An Unlikely Transition: From Triathlon to Gravel Racing

September 02, 2021

Longtime PEARL iZUMi Crew Member, IRACELIKEAGIRL founder, coach and decorated triathlete, Angela Naeth has been bitten by the gravel bug. We asked the multi-time Ironman podium finisher about her transition from triathlon to gravel.

What was the first gravel event you did, and what or how did you end up there?

My first gravel event was the Unbound 200 this year (2021). I did jump on a course in Florida in 2019 but didn’t race. Racing Unbound as my first race was unreal. A sponsor asked if I was interested in racing, and I jumped at the chance. Ever since I received my gravel bike, it really has been all that I ride outside (pop on aerobars, and you have a TT bike!). It was an awesome race and really opened me up to the world of gravel. After 12 hours and 43 minutes, I crossed the line as 6th place woman, with my first words being: “that’s way way more fun than triathlon!”… ha! Both are definitely a challenge, but riding a gravel bike for 206 miles was a whole new experience, and I absolutely loved it. The longer the time on two wheels, the better!

What’s different about TRI and gravel?

One of the differences between triathlon and gravel are the prep and start of the event. I love that I only have to get my bike ready for race day. Tri takes out A LOT of logistics and planning. It’s pretty nice not having to worry about two other sports.

The pre-race and post-race vibes at gravel are pretty laid back – with the focus on the people after the event and hanging out. Post-race beer (and maybe pre?!) is a big deal in gravel. I’m not much of a beer drinker, but I enjoy the after-race setup and food.

One of my favorite differences between the two is how you are out their solo on the bike, but collectively you all support one another to get to the finish – you draft, pull, work as a group when you can while riding. At the same time, it’s competitive as hell, and when I’m near any women for contention, the vibe changes quite a bit to tactical racing and making gaps when you can. I love it.

And, of course, the terrain is a whole new ball game. Gravel can be anything from hard-packed dirt to Class 4 unmaintained roads where you wish you had a mountain bike. Every race is so different from one another as well.

Unlike triathlon, gravel riding— like road cycling—requires a bit more punchiness and the ability to hit those high power watts to get away or latch on to a group of riders. As an Ironman athlete, you have to get out of your mindset of a steady diesel engine to the finish line.

Riders on singletrack in a field while competing at the 2021 SBT GRVL event in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
Riders competing at the 2021 SBT GRVL event in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

What is the same between the two?

Both sports are true endurance events—when you’re looking at an Ironman versus a long haul gravel event. You have to really focus on your nutrition. The more you can dial this in, the better you will be in a race over 75 miles.

What is similar as well is the challenge aspect: any event that requires more than six hours of racing, in my books, is something memorable and really allows you to see what you’re made of!

You’ve been pretty vocal on social about how fun gravel is to ride and race; what makes it so fun for you?

When I first got my gravel bike and took my first few pedals strokes, the young girl inside me literally took over! My face lit up, and I instantly had to share with the world (well, Instagram stories, ha!) how damn fun a gravel bike is to ride. Riding a bike where the terrain doesn’t matter is one of the best ways to adventure. Any surface of road, trail and path is open to train on. This is what makes it fun—it’s brought back more adventure into my triathlon training.

Ladies finishing together after a long day out on the bike.

Where should someone start to get into gravel?

If you’re female, join GirlsGetGritty! I started this team with the help of my partners because I saw the need, just like in triathlon, a community and group of women to connect with, join a community and create a team where you can support each other.

Find a bike. ANY bike – just be sure you can get tires that will allow you to go on varied terrain. You don’t need anything fancy. Start venturing out on some paths or roads you couldn’t before on a road bike. I promise a smile with be on your face at some point.

Jump into a race! Gravel racing and events are growing like weeds! There are more events than ever.

Any other hot tips for more fun on the dirt?

Learn a little about what is needed for tire pressure, types of tires, and equipment. Being able to change your own tire and use a plug if you get a flat can help you immensely to finish a race. Most gravel races are self-supported, meaning you need to take care of what’s needed on your bike and nutrition. There are aid stations in most races, but knowing what to do when something goes awry will get you to that finish line.

A bento box and hydration pack are great ways to carry your nutrition. I love using an Orange Mud 2-liter hydration pack when racing as it allows me to carry the extra fluids needed and be able to keep my hands on my handlebars when I need them most!

If you’re a triathlete, I highly recommend putting on clip-on aerobars. I love mine. I can ride on my aerobars all day, and they allow me different positions on the ride depending on how rough or long the course is.

The last tip is to really just have fun and let go of expectations. My first race was 206 miles, and I had no expectations. I ended up having a great race and, well, jumping all-in on gravel racing!

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