, I think I was maybe 30 seconds behind Lauren. That irritates me, because – even though I think I had a good race – if I had a better idea of the situation, I could’ve made a bigger effort to close that gap. Maybe I should have tried it.

I don't like having those kinds of regrets at the end of a race, because it makes me worry that, when I finished, I still had some left in the tank. I was worried because I had never raced that course, and I was new to that altitude, but maybe I raced a little too conservatively. Like maybe I could have gone a little harder somewhere along the second half of the course.

Maybe I could’ve closed the gap to Lauren on the Col or made the effort on the first climb to get across to Sofia, but at 9,000ft, would that have been the end of my race? Or could I have made it to second place or even been duking it out for first? It's hard for an athlete to get to the end of a race and think you could have gone a little harder, but that’s all trial and error, learning from the race. I think if I come back next year, I'd like to do more efforts at that altitude to know how my body responds.

When you look back on a race, you’ll always see where you could have done better, so like I said, I’m too critical sometimes, but I am satisfied with my race. Even if you finish 10th, if you feel like you've checked all your boxes and done all the things you wanted to do in a race, then you can leave that race satisfied.

On always learning

I don't look at just the results because for me, the process of racing isn’t just for something that looks like a good result on paper. When I think I didn't do what I should have done in a race, I don't look at that as a failure, but just a learning opportunity. I’ve done lots of races where I didn’t get a result, not on paper, but they helped me see where I could have gone better and also give perspective. That’s important, because I think we get so critical of ourselves.

While racing on the road, you have more control over things, and I'm learning that on gravel, there are many things that I cannot control. If you’re going too hard or going harder on a descent to close a gap, you could risk crashing out. Or you could get a flat because you didn’t pick your lines wisely. I’ve had all that happen to me, where I had a great day sitting in second place, and then I get two sidewall cuts, and I’m like “That was the end of my day.” It can turn so fast. Sometimes just having a clean race is a win, a good result, and you can build on that.

July 18, 2023 — First Endurance

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