SBT GRVL is usually dry, dusty, and FAST. Photo: Dane Cronin
SBT GRVL is one of America's biggest gravel races, and it attracts pros and amateurs from across the country who want to test themselves against some of the finest gravel roads in the world.
SBT GRVL is also one of our favorite events, so we never miss it! I'll be taking on the full 142-mile Black course for the third time, and many of my co-workers are SBT veterans as well, so we know what it takes to succeed. I've already shown off the gravel bikes we'll be riding, so let's take a look at some of my must-have gear for SBT GRVL.
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Fast Slick or Semi-Slick Gravel Tires
SBT GRVL has a reputation for fast and smooth gravel. Last year’s men's winner, Keegan Swenson used 40mm slick tires! In fact, most pros and top amateurs choose slicks or semi-slicks, even though there are a few rough and loose sections and a tiny bit of singletrack where a wider tire with a bit of tread would be nice to have.
For anyone trying to set a PR or lay down a competitive time, I generally recommend a fast-rolling semi-slick tire around 38-42mm wide which will provide a nice balance of speed, grip, weight, and comfort. My favorite tire models that fit the bill are the Schwalbe G-One RS, Panaracer Gravel King SS, WTB Byway, and Challenge Gravel Grinder Pro. They roll fast, have attractive tan walls, and decent puncture resistance.
If you're super confident in your bike handling skills and ability to take good lines, then a super-fast and light slick like the Challenge Strada Bianca Pro could take your bike to the next level. It even comes in wide 40mm and 44mm sizes.
Lightweight Carbon Gravel Wheels
Carbon wheels are by no means required for any rider, but if you can afford them, they might be the best upgrade for your bike after tires (and proper gearing). The SBT GRVL Black course has around 9,200 feet of elevation gain, and it's all at altitude. Climbing is my biggest weakness, and I'm sure many riders can say the same. I need all the help I can get to drag myself uphill.
I always add a set of lightweight carbon wheels to all of my bikes, just to shed a few grams of weight where it matters most. While I’ve said many times that total bike weight doesn’t matter, lighter wheels can make a measurable difference on steep and slow climbs. I’m a big ENVE fan, so this year, I’m going with the AG25, which has a 25mm internal width to support super wide tires and ENVE’s Wide Hookless Bead which protects against pinch flats. There are plenty of other great options, and if you shop pre-owned, it's possible to score a deal.
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A Hydration Pack
Abundant aid stations are a big perk at SBT GRVL. It’s possible to do the entire 142-mile Black course with only a couple of bottles on your bike because you have several opportunities to refill.
A hydration pack is nice to have though because it makes it easier to drink on fast and loose gravel descents and stay hydrated in the heat. If you're racing for a PR or a good placing, then a hydration pack is essential because it will allow you to skip aid stations. Each stop can cost a few minutes, so the more you can reduce stops, the more time you'll save. Carrying extra fluids or carbohydrate mix in a hydration pack reduces a lot of the stress around planning stops and allows you to stay in the groove.
There are pretty much two packs that nearly everyone is using: the Camelbak Chase Vest or the USWE Outlander. Both use a 1.5L bladder, which is about the perfect size for endurance gravel events. The Camelbak Chase has convenient pockets on the front for food and tools while the Outlander Pro is a bit sleeker because it has no pockets. I actually use the Outlander 3L because it adds an extra external pocket for spares or food.
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A Power Meter
Like carbon wheels, a power meter isn't a required expense, but it's a tool I find incredibly useful when racing and chasing big goals. My biggest mistake the previous 2 years racing SBT GRVL has been starting too hard. I always try to chase a fast group and end up exploding. Then I just keep suffering and getting slower as the day goes on.
This year, I’m taking the advice of Dylan Johnson and hope to achieve my best result yet by sticking to a strict power-based pacing plan. I'm going to force myself to stay under 300 watts for the first 90 miles, and to keep myself in check, I need a power meter on my bike.
The easiest way to add a power meter to any bike is with a pair of power meter pedals like the Garmin Rally XC100. They’re single-sided (if you want dual-sided power, Garmin also makes the more expensive XC200), but for a regular rider like me, that’s more than good enough for monitoring my power output.
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A LOT of Hydration and Nutrition
Not only did I mess up my pacing last year, but I also fell short on my nutrition. This led to an epic bonk late in the race. It’s hard to remember to eat when you’re racing bar-to-bar with other riders and trying to stay out of trouble. The easiest solution is to add carbohydrate mix to your bottles and hydration pack to stay fueled throughout the race.
