Janel Holcomb is one of the growing number of elite athletes who have eschewed the confines of pro-level racing in favor of ultra-endurance gravel events that push riders more than just physically, but also challenge them in their preparation and planning. Take for instance the Dirty Kanza, a 200-mile gravel race in Kansas that Janel recently took third place in. For her, and the other riders out there, having a successful day begins months in advance and entails more than meets the eye. Janel put together her list of tips that apply to events far beyond just the Dirty Kanza.
As soon as you register for your event start planning. I started making lists and quickly merged them into a spreadsheet (nerd alert!) that included my to-dos such as lodging, transportation, equipment, nutrition plan, and what I wanted to carry in my packs versus my jersey pockets. Each item on the list came with other tasks and things to organize, and even though I had started planning four months ahead of time, when it came to within a couple weeks of the event I was still incredibly busy getting everything together.
FOCUS YOUR TRAINING
As a cycling coach and former road pro, my training plan was instrumental in getting me to the finish line. As we all know, life intervenes and has the potential to disrupt and derail your plan. Nevertheless, come up with a plan (use a coach!) and integrate a few very long, hard days. I committed to a number of gravel events as preparation for Dirty Kanza: The Dirty Devil, Rock Cobbler and Belgian Waffle Ride. Each helped me prepare for DK in a different way, was incredibly valuable, even though I only completed 2 of 3 for different reasons, and since I was registered I had extra motivation to make those days “stick” in my plan.
EAT, DRINK (REPEAT)
If you want to finish DK200 or any other endurance event, you will need to spend a few months practicing your pre-ride and on-the-bike nutrition strategy. Our stomachs don’t automatically process 200-300 calories per hour while we’re riding along at a good pace, so we have to teach our GI system to process what we consume. This takes practice. So, if your intention is to eat 300 calories per hour while racing, train that way. And hydration is a key to finishing, so get used to drinking at least 16 ounces every hour (more in hot weather or more if you are a heavy sweater) and always include calories in your bottles. If it’s hot, add salt to your ride food or your drink mix. And practice. Figure out what works and what doesn’t. Eat, drink, repeat.
CHOOSE YOUR EQUIPMENT WISELY
For Dirty Kanza specifically, there were more equipment choices to consider than any bike race in my cycling history. Yes, even more than a World Championships Team Time Trial or Women’s Giro d’Italia. Start assembling your equipment early and test it on training rides.
What will you need for DK or other endurance gravel events?
Bike: A gravel bike, preferably with disc brakes, that has good clearance even when using 38mm tires. Not all gravel bikes will have the clearance you need, so be picky. I raced the Focus Mares which is light, high performance and supremely comfortable over 200 miles. The Mares is a proven machine in crazy conditions and I knew it was ready to handle anything that Kanza presented – well maybe not a tornado, but if my competitors were still rolling, I would be rolling too.
Drivetrain: I used SRAM Force 1x with a 42-tooth chain ring and 10-42 cassette with XD Driver. The 1x system is easier to operate when your brain and hands are tired and there are fewer parts that could malfunction in the middle of nowhere.
Wheels: I’m lucky to be sponsored by Mavic so I used the Ksyrium Pro Disc Allroad wheels with 38mm tires. Tubeless wheels and tires are the way to go and Mavic’s UST system is incredible. Easy to use. Safe. Fast. I can’t wait to try some of their other UST wheels next year at DK since they are releasing a huge line of road tubeless in the coming months.
Navigation: There are no arrows to guide you on the course and even though more than 1,100 people start the 200-mile route, there are times you will be completely alone. Get a computer with navigation and practice using it a month or more before DK. I used the Wahoo ELEMNT and it worked flawlessly. I mistook a driveway for a left-hand turn, but that’s another story…
Hydration Packs: You will want a hydration pack with you for the entire race and if you’re going after an age group or overall placing, have a hydration pack for the start and checkpoints that you can “Grab & Go!” Use your pack on training rides so you figure what works best and you can adapt to having it on for hours on end. I used four Mavic Crossmax 5L packs with 2-liter hydration bladders. Inside each I had an emergency application of WD-40 BIKE dry chain lube.
Odds, Ends & Spare Parts: You should have a head light, tail light, master link, derailleur hanger, shifter cable, bottle cage screw, USB battery, zip ties, chamois cream…the list goes on. There are so many small items that you might need or want to have with you or at a checkpoint. Anything that I thought I might need from start line to finish line went into my JET Roll (Lezyne multi-tool, CO2 device, etc).
EMBRACE THE EXPERIENCE
There will undoubtedly be points that challenge you and leave you wondering why you ever tackled such an event: whether it’s feeling rushed getting your checkpoint bags sorted, not being able to fall asleep the night before, or one of the many aches, pains, mechanicals, headwinds, and bumps you will encounter during the race, embrace the lows with the highs and remember it’s all part of your journey to the finish line.
Photos: Ian Matteson