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Sometimes Road Bikes Can Be Gravel Bikes Too: Left Hand Gravel 2023

What bike do you bring to a race that features a mix of fast road and smooth gravel? I chose a road bike. With 32mm tires and a 1x drivetrain, this is what my road bike was meant to do! No matter what you choose though, local gravel races are always a good time.

Written by: Bruce Lin

Published on:

Posted in:Features

How many road bikes do you see? Photo: Brent Murphy Photography / Peak to Peak Endurance

I’ve barely ridden my bike over the last month and a half. I’ve mostly been focusing on some of my other hobbies and wasting endless hours working on a tortuous kitchen remodel (DIY was a huge mistake). But last week, some of the guys in the warehouse started talking about a new and upcoming race: Left Hand Gravel

For me, this would be the closest local gravel race of the year. The start/finish at Left Hand Brewing in Longmont, CO is literally a 10-minute ride from my house, and there was a tempting (as in hard, but not too hard) 110-mile long course option too. Despite my lack of fitness and preparation, I just couldn’t say no. Plus, every race is an opportunity to learn, and it turns out this was the perfect opportunity to test out my 1x road bike in a race scenario! 

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As I mentioned, I haven’t been riding my bike much. But I decided to sign up because I like to support local grassroots events, especially when they’re in my own backyard. If that means showing up and getting my doors completely blown off, then so be it. Participating also raises funds to support local non-profit youth organizations. So I’m suffering for the children. 

I mainly saw this race as a great opportunity to try out three things:

  • The ideal setup for a road bike on gravel roads
  • Dressing for big temperature swings
  • Fueling a 100+ mile race with only gels

Racing a Road Bike on Gravel Roads

Specialized Aethos road gravel bikeMy Aethos already regularly sees gravel and dirt roads. 

While Left Hand Gravel was billed as a gravel race, it was fairly road-heavy, with about 70% pavement. The dirt and gravel in the race is also fairly smooth and fast. This provided an interesting opportunity to try out my 1x-equipped Specialized Aethos. With so much road on the menu, it seemed like a better choice than my Lauf Seigla, as long as I picked the right tires to handle the hardpack dirt and gravel sections.

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The Aethos has plenty of clearance for 32mm tires. I usually run 28mm tires on the road but switched to 32mm Specialized Mondos before the race to gain some extra comfort, traction, and puncture protection on the gravel sections. The Aethos is already one of the best-riding road bikes I’ve ever owned, and with the extra volume of 32mm tires, it felt super fast on smooth dirt and gravel.

Mo Wilson BWR CaliforniaMo Wilson shredded the gravel and all her BWR California competitors on her Aethos road bike with Mondos. Photo: Derek Betcher

I was excited to run this particular setup since the late great Mo Wilson also used an Aethos with prototype Mondo tires to win BWR California in 2022. Russell Finsterwald won BWR this year on a Crux with Specialized Mondos too. BWR California has a similar road to gravel ration, so the Mondo seemed like a solid choice. 

1x road bike SRAM Xplr drivetrain

My Aethos is built with a 1x SRAM Force AXS XPLR gravel drivetrain that provides decent gear range with the 10-44t cassette and 46t chainring. The slightly tighter gearing works a bit better on the road than the 10-50t cassette on my gravel bike.

I always prefer 1x drivetrains, even on the road, but I know I’m in the minority. I don’t mind the bigger jumps between gears, especially on mixed-surface courses. It just feels good to me, and I thought my setup suited this course quite well.     

Road bikes on gravel roadsA lot of different bike choices. 

At the actual event, there was maybe a 50/50 split between road and gravel bikes. Here are some bike setups that I took note of:

  • Me - Specialized Aethos + 32mm Specialized Mondo + 1x Drivetrain
  • Craig - Specialized Tarmac SL8 + 32mm Continental GP 5000 S TR + 2x Drivetrain
  • Chase - Specialized Crux + 35mm Panaracer GravelKing Slick + 1x Drivetrain
  • Nik - Specialized Diverge + 47mm Specialized Pathfinder Pro + 1x Drivetrain
  • Alex Howes - Cannondale SuperSix Evo SE + 40mm Schwalbe G One RS + 1x Drivetrain
  • Ben Delany - Trek Madone Gen 7 + 28mm (Bontrager R3?) + 2x Drivetrain

Road bike gravel tiresMy co-worker Nik and I ran very different tires: 47mm Specialized Pathfinder vs. 32mm Specialized Mondo.

Ultimately, I do think the road bike was the more competitive choice for me. I felt faster on the paved sections than others on full gravel bikes, and had I no problem staying in a group on any of the gravel sections. The only places I really suffered were in loose corners and on rough washboard and pot-hole-filled sections where I got really beat up. 

I just love how versatile modern road racing bikes are now that many can fit tires in the 30-32mm range. While I’d still want a “real” gravel bike for loose or rocky gravel, road bikes with decent tire clearnace work great on smooth and maintained gravel paths and hardpacked dirt.  

Dressing for Big Temperature Swings

Cycling clothing for cold startsA lot of different kit choices for the cold start. Note the rider in the green vest/jersey and brown shorts. That's Alex Howes!

