“Are You Gonna Eat That?”

The do’s, don’ts, and donuts of fueling for gravel riding and racing

by | Sep 23, 2021 | 0 comments

Photo credit: Ian Matteson

So, you’ve been hearing a lot about this “gravel” thing lately, amiright? Color yourself intrigued. Indeed, gravel is on the tip of seemingly everyone’s tongue, and by now you’ve heard enough to know that there’s a lot to consider when looking to tackle this emerging genre of events.

There’s the bike, the tires, the tire pressure, the gearing, the tactics, the fashion—wait, what? Uh, yeah, we’ll not go there.

But there’s also another aspect to gravel that truly can make or break your day regardless of how dialed your rig is or how on-point your fanny pack game.

Fuel.

Now, there’s been plenty written by people way smarter than this guy about the more technical aspects of fueling for endurance training and racing. For such insight, I’d suggest any of the articles by First Endurance’s resident PhD and knower of all things nutrition, Luke Bucci, found here. Additionally, musings from the likes of professional triathlete, coach, and EdD, Matt Hanson, lined-out in particular detail in his article “The fourth leg” make for some very astute reading about fueling.

But I’m not here to educate you on things like osmolality, sweat rate and kilojoule to calorie output and intake. Nope, not this guy.

I’m here to talk about whiskey, donuts, and bacon.

(Insert hearty, liquified-bile belch here for proper effect.) 

Burke Swindlehurst

Burke Swindlehurst

A self-described “shiftless ne’er-do-well,” Burke spent his 20’s and 30’s racing professionally for cycling teams including Saturn, Navigators and Bissell Pro Cycling. When he’s not on the bike, he can be found wearing the many hats of an Event Director, as founder of the Crusher in the Tushar... or playing hooky if there happens to be nearby water rumored to hold trout. He also curates a radio show on Monday evenings for Salt Lake City’s 99.9 KUAA FM, a listener-supported community radio station operated by the Utah Arts Alliance.
Bacon donuts

One of the unique aspects about this whole gravel thing is the anything-goes attitude, and that applies not only to the riders, their equipment, and taste in tattoos, but to the events themselves, each of which has an equally unique personality. This manifests not only in the variety of surfaces and terrain you’ll find, but often in (let’s be honest) ridiculous distances and resulting time in the saddle.

In fact, it’s not uncommon to find oneself polishing a chamois for upwards of 10+ hours at some of these shindigs, meaning the challenge is not only a matter of how hard and long you can pedal a bicycle, but also how much (and how well) you can eat and drink to sustain adequate energy to keep the pedals turning over.

I’ve seen whiskey shots, bacon, donuts. Whiskey-infused bacon donuts. Hell, I’ve even seen a whole roasted pig. That ain’t no lie.

As such, many of these events will offer aid stations throughout the route. The sheer variety of foodstuffs found at these can be as unique as the colorful characters who put these events on.

I’ve seen whiskey shots, bacon, donuts. Whiskey-infused bacon donuts. Hell, I’ve even seen a whole roasted pig. That ain’t no lie.

That said, it can be easy to get caught-up in the moment and find yourself putting things in the ol’ pie-hole you’d normally never dream of during other events—that is, of course, unless stopping for a snort of JD, a giant pickle and a handful of sour gummy worms are part and parcel for your normal on-the-bike nutrition routine.

But, hey, who am I to judge?

To add further complexity, it’s also not uncommon for some of these events to be completely self-supported and in very remote areas to boot. (Know how to milk a cactus? You’d best find out.)

Well, don’t you worry your pretty little heads. Here’s my no-nonsense list of “Do’s and Don’ts” for staying on top of your fueling for wherever that old, lonesome groad may take you.

