Stick with me because while “Marginal Gains” are often seen as a way to get faster, they are often a great way to make your gravel riding more comfortable, safer, and less prone to mechanicals. Marginal gains aren’t only for the pointy end of a bike race but are great for those long exploration days as well. Road cycling has been the main focus of SILCA over the last 100 or so years, but like so many cyclists we have really fallen in love with gravel over the last 5 years. Very few cars to worry about, exploring new areas we typically wouldn’t ride, the inclusive nature of the events, and no pesky UCI rules to govern the technology we use. Many gravel loving cyclists have come to this part of the sport for the freedom and exploration side of things and have gotten turned off by the pros turning up to races and the commercialization of the sport. Just like Mountain Biking started as a group of teenagers riding their WWII coaster brake bikes down Mt Tam as fast as they could for fun, gravel was really born as a way to get away from the seriousness of road cycling. We take a look here at our top marginal gains for gravel cycling that will help you go faster, longer, flat less often, and generally help you be more comfortable to enjoy the ride.
Gravel Chain Treatment
The defining feature of gravel cycling is not riding on tarmac. This means you get a lot of varying conditions, dry and dusty, wet and muddy, dirt, sand, and everything in between. This can absolutely wreak havoc on your drivetrain. Not only does this slow you down and create maddening noises, but it costs you a ton of money when you have to replace components faster than you need to. Using a high quality chain treatment can save you north of $1,500/year if you are riding 6,200mi/10,000km per year and riding one of the top group sets. Even if you are riding some of the mid-range group sets you are still likely to save $500 or so per year!The chain treatment you choose depends on a variety of factors such as conditions, your level of commitment to cleaning, and length of event. The best choice for almost any event, conditions, etc is going to be a hot melt wax application. According to www.zerofrictioncycling.com the Secret Blend Hot Melt from SILCA and the Molten Speed Wax products are the lowest wearing treatments on the market today. This will save you the most money in the long run and will keep your drivetrain cleaner than anything else on the market. The wax dries to be a dirt repelling treatment that gets deep in-between the plates to reduce the friction where it matters most. The downside of this type of application is that it does need a full stripping of the chain up front. This means removing the chain, soaking in mineral spirits to remove factory grease, degreaser, then finishing in acetone to be completely free of water, degreaser, etc. The good news is that this type of cleaning is only required once and then can typically just be wiped down and re-waxed. If the chain gets wet it should also go through a good wipe down and re-wax. We have a few videos on the topic here as well.
The second choice is perfect for applying between hot-wax treatments or all on its own and that is an emulsified wax treatment. This is a wax like above but there are additives to keep it a liquid until you put it on your chain and let it dry. Zero Friction Cycling also is really high on this type of lubricant and the top products there being Ceramic Speed UFO 2.0, SILCA Super Secret Chain Lube, and a newer company called Rex out of Europe that has been in this space for a long time with ski/snowboard wax. This drip on wax still needs to have a thorough cleaning (read spotless) cleaning of the chain. This gives clean metal for the wax to stick to originally, then can simply be topped up with a quick wipedown from a Micro-fiber cloth and applied again. Let 12-24hrs to dry and you will have a treatment that can save you 3-4w compared to a clean chain with a poor lubricant and much more later in the day since it will repel dirt.The third type of chain lube which can be best for extremely wet/muddy conditions or for somebody who wants a fast lubricant but doesn’t want to completely strip the chain is an oil based wet lube. This is the traditional type of lubricant that has been popular for a long time. The downside here is that any oil is going to attract dirt and will turn into a lapping compound inside the chain once it gets dirty. This means extra wear and friction. Both are bad for speed and your wallet. Using a really high-quality oil based lube such as SILCA Synergetic, Synerg-E, or NFS will be a little slower and more costly than a wax base, but will be a significant improvement over a poor wet lube or the only type on this list you should absolutely avoid, dry lube.This oil-based category probably has the biggest discrepancy in performance because a “Dry Lube” will get thrown in here as well. Say it with me “DRY lubes don’t exist.” They aren’t real and are 100% marketing. Dry lubes are simply the same lubricant in a wet lube just not very much of it. 2-10% lubricant and 90-98% carrier that flashes off. That means you are paying for 2% of the bottle! We hear all the time “well the dry lube keeps my chain clean,” yeah because you are just running metal on metal. That “lubricant” wore off 20 miles into your ride and there is nothing left there to pick up dirt. Do yourself a favor and if you do choose to pick up a bottle of dry lube, grab 5 chains, a cassette or two, and a new pair of chainrings because you will probably need them by the time you run that bottle empty. Our long-winded chain treatment recommendation can keep your chain clean on the dirtiest of days, save you 4-5w, and a ton of money, so that is why it is our number one marginal gain for gravel. You don’t have to buy SILCA lube to get a benefit, but we do happen to have the best or second-best product in all three categories according to independent tests at the time of writing.