The race also provided an interesting kit challenge. The start would be around 40° F but the temperature would climb to around 75° F by midday. So what should you wear?

I went with a mid-weight long-sleeve jersey, a vest, and knee warmers. I was still freezing in the beginning. However, I was dressed more warmly than many. It seemed like the most popular choice was a standard kit paired with either a lightweight shell or vest and arm warmers. There were very few wearing knee warmers. Some brave riders wore nothing but a standard kit and were visibly shivering. 

By 10 a.m. however I was wishing I could rip my knee warmers off. They stayed rolled down at my ankles for the last few hours, which was very annoying. After I shed my vest, the mid-weight long-sleeve jersey was okay, but it got quite hot on the climbs and I would have preferred a lighter jersey. 

Dressing for races with big temperature swings takes some experimentation and experience to find what works best for you. It isn’t like dressing for a casual ride, because stopping to shed layers will lose valuable time (unless you don’t care about that, which is fine). Ideally, you can safely shed or add layers while riding in a fast bunch. 

If I could do it over again, I’d probably choose a lightweight shell over a standard kit, and suffer through the worst cold in the morning. I could unzip to vent myself mid-morning. Then remove it entirely and stuff it into a jersey pocket later. I wouldn’t do knee warmers again just because they’re impossible (for me) to fully remove without stopping. 

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Fueling 100+ Miles With Only Gels

Gu gels for 100 mile bike rideI ate so many, maybe too many...

I didn’t originally plan to do this, but I had opportunity to do a silly experiment. I hadn’t restocked any of my riding food so all I had left was a box of GU Roctane gels I got for free at a vendor expo this summer. I could have gone out to buy more of my usual staples: stroopwafels, Rice Krispies, and Clif Shot Bloks, but I decided to be lazy and see how it went. 

I expected to be on course for around 6 hours, so stuffed 11 gels in my pockets an planned to eat one every 30-45 minutes along with drinking electrolyte mix in my bottles. I ended up eating all 11 and it worked out fairly well. I never felt under-fueled, hungry, or nauseous. I usually hate gels and tend to use them sparingly, but I found these gels were so effective that I think I’ll start relying on them more heavily.  

There were a couple of downsides though. I felt a bit grossed out by the flavor about halfway through the race. A bigger variety of flavors might have helped since all my gels were Caramel Macchiato flavored. Then, later in the evening, I had trouble sleeping from all the caffeine and my wife kicked me out of the bedroom because of my excessive gas. I’ll have to consider that in the future. 

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How Our Left Hand Gravel Race Went

TPC Left Hand GravelMe, Nik, and Chase.

Three other TPC riders entered the race: Craig Wu, our Receiving and Catalog Supervisor, Chase Robertson, our Consumables Coordinator, and Nik Lavrisha, one of our expert Ride Guides. 

Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL8 32mm tires for gravelCraig didn't want to stand by us. He's too focused on dropping us.

All three are fitter and more powerful than me. Craig is consistently fast and finished the Leadville Trail 100 in under 8.5-hours this year. I’ve never beaten Chase up any climb or in any gravel race ever. And Nik is 10 years younger than me and 10 times more motivated. 

I expected to get shot out the back early, so my plan was just to hold on to the front group as long as I could and then ride at my own pace for the rest of the day. For all you race fans, Alex Howes, a former EF Education rider, former road national champ, and current Life Time Grand Prix racer, showed up. I got the chance to sit on his wheel for a few miles. But when he and the leaders cranked the pace up the first climb, I was gone. 

Once I was dropped I decided to chill. I was able to join a small group of chasers and we stuck together up the first major climb to Carter Lake. My road bike was so much faster on the descent though, I ended up going solo. From here, I rode solo for almost the entire race. I was able to hook up with a few single riders and exchange pulls, but these partnerships were all short-lived. 

This can happen in long-distance gravel races. The start is packed with riders and is super exciting. Then as it drags on you end up riding alone in no man’s land for long periods of time. This is when you really get to learn what you’re made of. 

TPC Left Hand Gravel PodiumNik (left) and Chase had a great day.

Overall, I’m happy that I was able to stay so consistent over 110 miles with very little mileage in my legs. I finished 19th at 6:05:30, about 8 minutes behind Nik and Chase who finished 17th and 18th — a decent midpack result for all of us. Nik and Chase both podiumed in their age groups too. 

TPC Left Hand gravel podium...There goes my hero...

Craig smoked all of us though. He stuck with the lead group for much longer, finishing 9th overall and 2nd in his age group. He’s about 15 years older than me, and his performances are always inspiring. It shows me that I still have plenty of room to grow. 

I love small grassroots events because they’re always so fun and relaxing compared to big, expensive, high-pressure events like Unbound Gravel and SBT GRVL. Plus, they generally benefit the local community and riders. 

I hope Left Hand Gravel comes back next year. If it attracts more participants, maybe I’ll have more company next time! If you’re around the Colorado Front Range, check out Peak to Peak Endurance to learn about their events. If you’re near Austin, Texas, they are hosting the Longhorn Gravel event in December. 

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