The Gravel Race With Too Much Tarmac?
The race was bought by my wife for my birthday and as presents go it certainly beats some socks. I’d not ridden with my brother for over 10 years, last time when I was celebrating his 30th when he lived in Malaysia and we went mountain biking for the afternoon.
This was my first gravel race so I was excited to see what it was like, excited to see all the other bikes there, and curious to see how my Marin Nicasio+ coped being thrashed about.
The pre-race info was super clear and communication was ace. It was advertised as a 99km gravel course with 1752m of climbing. We got sent the GPX file for upload and it was in fact only 89km and 1050m of climbing. Now I appreciate this isn’t a certified race distance like a marathon where the distance is crucial, but I don’t really understand how the distance and height can be so much less than originally planned.
Was there access to land that got taken away at last minute or was the sales pitch a bit off reality?
If it was land access, surely you would flag that up as a reason for the change, as it isn’t as far or as much climbing as originally thought so trying to carry on as normal seems a bit strange.
I wasn’t too concerned though, my cycling legs weren’t as good as they could be so I am sure I would still be suitably tired at the end.
One thing in the lead up which was ace was the ease of hiring a bike off them. My brother hired a Pearson Off Grid carbon gravel bike valued at £4000 for £49 for the day. I think that’s a pretty decent price to experience such a high spec bike. When I lifted his carbon frame bike up I was very jealous with how light it was in comparison to the steel of mine!
On the day of the race parking was nice and easy with clear signage to the field where the starting chute was. There was a mechanic with some tools should you have any last minute surprises on the bike. There was the general excitement you get at the start of any race with the atmosphere friendly with everyone preparing their bikes ready for their departure wave. I never did find out what happened to the guy parked next to me who told his mate “I’ve bought the wrong shoes with me, I bought my road cleats…”.
We left in the third wave just after 0830. They were fairly relaxed with me going one wave later to join my brother which was good, so we got to ride together. The route was done in reverse than what we had thought with the hills at the end of the day, we couldn’t decide if this was a good or a bad thing….
The start was a gentle decline on mostly tarmac interspersed with short gravel sections. I presume here it was planned to split up the waves even further as well, which makes sense. The first third of the race was quick, a lot of downhill or flat, not a lot technical riding and a fair amount of tarmac (more on this later) so heading into the first feed station we averaged about 27kmph.
The feed stations were at 35km and 60km and they were bloody amazing. They had gels, sweets, bananas, waffles and even sandwiches. Hydration tablets, water and coke as well – probably more but I can’t recall. Some music playing and everyone just filling their faces of everything in sight! They also had a decent selection of tools should you need them. One rider was asking for a cassette lock which they had available - really nice touch I thought.
The second section was a little more tasty. We were introduced to some climbs and the start of some technical sections as well. The hardest technical uphill section was in this bit where I almost had to get off and walk, but thankfully powered through it. There was still a decent amount of tarmac riding (more on that later).
After the second and final feed station we knew it was a slog to the end, 28km and 3 long climbs lay ahead before the finish line. We chugged our way up them, enjoying the little bit of respite of flat or downhill between them.
We finished in a time of 4 hours 48 minutes averaging just over 20kmph in moving time, which I was very surprised and happy about. The reason I was surprised I think because I never imagined having that speed for 89km and 1050m of climbing on a gravel route. However, the only reason this was possible was due to ridiculously large proportion of tarmac.
I hadn’t checked on Komoot before the race to see the split of terrain type for the course. Of the 89km race, 43km was on tarmac. 40.2km was classed as unpaved and gravel, with 6.22km as unknown - we will presume this was gravel to give the course the benefit of the doubt.
How can a race be classed as gravel if 48% of it is on tarmac? I understand if you advertise it as a road race and you turn up with your 25mm slicks it would be pointless.
So I have a couple of points and questions:
1/ Surely they could make a route in the area where they didn’t need to be on roads as much. I understand the need to be on roads as a link from one area to the other, but it can't make up such a large amount. There was one section where we actually ended up in the Saturday snarl up of cars on the road as we came up to a roundabout. I expect this from a club ride out on road bikes, but not a specific gravel race where the aim is to be away from traffic and away from roads.
2/ If the area you are in requires such long stretches on road to link these areas – have you picked the right location for the race? Are you trying to make an event in a location which just doesn't work? Have they tried to capture the Surrey cycling community and sold the latest trend of gravel riding in a place which perhaps is not best placed?
The reason I think the route may have been changed is due to access of private land they no longer were allowed to use, which is understandable and these things happen. But in the communication that came out with the route there was no mention of this, just a new route that was 10km shorter and 700m less climbing than expected. I’ve only seen this with multisport and triathlons where the swim or kayak sections get changed due to adverse weather. Prior to signing up this risk is known and a clear alternative is made, with clear communication to the change as well.
But would there have been such a large proportion of tarmac in the original route as well? I guess we will never know.
I had fun on the course and enjoyed my day, which is the most important thing, but it makes me sceptical to book another gravel race with them where I find myself on the road as much as I am on the trails. I don’t like how the length, elevation and surface type wasn’t what I signed up for.
I have thought about this since the race that perhaps this is normal for gravel races and that this is what they are all about. Is it?
For anyone who has done a gravel race before please let me know if this is what is expected in these events and then at least I know to re-align my expectations.
I'd be really interested to know what other people thought who did the race, and even more interested to know the thoughts of the organisers as well.
To finish this piece let's focus on the positives. When we got to the end of the race we were greeted by friendly and happy people congratulating us through the finish chute, they handed us a low-alcohol beer and we both had relieved happy smiles across our tired faces. There was a food truck with delicious burgers available and the whole camaraderie with the riders was good spirited. I slept incredibly well that night and was suitably stiff the next day from the ride. It was a good day out on the bike for sure.