Tires & Sealant
Tires are a big topic at the start of every gravel event. Width, thread pattern, casing, etc. On the road we typically see 23-28mm and maybe a few 30mm these days. On gravel you first have to pick 700c or 650b, then anywhere from 35mm to 50mm or even 2.2” mtb tires. Since we are talking marginal gains of gravel we are going for the absolute best. Puncture protection layers make tires slower and less comfortable. They are there because standing on the side of the road is the slowest way to get through a bike race. One way around this issue is to run some of the fastest tires with the least amount of built in flat protection available, and pair it with a sealant with extreme puncture protection. SILCA just launched Ultimate Tire Sealant w/FiberFoam that uses carbon fiber strands and a premium natural latex that will seal 6mm holes with virtually zero losses in pressure. This sealing power opens up a new world of potential tire choices to remove puncture layers and make more supple casings for both speed and comfort on the bike.
For a lot of events here in the US the gravel is big and chunky, but lots of knobs for grip aren’t necessary unless you are getting into some uphill singletrack. My go to choice for tires are the WTB Byway. They are one of the fastest gravel tires tested by www.bicyclerollingresistance.com and are available in a wide range of widths. I am also pretty curious to try the newly released S-Works Pathfinder Pro’s. This is an update to their already extremely fast Specialized Pathfinder Pro but claims to use a higher quality casing and a benefit in rolling resistance on gravel specifically. We can look to their road offerings to see that the turbo cotton tires were some of the fastest available when they came out so Specialized seems to be on to something with tires as well. Get a tire that has the lowest rolling resistance possible for gravel with the least tread that will allow you to have a good handle on the bike. If you have an event that is hard packed gravel, go for a 35mm slick, if it is big chunky and loose gravel, side knobs of a WTB Byway are going to be helpful. Pair that with a high quality sealant and you won’t be stuck on the side of the gravel road but won’t be leaving any extra watts out on the road.
If tires are a topic on the start line then pressure is the next thing on the block for discussion. The mountain bike to gravel converts seem to be a little quicker to realize the gains but the roadies are coming along too. Tire pressure can be the biggest gain in speed, comfort, and flat prevention available. The best part is that it is free. Check out the SILCA Tire Pressure Calculator for a great place to start for your current gravel set up. The biggest thing to keep in mind with tire pressure is that a few psi too high could cost you 5w where as a few psi too low is likely going to be 1-2w. When in doubt, drop a couple PSI and enjoy the speed and comfort on your next gravel adventure.
The trend in gravel is longer. Longer races, longer rides, and with that comes the need to eat, drink, and carry a repair kit. On-bike storage is a great place to make big marginal gains in gravel. For those trying to win a race like Unbound 200, making sure you have a hydration and nutrition plan is key. One recent trend we have seen there is frame bags for a hydration pack. That carries a lot of water in a pretty aero place. There is some evidence that these frame bags when created well could be a significant aero benefit for gravel races and you get to carry enough water to skip stops at most gravel races. Getting food easily is also a really big deal in these long races as well as just out on your long gravel rides. Finding a top tube bag or handlebar bag that makes it easy to store a lot of food as well as get it out quickly is key. Our friends at Rapha make an incredible handlebar bag and currently there are a few great options for top tube bags aimed at gravel riding from Apidura. Whatever storage option you choose there are a few thigs to keep in mind. Keeping that bag out of the wind is going to be big for those looking for every last watt, and ease of food removal is the “convenience” marginal gain to look for. There are a bunch of other great ways to get more out of your gravel riding but these are our top four places to look to improve your efficiency, cleanliness, and comfort on the bike. If you are looking to topple Ian Boswell as the new King of Gravel at Unbound 200 or if you are looking to keep your gravel bike running longer, these are the few places to start. At SILCA we love technology and finding ways to get every last bit of enjoyment out of our bike rides weather it be road, gravel, mtb, or anything else, so leave a comment and let us know what your favorite marginal gains on gravel might be to go faster or just enjoy your gravel rides more!