Cynthia Frazier Offers Tips for Conquering Your Longest Gravel Race Ever (2023)

If a race or ride on your calendar this season goes beyond any distance that you’ve done before, you might be panicking about the different variables you could face on the big day. Those variables may be even greater if your long ride or race is on gravel rather than pavement.

Cynthia Frazier, who refers to herself as a “casual ultra cyclist,” has gone from being a triathlete to one of the top long-distance gravel pros in the U.S. From winning the 350-mile Unbound XL in Kansas to setting a new course record at the 1000-kilometer Across Andes race in Chile, Frazier has made a name for herself as someone who will pedal hard for as long as it takes. She’s often found doing multi-day events and easily riding for 72 hours at a time—but she didn’t get there overnight (so to speak).

Here, we talked about what she thinks about as she approaches these long races, and what she wishes she knew when she started going longer and longer. The Velocio // Exploro racer has even started her own event, Gravista, around some of her favorite spots in Lexington, Virginia, to introduce more people to the sport of gravel racing. She’s not just passionate about racing for long hours, she’s passionate about bringing others along for the ride. Join in with her tips.

12 Tips for Going the Distance in Gravel Events

1. Ease in

To be clear, while many of Frazier’s races include rides through the night, she certainly didn’t start that way. In fact, the only reason she tackled her first overnight ultra-endurance event was because she really, really didn’t want to race the 200-mile Unbound race again. Even Unbound itself was a race she built up to gradually, after years spent racing on the road before shifting to gravel.

When it came to the upgrade from the 200-mile Unbound event to the 350-mile Unbound XL, her team persuaded her to do it. (Frazier first raced Unbound in 2019, then came back for the XL in 2021 and won it in 2022.) While she wasn’t nervous about how her legs would hold up—she knew that distance was possible thanks to years of endurance training—Frazier threw herself into figuring out the logistical side of things, namely, how to ride through the night (more on that below).

2. Understand the course

One hundred miles may not seem that long, if you ride centuries on the regular. But if you’re used to a relatively flat road century, an elevation-rich gravel century is an entirely different beast. “It’s important to look at a course map ahead of time and know what to expect,” Frazier says. “Checking finisher times—not just win times—can also be helpful. You might assume a 100-mile race would take six hours, but looking at the results, you might realize most people are finishing in eight or nine hours, and that requires a different type of preparation.”

3. Protect your nether regions

If a bad saddle can be annoying during a short ride, imagine how painful it can be during a long ride. That’s why finding your optimal bike fit, saddle, and chamois combination is key, says Frazier. The longer you ride, the higher the potential for saddle sores and other abrasions become—as you sweat, the salt can add to the chafing. Because of this, for truly long events, you may even want to consider swapping into a clean pair of shorts midride, if possible.

“For really long events, I do a quick change and wash my sweaty shorts, then hang them behind the bike so they dry as I keep pedaling,” says Frazier. Sometimes, this means handing the shorts off to crew, if there’s any support on course. For really long races, this could look like a stop in a hotel for a few hours, or simply popping into an open restroom along the route and rinsing in the sink. “That’s made a big difference—as has getting a professional bike fit and getting that really dialed in.” Even carrying a wet wipe to do a quick clean up if things are getting uncomfortable can help. Frazier always has a wipe in her saddle bag.

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4. Focus on your ride

When you’re in a 40-minute crit or cyclocross race, one thing is on your mind: How can I catch/beat/outsprint the rider in front of me? But in an ultra-endurance event, a shift happens. Rather than asking how you’re going to beat the person you’re racing against, you’re simply trying to do the best that you can on that day.

Frazier has come to terms with this over the years. After realizing chasing down competitors just caused her to burn a lot of matches early, she found she needed to ride her own race and potentially reel them in later.

5. Embrace the variables

“You have to get used to the fact that there are so many things you can’t control in these races,” Frazier says. “And if something happens, you need to figure out the next best step to take.”

For example, weather can change on a dime, particularly in the more mountainous areas where Frazier is often racing. Multiple flat tires can also plague racers, as can broken chains or bent derailleurs. Being ready to handle your own mechanicals—and never counting yourself out of the race, considering the rider up the road could be dealing with flats as well—is a huge part of the racing experience.

6. Practice night riding

Cynthia Frazier Offers Tips for Conquering Your Longest Gravel Race Ever (1)

If you think there’s a chance you’ll finish your goal race or ride in the dark, don’t let that be your first night ride!

“I started with this ride called Rock Star that happens locally every April, so that I was riding on all familiar roads and wouldn’t be alone, but it would be really low pressure,” Frazier says. “It was great practice for using my lights, and for riding through the night. It’s scary at first, but you adjust to it pretty quickly.”

You’ll also want to gain a good understanding of the run time on your headlight and helmet light, so that you know if you need spare battery packs or chargers.

7. Take recovery days

Here’s the thing about Frazier’s calendar: It is loaded for the season. And with that comes the need to temper her training expectations. Rather than trying to max out training volume when she is home and able to ride, she takes more days off than the average pro—sometimes even three in a week. She prioritizes recovery, and credits that with how she’s managed to stay injury-free thus far.

