How to cram for your first gravel race in 10 days

An 'old' ex-pro roadie grapples with the reality of middle age and real life, while trying to make sense of his ever-devolving ego in the midst of the gravel scene.

Photo: Courtesy Alex Candelario

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Twenty-five years ago, all-nighters, caffeinated bloodshot eyes, that walking dead feeling as you sit down for your final exam — they all seemed like great ideas at the time.

I’m not really sure how this approach became the norm, but this recipe for disaster seemed to transcend through college campuses around the country.

So, after 25 years of post-grad living, you might think I’ve learned a thing or two about preparation for the big day. In my case, that just maybe “the springtime fitness plan,” where you decide to get rid of the ‘dad bod’ would carry me toward a result. This, I thought, would be the year I’m going to get back into shape and go toe-to-toe with the young guns of the gravel racing scene.

Five months fly by in an instant, and I have awoken from my pipe dream as the daily grind of work, family, and life seem to present themselves as serious obstacles at every 5:00 a.m. alarm. I wake up mumbling to myself, “those after-work beers seemed like a great idea at the time.”

So needless to say, the plan … it may have been a bit flawed.

The other thing is, I’m going back to the roots, the ‘OG,’ and decided that not only am I going to do one day of gravel racing, but five days, all back-to-back for some sort of accumulated time at the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder.

(As a side note: before gravel racing was all about your marinière style hipster jersey, handlebar purse, and finely tuned mustache, there was cyclocross, of which I did quite a bit of and managed to represent the U.S. in the world championships. In other words, I was doing this shit before you were born and yes, tires and tire pressure were a thing then, too.)

Candelario and his oldest son in 2014, his last year as a pro

As I was playing chicken with the deadline for race registration, it occurred to me that I had two choices: one, quit my day job, move to France, eat nothing but baguettes and water for nine days, and then show up looking like a hip, fit dad ready to shred the gnar.

My second option was to look at my 50-hour work week, kids’ schedule of activities, school, and house work, and panic train.

Option #2 it was.

There exists some cruel notion in the world of cycling, that fitness – real fitness – takes at least six weeks to produce any real adaptation. Along with that, multiple periods of those six-week blocks piled upon themselves for many months are required for the clear focus of sporting success to appear.

The loads that are given to athletes during that time must be perfectly orchestrated, with proper rest built into the ever-climbing roller coaster of fitness. Accumulated effects of a base period help lay the foundation for proper zone training, clear power-based intervals, and periodization, all targeted at moving the holy FTP a millimeter in the right direction.

There’s lots of hustle in that, but more than anything, it’s all about time. The one commodity that is priceless.

So — I threw all of that out the window. There. Was. No. Time.

Men my age lose testosterone, and as a result, they lose a ton of other stuff along with it. Hair, stamina, muscle, and you know what else. So, as one of those dudes who are nearing the half-century mark, I decided to focus my remaining panic training time on strength as I didn’t have the time to put “real” miles in. Pure, raw weights were going to be the crutch to get my fat ass up some of the longer climbs.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: that it takes at least three weeks of weight training to not only stay injury free but actually make some real strength improvements. Horse jabber. Throw it all out the window and cram. Muscular endurance can help you fake it with the best of them.

Sprinkle in trainer sessions directly after the weights and now you’re building muscle memory along with that strength. You’re basically getting 5x the bang for your buck vs. time.

Your body knows what you need, but you just have to remind it – it’s gotta be in there somewhere, right? With one week of time left, I pounded some steel about five of those days, early in the morning, focusing on free squats, lunges, and leg presses, followed by trainer time. High reps, low weight, and then I doubled up on my lunch rides, skipped the actual food, and suffered on co-workers’ wheels while reminding myself that I do love this sport.

Now, with any good margarita, your choice to make it great rather than average is all about that last special ingredient. You know — whether to use Cointreau, Grand Marnier, or a good-quality Triple Sec, assuming of course your choice of tequila is above average. Never an easy decision, but I’m a classic Triple Sec guy, which means for us panic trainers — long days on the mountain bike.

I know, you thought I was going to say gravel. But for me, it was easier to get out on the mountain bike and the dirt is all time right now, so there is that. Yep, we need some dirt time and we need at least two five-hour days, preferably three, but tell that to your family.

This last part is hard. It takes sacrifice and of course, time. Time on the bike is time on the bike and you can’t Zwift your way out of this shit, because let’s be honest, that isn’t riding a bike, is it?

Ed note: On Wednesday, Candelario will line up with many of the “young guns of the gravel racing scene” at the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder to see if his panic training regime pays off.

Follow along at for race reports and a recap from Candelario after the event. 

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