What am I doing here? And what is this all about?
In May 2020 I became part of the 8bar bikes gravel team. I was super stoked, flashed, excited and did not really know what this all meant. Due to Corona it was unsure whether gravel events would take place or not. I thought, oh well, I feel comfortable on my bike. I know that I can go long, I can go all-terrain, I can race, I can go adapt, it will be okay.
But little did I know what was waiting for me.
Just a few weeks before the event it was official: the Holy Gravel in Schleswig-Holstein is going to take place. Juliane, Jule, aka Radelmädchen, and I will be „racing“ for the 8bar gravel team.
About the event itself: The Holy Gravel is a non-profit event. For the registration you have to donate an amount you choose (recommended was 1 % of the worth of your equipment) to a charity organization called Caritas in Hamburg. That’s it. You’re in. Then you get some info mails: the code of conduct and most importantly the track. The track is all that is provided to you from the organizers: it is a GPX file and tells you where to go. Also, it provides some waypoints with information like where you could possibly find water or shelter. But the route planning is up to you! You get to chose between a 555 km and a 750 km long track. The most important rule is: stay on the track! The time doesn’t matter. There is no ranking. There is no prize. It is just about the experience, about nature, about the passion of cycling.
So, I came to Berlin. Over 10 hours by train from Constance. I received my brand new team bike called „8bart„. On Friday morning I took the train to Hamburg. I met Jule my team mate in Hamburg and we stayed the night at Johanna Jahnkes place. In the morning, after a bowl of warm porridge, we rolled to the starting point in Hamburg all together. At 8:00 a.m. in the morning on Saturday the gravel race started.
Everybody at the starting point looked super prepared. Fancy bikes, fancy bags, fancy bike computers, fancy hawaii shirts. Luckily, I had the sponsored equipment (8bar bike, Ortlieb panniers, Wahoo computer). This was absolutely necessary for this type of race. To be honest with you: without the sponsorship, it would have been difficult for me to afford all of this.
But it was not only the the equipment that was outstanding for me. It also corresponded with the level of cycling experience that was represented at this event. I was (with one other expetion) the only person with flat pedals and with no previous gravel race experiences. I was the rookie. And I felt intimidated.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOUR FIRST GRAVEL EVENT
Here are four tips for all gravel rookies!
No. 1: Make sure you have a good bike. It does not have to be a brand new gravel bike, but it should have wider tires (38mm or more), good brakes, comfortable geometry and a robust frame so you can spend some 8+ hours in the saddle. Add some sort of bikepacking bags to it (see No. 2).
No. 2: Make sure to be self-sufficient and carry your own food, camping equipment, a powerbank and tools. You need some space in your bags for some stuff: a tent or tarp, a mat, a sleeping bag would be nice. Food like bars, nuts, bread, sweets and some water bottles to refill. Tools and spare parts to fix a flat tire, a broken chain or to help somebody else out.
No. 3: Have some sort of cycling computer. I used a Wahoo ELEMNT BOLT and uploaded the tracks via my phone onto it. It worked great, no worries with the battery or the maps. But you can also use your cellphone if you have a proper case for it to go onto the handlebar. It is nice to be your own captain and not having to rely on other’s navigation skills. Yes, you do end up in smaller groups and most people have a cycling computer. But it’s a great feeling to be independent.
No. 4: Go at your own pace! Do not stress about the other people’s fancy equipment, their speed or their whatever (like I did). You will be fine. The people at the Holy Gravel were all REALLY NICE and also really helpful. Communicate your needs. If it is too fast, if you are hungry, if you have to stop to buy tampons, whatever it is, tell your mates! They will understand.
HOW TO RACE GRAVEL
So, you have a bike, you have the track and you have no idea what you are doing like me? Basically, you just ride. And when you are hungry, you eat. When you are tired, you stop. It’s all your choice. Who you want to ride with, how fast you want to go, how much and where you want to sleep is up to you (usually it’s camping preferred over hotels, speaking of self-sufficiency). But „the track is the track is the track“ (quote Jule). There are no short cuts. You are not cheating anybody but yourself. If the track says to carry your bike up some 50 stairs, you do it. It will be worth it. This is the fun about it. Somebody put lots of thoughts into this. The track provides. Just give it your best and have a good time doing it!
SO WHAT’S DIFFERENT?
If you come from a roadcycling or a biketouring background like me, I would like to tell you what I found was the difference to both other types of cycling.
Gravel is harder than biketouring is. Why? It is more intense (for me: faster than biketouring). You spend way more time in the saddle, you have less recovery time, you ride challenging tracks with sand, roots and other difficulties included, you just reach your limit faster.
Gravel is more exhausting than roadcycling is. Why? It is longer and more technical than roadcycling. There are super steep ascents and descents, tricky trails, you sometimes have to carry your bike. The descents do not pay off like they do on the road. You will have to go slow on the descents and also slower on the flats. Overall, it is good practice for your patience.
To be continued:
part II: Coping with having my period, sleep deprivation, water and food supply at the Holy Gravel.
part III: My set-up for the event and insider tips that I learned from the Pros at the Holy Gravel.
Got any questions? Shoot me a message or leave a comment.