There are a lot of good options for carbohydrate mix out there. Recently, I’ve been testing Skratch Labs Sport Superfuel. One serving (one bottle) gives you 400 calories and 100 grams of carbs. That's A LOT, so I should make it to the end this year with no bonks.
I’ll also keep a few single serving packs of Tailwind in my top tube bag so I can mix it into my bottles at the aid stations. While it's possible to do the race entirely on carb mix, I will try to take in plenty of solid food as well just to keep my stomach happy.
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A Long-Lasting Lube or Chain Wax
"Normal" dry lubes tend to lose effectiveness quickly in long, dusty races like SBT GRVL. In previous editions, my squeaky chain drove me crazy and I lost some time stopping to re-lube. You need a lube that can go the distance, so it actually makes sense to choose a wet lube, even though it will get super grimy and dirty.
However, if you want the absolute best lube option — something that's super fast, clean, and quiet — then chain wax is the ultimate solution. A couple of years ago, I got into immersive chain waxing, then I started using Silca's Super Secret chain coating, which I’ve been extremely happy with.
Wax takes a bit of extra work to prep your chain, but it's easier than ever thanks to products like Silca's Chain Stripper, and I think the results are worth it. It reduces friction to save watts, your chain stays super clean, and the lubrication can last well over 200 miles.
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A Well-Vented (and Maybe Aero) Helmet
The Colorado sun is intense, and you spend a lot of time baking in it when you're crawling up SBT GRVL's long climbs. In 2021, I wore an older, matte black aero helmet, and on every climb, a waterfall of sweat blinded me, and my head cooked in the heat. Never again. I've since switched to more ventilated helmets to keep my noggin cool.
In 2022, I wore the POC Ventral Air, which has the standard Ventral’s aero shape but adds more vents to let your head breathe. Plus, the “Eye Garage” provides a convenient place to stash sunglasses during climbs so sweat doesn’t drip on them. This year though, I'm going a bit more aero with the new Giro Eclipse or Specialized Evade 3. Modern aero helmets like these are my favorite because they can help you save a few watts, but have ventilation on par with "normal" helmets.
Cargo Bib Shorts or Top Tube Bag
For long-distance gravel events, it’s nice to have more places to stash extra gels and bars (or even trash). I've been riding in the Ornot Cargo Bib Shorts and the POC Rove Cargo VPDS bib shorts. They have big, functional pockets on the thighs, and both have super comfortable chamois that keep my backside happy during a long day. Even if you're not into cargo bibs, I think a good pair of cycling shorts with a high-quality chamois is essential for finishing SBT without feeling miserable. Most riders will be in the saddle for 7-12 hours!
If you want to keep more food and spares on the bike, a good option is a top tube bag. These are super convenient because they keep your supplies right in front of you so they're easy to reach while riding. Many bags, like the Arundel Junior Tycoon that I use, bolt directly to the top tube for a clean look, or they can be velcro'd onto your frame if it doesn't have built in mounts. I'll be running both cargo bibs and a top tube bag this year. Since I'm planning to skip stops, I'll be carrying A LOT of gels and food.
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More SBT GRVL Gear Thoughts
What about gloves, Bruce? Photo: Dane Cronin
If I were to cover every single piece of gear I plan to bring with me to Steamboat, it would probably turn into a short novel. The above gear is the gear that I can’t live (or race) without. Here are a few other items that are high on my list, but don’t quite cross the “must-have” threshold:
- Gloves: I’m naughty and usually don’t wear gloves when riding gravel. But since I might be on the bike for anywhere from 7-10 hours, I’m considering putting on a pair, just so my hands have a little extra cushion.
- Chamois Butt’r: I have an on-again-off-again relationship with chamois cream. For a 142-mile race though, I may be forced to use it. I’ll bring a bottle with me and make a game-day decision on whether I apply it or not.
- Travel-Size Sunscreen: You'll be out in the sun for a LONG time. Be good to your skin and carry a small tube or roll-on stick of sunscreen to reapply at some point.
- Silca Ultimate Tubeless Sealant: the SBT GRVL course isn’t really known for causing flats, but it’s nice to be prepared for anything. I’ve been using Silca’s Ultimate Sealant and I truly think it’s the best puncture protection there is. It's so good, you need to be conscious when pumping up tires (DON'T position the valves at 6 o'clock) because it clogs valves instantly.
Whether you’re focused on going fast or just finishing, remember to enjoy the ride! That’s my number one goal this year. Gravel events like SBT GRVL are special because they have that fun, welcoming vibe. Let’s keep it that way.
Got questions or suggestions about my SBT GRVL gear? Hit me up in the comments!
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