Do

  • Bring snacks. If you have specific items that you know work well for your fueling and needs, then do yourself a solid and bring them along for the ride. If I know I’m going out for a big ride or event, I’ll pack along a few extra gels and single-serve hydration packets for refilling my bottles, so I’m confident in the fact that I have nutrition and hydration mix on-board that I know work for me at all times. This can save your bacon—or more precisely, save you from bacon. 
  • Carry water. Just as with the above, ensure you’re loaded with plenty of water for washing down your solid food, chasing a gel, or just plain wetting the ol’ whistle out in the wilds. In fact, good old water is perhaps the single most important resource you can have out there. “Palate fatigue” over the course of a long gravel event can be exacerbated if you rely only on hydration mix for fluids. I can’t tell you how many times I’d have sold my soul for a bottle of plain water in the last hour of a long, hot, dusty event. Forget rock ‘n roll; I’ll take the H2O.
  • Eat and Drink every chance you get. Since these events can often be rough-and-tumble, you might not have as many opportunities to take care of your nutritional needs as your best-laid plans require. That means you need to be on-point in making sure fueling is top of mind so that when you do get that second or two between washboards to take a swig or a nibble, you have the presence of mind to take advantage of those opportunities when they present themselves. Whether or not you choose to turn back and retrieve a lost tooth filling from said washboards is entirely up to you.

Don’t

  • Eat or drink something you’ve never tried before at aid stations. Stick with things that are familiar to your on-the-bike fueling. Think bananas, not pork rinds. Again, carrying some staple items in your pockets or hydration pack can win the day. Single serve packets and gels are light, take up hardly any space, and can make the difference between fighting a bonk later because there was only water at the aid stations—or worse yet—a brand of hydration mix or gel that doesn’t jibe with your gut. Trust me, you don’t want to find out the hard way how to get resourceful with your socks… But I digress.
  • Be afraid to stop. Gravel events can be white-knuckle affairs at times, and as such it can often be hard to take your hands off the bars long enough to get adequate nutrition and fluids into your system. You can lose far more time nursing a slow-mo hunger knock or atomic quad cramps than you can stopping for a minute or two to eat and drink. Remember, the food in your pocket does no good if it stays in your pocket (same goes for the fluid in your bottle or hydration pack).
  • Skip the aid stations to “save time.” If you spend any time listening to the after-event banter and war stories, you’ll inevitably hear the tales of woe from folks who thought they’d build their advantage by skipping an aid station only to have the wheels come off a little later. Remember that old tortoise and the hare fable? Well, I’ve seen many tortoises emerge triumphant at gravel events.
  • Speaking of tortoises, don’t forget the sunblock. (And no, not for eating. Sheesh.)

The Checklist

Here’s an example of my typical fueling pack-list for a day’s adventure ride:

  • 2 large water bottles with EFS mix.
  • 3 Liquid Shots.
  • 2 single serve packets of EFS mix for later use on longer outings.
  • 3 RX Bars or similar.
  • Hydration pack with 40-100oz of plain water (depending on how long I plan on being out).
  • On longer days, I’ll often bring a snack-size bag of salt and vinegar potato chips to help offset palate fatigue and add a little extra salt for those really hot days.
  • $10 bill for impromptu mobbing of the random outpost along the route.
Burke practicing what he preaches
Photo credit: Jussi Oksanen

The Biggest “Do”

Alright, one last thing before I sign off here, and this actually has exactly nothing to do with fueling, so forgive me.

At the heart of this gravel thing (at least IMHO) is enjoying the moment. It’s not about the start or finish lines. It’s about what happens between those two lines. It’s about all those adventure rides you did with your buddies to prepare for the big day, and so much more.

So soak it in. All of it. Enjoy the company of your fellow adventurers. Take in the breathtaking scenery. Chat up the volunteers at the aid stations. Take a deep breath and feel the simple gratitude of being out on a bicycle in a cool place.

As a certain wise chap once said, “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

My advice? Plan to have fun.

We’d love to hear from you. Tell us what you think or ask us a question in the “comment” section. If you found this article beneficial, please share it with a friend.