If you’re doing long, hard events on a monthly basis, or even more frequently than that, bear in mind that you’ll likely be using those events to do your harder efforts, and the rest of your time should be spent recovering and maintaining fitness rather than trying to cram in blocks of hard training.

8. Don’t stop eating and drinking

The biggest key to ultra-endurance success? Eating and drinking enough. This sounds like a fun problem to have, but wait until you’ve been riding for 10 hours and your body is less interested in taking in another gel, or even a tasty treat like a cookie, and the thought of another sip of sports drink can begin to feel nauseating. But you must keep the calories, electrolytes, and water coming in.

“You’ll hit a point where you don’t want to eat, but you have to,” says Frazier. “I was forever against gels, but as I went longer, I was having trouble taking in enough calories. I needed to find something that was easy and fast to eat that didn’t bother my stomach. I’ve found a gel from Huma that has chia seeds in it, and they’re just really easy for me to eat. I carry 25 with me at the start of any race, and they’re what I use as soon as eating real food feels unappealing.”

That moment you feel absolutely terrible, like your stomach is in knots? Eat and drink. “If you’re feeling really bad, you probably need food. When I don’t feel like eating, I eat a gel and then within 20 minutes, I feel like eating,” says Frazier.

While eating at night can be an even bigger challenge, it’s also necessary. “The first time I did Unbound XL, nighttime was really interesting. I learned that I didn’t eat enough and even started hallucinating!” Frazier recalls. While it gets harder to remember to keep eating and drinking at night, that’s when you need fuel the most. You may need to set an alarm on your phone or switch your drinking/eating method as it gets dark to make taking in water and calories as seamless as possible.

9. Know it’s okay to take a break

In ultra-endurance events that go through the night, riders will often take catnaps on the side of the road (or even stop at a hotel for a few hours, depending on the length of the race). But this occasional longer stop can be used in shorter events as well.

Often, that feeling that you just can’t go on will pass if you pull over, sit down, or walk around and stretch out, have a snack and a few sips of water, and just gather your thoughts. “Nighttime can be really hard for me,” says Frazier. “When my motivation is low and I can’t get out of my head, I know I just need to stop and nap for 15 minutes, and I’ll feel completely reset.”

If you are considering dropping out of the race, Frazier highly recommends taking this break before calling for a pickup. “It’s amazing what taking this beat can do for your mindset,” she adds.

10. Focus on your mental strategy

The mental game is as important as the physical game in long races. Staying present is great, and obviously from a safety perspective, you need to be focusing on the road ahead of you, but Frazier is also all about the mental tricks that make the time pass faster when the going gets tough. “I start doing some visualizations around how I would handle something like a flat tire, so that when I do come across a situation that could potentially be negative, like a flat, I’ve already thought through the steps to take to get moving again,” she says. “I also just try to talk to the people around me when possible."

Mental check-ins also become key when races get longer. As you get tired, it’s easy to start making little mistakes. Having a mental checklist can be helpful: Ask yourself things like, Have I eaten lately? Am I well-hydrated? Can I see the road well enough? Am I mentally clear? “The more tired you get, the riskier things like technical sections and descents become,” says Frazier. “Especially at the top of a long descent or a technical downhill, I always ask myself if I need to stop for a quick break before going into it.”

11. Dial in your packing list

More miles = more potential to forget critical gear. Most people know how to pack for a three-hour event, but for a 10-plus-hour ride? That can be tricky.

“Organization is so important when traveling. I am a spreadsheet queen,” says Frazier. “I have one that lists all the stuff that I need to bring, from clothes to bike parts, and then I have lists that break down what goes in each pocket and bag on my bike. I print those sheets out so that I have them when I’m packing and when I’m doing my final race prep. I also try to arrive with plenty of time to deal with issues like if my bike frame has broken on the flight—which happened to me last month—and I know if I don’t have enough time before the race, I feel stressed before I even get there.”

She also has a note on her phone that she updates, sometimes even during the race, with any ideas to make her next trip and race run even smoother.

12. Make friends

Unlike some racing (looking at you, criteriums!), ultra-endurance races really are all about making friends. You’re out there for hours on end, suffering together—and that leads to instant camaraderie in race and at the finish line.

“I really enjoy the people you meet at these races, that’s probably my favorite thing about this type of racing,” says Frazier. “Wherever the race finishes, everyone usually ends up staying there for a while, especially these really long events where people are finishing for days! The people who stay in ultra-racing are really supportive, super positive people.”

Molly Hurford

Molly writes about cycling, nutrition and training, with an emphasis on women in sport. Her new middle-grade series, Shred Girls, debuts with Rodale Kids/Random House in 2019 with "Lindsay's Joyride." Her other books include "Mud, Snow and Cyclocross," "Saddle, Sore" and "Fuel Your Ride." Her work has been published in magazines like Bicycling, Outside and Nylon. She co-hosts The Consummate Athlete Podcast.


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