The Secrets to Excelling at Gravel Cycling

Gravel events are booming, across the world and in South Africa, as more and more riders look to test their endurance boundaries.

By Molly Hurford |

As a financial journalist, Sarah Max has covered the money beat for publications including Forbes and The New York Times. She’s dabbled in cycling journalism as well, even writing for Bicycling on occasion. Now, she’s the subject of interviews after bursting onto the gravel scene with tenacity, a deep love of technical sections, an appreciation for a fine IPA, and the guts to rock road shoes during a gravel race known for its difficult singletrack.

The 47-year-old took a break from preparing for her next adventure to chat all things gravel cycling, and shares her best tips for both new riders and riders looking to level up.

Bicycling: As a financial journalist who’s written about cycling, you may have an answer to this: Why are so many pro women cyclists in jobs in the finance realm?

Sarah Max: I’d guess part of it is because those are both male-dominated worlds, and there can be some parallels there that would attract a similar mindset. There’s also an element of competition and goal-setting in both.

You’re still working full-time, but putting a big focus on gravel this season. How are you balancing the two?

I’ve been riding for a long time—I got into gravel in 2018 because of a story that was pitched to me about gravel and about what is now Unbound, and I got into the race. It scared me enough that I really trained in 2018: I didn’t think I could race 200 miles (320km), so I worked hard to be ready. Then I had the fitness from that, which carried me through the rest of the year.

But then, with COVID and my own family’s transitions into college, I wasn’t really that focused on racing the last two years. This year, I decided to make a commitment to training. And the way I balanced it is that I work remotely, so when I’m home, I start working at five o’clock in the morning and try to be done around two in the afternoon, so I have plenty of time to train after work.

Were you expecting to have such solid results this season, with a fourth-place finish at Belgian Waffle Ride (BWR) in San Diego and the win in Asheville after a solid Unbound performance?

I was not expecting to necessarily do that! The competition has increased so much since 2018. I had some good results that year, a fair number of podiums and stuff, but I was not expecting to have these results this season at all. My life was really hectic the last few years, and I did not have a lot of time to build back a base. I only started training in earnest in early March.

sarah max gravel cycling tipsYou also weren’t planning to go to BWR in Asheville, last month, but you changed your mind at the last minute. Why was that?

At Unbound, I was in third at about kilometre 280. It was a really, really muddy race this year, and there was a pretty significant water crossing on the course there, with moving water. I thought that if I rode it a little slow, I would clean my bike off. And instead, I washed myself out, and in the process I unpaired my electronic shifting. When I got back on the bike, I was stuck in the granny gear. I pulled over to try to fix it. It was super frustrating, and I got passed by a lot of people. A bike shop owner helped me fix it eventually, and I was able to finish in 10th place.

But I was very unsatisfied. And so on the way to the airport the next day, I just threw it out there to my coach that I could change my flight and go race BWR. I didn’t think I would be recovered enough to go race a week after Unbound, but my coach, Alex Candelario from Argonaut, was all for it. So I changed my flights and headed to Asheville!

You raced with road pedals at BWR, and that course has a lot of off-road and singletrack sections, in addition to a lot of paved road. How do you make the call between road or mountain bike shoes and pedals?

It depends on the course. So I did not use road pedals at Unbound. I would have used them if the course had been dry, but that wasn’t the case—road pedals this year would have been a disaster. Depending on how technical I think it is going to be, I’ll use mountain bike pedals for more technical courses. But whenever I can, I prefer to use road pedals; my feet are more comfortable and I think my pedalling is a little more efficient.

It seems like we’re seeing more and more women in their forties excelling in cycling. Why do you think that is?

One of the reasons I really like riding a bike is that I don’t think about my age when I’m riding. I feel ageless. That’s the nature of riding a bike: You just feel like a kid. That’s why I love it so much. I have a lot of friends through this world of cycling who are all ages, and what I love is that we’re all peers. Age doesn’t feel like a thing. And in terms of the sport itself, I think that I have some advantages and some disadvantages. What I have is years and years of endurance behind me, and I think that can help me in some of these longer races. At the same time, maybe I don’t have the same fast recovery or the same speed as younger riders.

On the note of recovery, how has your recovery shifted over the years?

I haven’t done anything crazy in terms of recovery. After a ride or race, I’m thinking about being hydrated and eating enough, but nothing like cryotherapy or these new modalities. Science says that it gets harder to recover as we get older. But I actually haven’t noticed it, if I have to be honest.

