Gravel bike racing has grown in popularity with the enormous rise in gravel biking. There’s a full calendar of rides, with enough prize money and sponsorship available for an elite cadre of pro gravel racers to have developed.
But gravel bike races also focus on inclusivity, so although many will attract a top-class field of riders, many of whom are former or current WorldTour pros, you don’t have to be an all-out racer to take part. The most famous races are often oversubscribed and so will allocate places based on a lottery, as is the case with the most prestigious gravel race of all, Unbound Gravel, where starters are limited to 4,000.
Often there’ll be a mass start and one race for all-comers with faster riders gridded further forward and the rest finding their own place. If you’re not after a winning time and want to avoid the mass start there may be a start time window. Cyclists ride as individuals rather than in teams, although riders will often form groups riding at the same pace and taking pulls at the front.
Many gravel races aren’t just about the race, but include ride-outs on the day before and after the race itself and other attractions like expos and pre- and post-ride parties. There’s often the chance to rub shoulders with the star riders.
Gravel race formats
Many races follow a standard cycle race format, with a mass start and riders competing to be the first home, although the number of competitors may be a lot larger than with a road race. Race distances are typically longer than road races, although events usually include shorter courses as well as the main event. There’s usually minimal support out on course, although there will be feed stations at several locations along the route.
Enduro-style gravel races, of which Grinduro (opens in new tab) is the best known, apply the MTB enduro race format to gravel. That means that there are short timed segments over a longer course that is ridden without timing, so you can take as long as you like to reach them. The timed segments usually take in a mix of terrain and uphill and downhill sections, so that there’s a variety of challenges. There’s no compulsion to race the timed segments; you can just take them at normal pace if you want.
Ultra-endurance gravel events take in very long courses. They may be raced as multiple stages with defined finishing points each day, but they often just set a start and end point, maybe with intermediate waypoints. Riders decide how to cut up the distance into manageable portions. They’re often unsupported, meaning that you need to carry everything you need with you or buy it en route.
Where to find gravel races
With the unstructured nature of gravel racing, there’s no consolidated list of all gravel races. Some like the Belgian Waffle Ride and Unbound travel on their reputations, so a Google search is the best way to find them.
There are a few consolidator sites that list gravel races. Try Gravel Cyclist (opens in new tab)’s event calendar or gravelcalendar.com (opens in new tab), both of which focus on US events. For ultra-endurance events, ridefar.info (opens in new tab) has a pretty comprehensive list, although not all are gravel. If riding an ultra-distance event sounds too much like hard work then you can head to dotwatcher.cc and follow the live tracking of riders as they compete.
What do you need for a gravel bike race?
The answer might seem obvious: a gravel bike. But you can normally participate on any bike you want, although not usually an electric bike. If you want to ride an MTB that’s fine, as is a cyclocross bike. Some routes can even be ridden on a road bike, especially if you’ve got wider tyre clearance.
Some riders use bar extensions to reduce their frontal area on long flat runs. They’re a bit contentious though; often riders are riding in a bunch where the trickier handling when on extensions can potentially be dangerous. The UCI (yes, they’re getting in on the act and starting to set rules) has banned them from its events.
You also need appropriate clothing, starting with one of the best gravel bike helmets. You can use a road helmet, but if the terrain is trickier then something with features borrwed from MTB may be a better bet. Add to that some cycling glasses and gravel footwear and you’re good to go. Some top riders use road pedals, cleats and shoes as they don’t expect to dismount, but gravel or MTB footwear and two-bolt pedals are a better bet for most of us, especially for longer-distance events. If there’s a chance of rain, you may need a packable jacket, while in searing heat you might want arm sleeves to protect you from the sun – and plenty of sunscreen.
With limited support, you need to take enough with you to sort out flats and mechanicals yourself, so a pump, tyre plugs, tyre boot, spare chain links and tools are essential if you want to finish. Extra lubricant can come in handy if it’s dusty, muddy or wet.
Some races stipulate other kit like a first aid kit or a survival blanket. If the course is long and you expect to start or finish when it’s dark, you’ll need lights; if it’s wet an Ass Saver-type mudguard could add a little comfort.
You need enough food and drink to keep you going between feed stations, so multiple bottle cages come into their own. A bento box, bar bag or backpack will add carrying capacity.
Go for one of the unsupported ultra-endurance events and you’re going to need full bikepacking gear, including sleeping and food prep equipment, spare clothing, lights and bikepacking bags to carry it all.
Eight gravel bike races for your bucket list
The most famous gravel bike race of them all, based in Emporia, Kansas, Unbound Gravel covers around 200 miles (there are 100 mile and other shorter courses too, plus Unbound XL which covers 350 miles).
Unbound Gravel attracts a full field of top pro riders, many from road racing backgrounds. But the field of 4,000 riders isn’t just dominated by elite riders, places are allocated by lottery and include gravel riders of a wide range of abilities keen to pit themselves against the Flint Hills gravel.
Riding out from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, SBT GRVL is a gravel festival, with the main event bookended with group rides, kids’ rides and expos. The 2022 event offered four courses out into the Rockies ranging from 37 miles with 2,000 feet of climbing up to 142 miles with 9,200 feet of climbing.
Based in Kielder Forest in Northumberland, UK, the Dirty Reiver covers three days of ride-outs and parties, with the Saturday offering gravel rides over 60km, 130km or 200km. Required kit includes a survival blanket and a whistle, highlighting the remoteness of the course.
Belgian Waffle Ride
A gravel race series rather than a single event, the Belgian Waffle Ride takes place at venues across the USA, with pre and post-race events over two-plus days. Races take place over multiple distances, with the main race 200km-plus. Again, there’s lots of off-bike interest, focussing on waffles.
With five races across the US, Europe and Australia, Grinduro is the classic enduro-style gravel race, where short, timed segments are mixed into the course. There are usually multiple ride length options.
As much party and cycling festival as gravel race, Grinduro’s three days include the main race/ride on the middle day, with a warm up ride on the first day and a relaxed post-hangover excursion on the last.
Made famous by EF Education-Easypost pro Lachlan Morton’s run-away win in 2019, GBDuro takes in 2,000km of unsupported riding from Land’s End to John O’Groats. It’s split into four timed “stages”, although at around 500km long, they’re more like old school Tour de France stages than modern racing.
Another unsupported gravel race, Italy Divide takes in 1,250km along the spine of Italy. Finish times usually range between four and seven days. The 2022 race covered Naples to Verona.
UCI Gravel World Series
The reaction to the UCI trying to add gravel racing to its portfolio has sometimes been hostile, but cycling’s governing body has a worldwide 12-race Gravel World Series that in 2022 stretches from the Philippines to Sweden.
It says that it “has chosen not to make the regulations too strict in the first years” and it’s signed up Trek and Komoot as co-sponsors. The fastest competitors in each round will be eligible to race in the UCI Gravel World Championships in Italy in autumn.