A Cyclist Turns to Gravel to Stay Fit – Wall Street Journal

A Cyclist Turns to Gravel to Stay Fit  Wall Street Journal

A hybrid of road cycling and mountain biking called gravel cycling has 56-year-old Doug Wilwerding in his best shape since swimming as a college student.

When Doug Wilwerding wanted to mix up his long-distance cycling routine two years ago, he considered mountain biking. Then 54 years old, he was deterred by the potential for injury from dodging rocks and roots while flying downhill. Instead, he took up gravel riding, a relatively new sport where you ride on unpaved roads, including dirt, gravel and mixed-surface terrain.

The founder of Omaha-based venture investment firm Optimas Group, LLC, Mr. Wilwerding is now retired and splits his time between Omaha and Steamboat Springs, Colo., which both offer plenty of natural training grounds. “On a gravel bike I truly appreciate the rural beauty of the Great Plains and the alpine beauty of the Rockies,” he says.

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A shoulder injury ended Mr. Wilwerding’s competitive swimming career at age 21. For the next 20 years he was a runner, averaging 40 miles a week. “Eventually my knees and hips rebelled,” he says.  

Gravel bikes resemble road bikes but have wider tires, disc brakes and splayed handlebars for more grip options. Photo: Dana Damewood for The Wall Street Journal

Missing the endorphins of endurance training, he bought a road bike after turning 50. “My life has been a sequential triathlon,” he jokes. “I am not especially athletically gifted but have the prototypical mindset of swimmers, distance runners and cyclists that allows us to compartmentalize and embrace discomfort.” 

Mr. Wilwerding started participating in bike rides of 100 miles or longer, called centuries. He bought his gravel bike with the ambition of completing the Dirty Kanza 200, a 200-mile ride on gravel roads in the Flint Hills of Kansas. He ended up riding the 100-mile version of the race, known as the Half-Pint. “Wow, it taught me a lesson,” he says. “It was much harder than 100 miles on a road bike.” 

Gravel riding is more jarring than road riding so strength and mobility really come into play. “Your upper body takes much more of a beating,” Mr. Wilwerding says. “Especially when you’re riding bumpy terrain for eight hours.” With the help of a coach, he has trained to participate in five century rides—three road, two gravel—this summer. His next ride, the SBT GRVL, takes place Aug. 18 and covers 141 miles and about 9,000 feet of climbing in Steamboat Springs, Colo. “I’m in the best shape of my life outside of my collegiate swimming career,” he says. 

Mr. Wilwerding at the 2018 Corporate Cycling Challenge Bicycle Ride. Photo: C41 Photography
The Workout

Last year Mr. Wilwerding started working with Steamboat Springs-based cycling coach Amy Charity. She provides him weekly workouts via the app TrainingPeaks. Mr. Wilwerding aims to get in three endurance rides and three interval rides a week and sets aside one day for rest. At the height of his training he logs 175 to 225 miles a week. Long rides last between two and four hours. “The goal is to build up saddle time and grind out the miles,” he says. 

High-intensity interval rides might start with a warm-up followed by five sets of two- to ten-minute intervals. “The goal is to push my heart rate and get my muscles acclimated to enduring effort over sustained periods,” he says. Once a month he joins Ms. Charity on a group training ride.

Ten years ago Mr. Wilwerding hired a trainer to develop a strength program for him. He hits the gym three days a week but doesn’t lift the heavy weights he once did. “In cycling, you want to focus on range of motion rather than bulk,” he says.

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He does lunges, deadlifts, and goblet squats, where he holds a kettlebell at his chest and squats down between his knees and at the bottom of the squat, uses his elbows to push his knees out. For upper body, he performs bench presses and rows. Every lift is complemented by a mobility movement in the opposite direction. For example, if he does a squat then he follows it by lying down with his legs up the wall in a hamstring stretch.

He does variations of planks and crunches to strengthen his core, which is crucial, he says, for good posture toward the end of long rides. His wife, Elaine Wilwerding, a competitive equestrian, often joins him at the gym.

Mr. Wildwerding training near his home in Omaha. He plans to participate in five 100-plus mile rides this summer. Photo: Dana Damewood for The Wall Street Journal
The Diet

Breakfast is a couple of soft boiled eggs, a handful of spinach, whole grain toast and occasionally berries. A turkey sandwich is Mr. Wilwerding’s go-to lunch. He tries to grill a lean protein for dinner and pair it with two to three types of vegetables. “Cycling turns your body into a furnace so I eat sweet potatoes before and after a long ride to get my carbs back in,” he says. Mr. Wilwerding prefers “real food” to energy bars and gels. On long rides he eats almond butter and honey sandwiches and turkey sandwiches. Beer is his splurge.

“After a long ride I have a bottle of chocolate milk and a bottle of beer,” he says. “My friends think the combination is gross, but I think it’s delicious.”

The Gear and Cost

Mr. Wilwerding spent $5,400 on his Salsa Cycles Warbird Carbon Ultegra gravel bike, $1,350 on his Quarq bi-lateral power meter crankset and $300 on his Wahoo Fitness Elemnt bike computer. He rides in Specialized Expert XC mountain bike shoes ($200) because he says sometimes you need to get off the bike and carry it on sections of trails. He has a POC Ventral Air Spin helmet ($250). He uses a Wahoo Fitness Kickr Smart Trainer ($1,200) for indoor training during winter. His annual subscription to the Sufferfest training app costs $99. He pays $250 a month for his cycling coach via TrainingPeaks and $340 a month for his gym membership and personal training sessions.

The Playlist

“I like to listen to angry music when training—Rage Against the Machine, Beastie Boys—and a lot of classic rock, too.”

What Is Gravel Riding?

The young sport of gravel riding—something of a hybrid of road cycling and mountain biking—is one of the fastest-growing disciplines in cycling.

According to Bicycle Retailer, sales of gravel bikes in the U.S. reached nearly $29 million in early 2018, compared with just over $10 million in early 2017. The trade publication says that last year there was exponential growth in gravel events and gear.

“While mountain bikers typically ride on narrow single track, and road riders typically ride on paved roads, gravel riders seek quiet, less traveled, unpaved roads,” says Amy Charity, a professional cyclist and cycling coach in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

It’s possible to ride a mountain or road bike on gravel, Ms. Charity says, but gravel-specific bikes make riding safer and smoother. “Primarily, gravel bikes accommodate a wider tire than road bikes, have a longer wheelbase which allows for more stability on descents, and have disc brakes which allow for more bike control,” she says.

A road bike’s tires are typically filled to 100 psi, or pounds per square inch, but in gravel riding, you want low tire pressure, around 30 to 40 psi, she says. Beginners should remember to stay relaxed. “Avoid staring at the potholes or rocks in front of you,” she says. “The bike may move under you and that’s OK. Keep your shoulders, arms and hands relaxed and your elbows bent. While you need a secure grip on the handlebars, don’t let that translate into tension across the upper body.”

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