I joke about “mom watts.” I’ve said for years, especially when my daughters were younger, that I’d go train or race, and then I wouldn’t sit down after. I had babies or little kids and a job and a house to maintain. I had stuff to do. I was training for Unbound before I even knew what Unbound or gravel was, because that was the nature of what I did. I’d do a hard workout, and then I would just keep going. Maybe that helps me out now, and maybe that’s why I’m having such a hard time even thinking about how recovery has changed. Because I don’t know that I’ve ever been able to put a lot of thought into recovery.

For new gravel racers, what’s your best advice?

I would start with doing the skills work. Getting competent and feeling comfortable cornering, riding in loose gravel, and riding in your drops are all important.

Any tips about how to get comfortable riding in your drops?

Start out with a descent that’s not super technical or super steep, and just work your way up. Mentally reminding yourself that you are safer in the drops helps. If you go over something, you can just keep yourself loose, and you’re not going to fly off your handlebars. If your hands are on the hoods, you’re in the most dangerous position. In a lot of gravel races, you can’t see anything in front of you, whether it’s because there’s a bunch of riders in front of you or because there’s dust. You’re going to hit a pothole at some point, and the best way to be prepared is to be loose and in your drops. So I would say that is an important skill. You’ll also end up cornering better because your weight will be in the right place.

sarah max gravel cycling tipsAny advice for transitioning from road to off-road during a race? Those moments can be tricky!

What I love about courses that change between terrains is that they make a long race not seem long! I remember BWR San Diego in 2018: It felt like a treasure hunt. I loved that it was constantly changing.

What is so beautiful about gravel right now is that nobody has grown up as a gravel cyclist. Everyone has come from different backgrounds—they come from road backgrounds, cyclocross backgrounds, mountain bike backgrounds, triathlon backgrounds. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. So when you have a transition in a race, celebrate the sections that play to your strength, and consider the areas you don’t excel at as a good challenge. I also try to tell myself not to brake whenever I can avoid it!

Mass starts are another scary part of gravel for so many people: How do you deal with those?

It is terrifying. And that’s funny—I have some friends who are accomplished pros who are also terrified of them. I’ve actually had to work through starts. One of the worst injuries that I’ve had cycling was at the start of the Breck Epic, a mountain bike race. On the pavement during the neutral rollout, a guy who was trying to get in a better position and just weaving his way in and out caught my handlebars, and I ended up tearing my rotator cuff and my labrum within a mile or two of the start. So I get it!

What I have tried to do is to not think about everything that could go wrong, because what ends up happening is you get overwhelmed. It’s kind of a sensory overload. You see all these people, there’s a lot of sound, there’s a lot going on. The way that I’ve tried to deal with it is to block out all the bad things that could happen. You just have to accept that this is going to be uncomfortable. You do have to be highly focused, because you have to be able to respond quickly to things, but you can’t be nervous.

Pacing for gravel is another challenge, since races can go so many different ways and have such different course profiles. And unlike road races, drafting can be an advantage, but you may also end up riding solo even if you’re doing well!

The answer depends on what your goals are. For me, the biggest thing I have been working on this year is pacing. I’ve never been a fast starter. It takes me a while to kind of really feel comfortable. However, I changed my training this year to specifically work on those fast starts, then be able to recover and be in a good position. It’s pretty universal among the more competitive riders that we tend to go out pretty fast and then settle in eventually.

sarah max gravel cycling tipsMass starts have also put the men and women together: How does that play out for you as a pro woman? It must be tricky to navigate around riders who are going out too hot, since getting into the wrong group can make or break a race.

There are definitely going to be some guys who go out way, way too hard and blow up in almost every race. But in a longer race, it’s very rare that you’re riding with the same person or the same group the entire race. What I have found is that either I can bridge up to a group that I’m comfortable with, or another group comes up and catches me and I can work with them.

What you see sometimes with these courses that are super variable in terms of the terrain is someone might be really skilled on the technical sections and might catch up to you, but you can work together to push each other. During BWR, for example, I was with a group for a long time, and it was really helpful to ride with them on the downhills. They were technically good riders, so I felt comfortable sitting behind them on descents. I did my share of the work when it was a gradual uphill or flat. We complemented each other, and that’s the best case scenario. And actually, on the note of advice: learn how to draft well!

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