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Amanda Nauman Q&A: Gravel racing is a mental game

Two-time Dirty Kanza winner, Amanda Nauman (SDG-Muscle Monster)
Two-time Dirty Kanza winner, Amanda Nauman (SDG-Muscle Monster) (Image credit: Shimano / Kevin Fickling)

Amanda Nauman (SDG-Muscle Monster) is a two-time winner of Dirty Kanza and an event organizer for the upcoming Mammoth Tuff set to take place on September 19 in Mammoth Lakes in California's Sierra Nevada mountains.

A former distance swimmer and triathlete, Nauman switched to off-road sports mountain biking and cyclo-cross before she stumbled upon gravel racing in 2015. She won back-to-back Dirty Kanza events in 2015 and 2016 and then made the decision to compete in gravel racing consistently across North America.

Although much of the season has been halted due to the COVID-19 coronavirus, Nauman outlined what a typical season of racing would look like for her. She was able to compete in The Mid South [she placed second, - ed.], and would have gone onto participate in Dirty Kanza's training camp and the new Sea Otter event, all in the early season. 

She would then have raced Belgian Waffle Ride, Dirty Kanza Extra Large (350 miles), Lost and Found Gravel Grinder and Michigan’s Coast to Coast Gravel Grinder, which she says is the most underrated 200-mile event in the US. Mid-season she intended to travel to Iceland to race The Rift and then return stateside for Gravel Worlds in Nebraska and her own event Mammoth Tuff Gravel Race.

Cyclingnews caught up with Nauman to talk about the popularity of gravel in the US. We also picked her brain on gravel equipment, race tactics and where she sees the discipline headed in the future.

Cyclingnews: How did you get into Gravel Racing?

Amanda Nauman: I was a swimmer through college and started doing triathlons and realised that I really enjoyed the bike part the most. While I was still in college, I got an internship at Felt Bicycles and my coworkers who raced 'cross got me racing on the dirt side of cycling. I started racing in the So-Cal 'cross league, some UCI races and found some success. It was while training for 'cross that I stumbled into the gravel stuff. There are a few gravel races close to where I live like the Belgian Waffle Ride, Rock Cobbler and the Chino Grinder. 

If you look back at stories about those races from back then, no one calls them gravel rides, they were just these stupid-long rides that we signed up for but nobody called them gravel events. When I raced the inaugural Rock Cobbler the organiser described it to me as a really long cyclo-cross race. The point of it, for me, was to train for 'cross, have fun and do long rides. 

My boyfriend [David Sheek] did Dirty Kanza in 2014 and came back and said, "I’m pretty sure you could win this." I didn’t believe him and I didn’t want to go and ride 200 miles in Kansas but I did well at the Belgian Waffle Ride and I won Chino Grinder, and I then I was motivated to go try it and see what would happen for 200 miles. 

In 2015, I did what everyone called "the mud year" of Dirty Kanza and won. I went back in 2016 to prove that the first win wasn’t a fluke, because I was a 'cross racer that got lucky with it being a muddy year, and I won again. In 2017, I was second in a sprint-finish with Alison Tetrick. In 2018, I was second again, and then last year I was sixth. That’s my Dirty Kanza trajectory.

CN: Coming from other disciplines, how long did it take you to be ready for a race like Dirty Kanza?

AN: I feel like that answer to that is 18 years. I swam for so long and doing 20 hours a week for a decade gave me a huge fitness base. I was a distance swimmer and did other endurance sports and translated that to the bike. Cyclo-cross is explosive and high intensity, and then my long endurance races, that was where training had to change, once I found success there. Originally, I stumbled into it and then decided to focus on endurance and started training for it specifically.

CN: What were your first experiences like with racing Dirty Kanza?

AN: The unique thing about the first year I raced Dirty Kanza was the mud because it had dumped rain the night before and so that experience was completely unique to any of the other four times that I’ve raced it. Going into it, I committed to the fact that I would be out there for a long time and then all of a sudden I hit the first mud section and I was off my bike walking. Then I was thinking "this is going to be a really long day." 

The beauty about these events is that they're more about the mental game. The training and nutrition are just pieces of it and you can check those boxes all you want but ultimately you’re battling yourself out there in terms of how committed you want to be and how much you want to do well.

CN: What are some of the memorable stories that you can recall from your gravel racing experiences?

AN: The first year I race Dirty Kanza, we passed a big lake and there was a family grilling. One of the guys who was at the BBQ grilling looked at me a then turned to his family and said, "you know who’s a badass?" and they all asked, "who?". He turned around and pointed at me and said, "This girl because she’s the first girl we’ve seen ride by." I always remember that moment, specifically because of the chaos of the mud and it was so crazy at the beginning of the race, I didn’t actually know if I was the first woman on course for a really long time.  

CN: How big has the gravel scene grown since you began racing in this discipline in 2015? 

AN: It was a flipped-switch around 2017 and 2018 and I think a big part of that was the bike industry saying that was something they wanted to invest in. I remember Shimano took a big team out and did their own gravel tour across the country. They took all the bigwigs out on the gravel roads and showed them around to let them know that this was important. 

Shimano has such a hold on bike components and dictating a lot of what the frame manufacturers end up doing - I know that because I worked at Felt - and when I saw that happening, I knew that Shimano would be dictating a lot of what happens in the gravel space. If they were going to be making gravel-specific things, it’s up to the frame manufactures to build the gravel bikes. As soon as that happened, the industry on a whole said they wanted to go gravel. 

We also have road pros like Alison Tetrick and Ted King leaving the road discipline and coming over to gravel and winning, and that gave it more eyeballs. It also has a mass-start and inclusive appeal. That’s a big driving factor in why the events sell out more quickly. Anyone can race and they are going into a challenge alongside people that they look up to, who might be racing at the front, but everyone has their own goals. Just finishing is an accomplishment. 

Amanda Nauman (SDG-Muscle Monster) races on a Niner Bikes with Shimano components in a full season of gravel races

Amanda Nauman (SDG-Muscle Monster) races on a Niner Bikes with Shimano components in a full season of gravel races (Image credit: Shimano / Kevin Fickling)

CN: What equipment do you have for high-level gravel racing?

AN: There are more things that I would focus on for a race like Dirty Kanza than a smaller race. When time is of the essence then you try to make it as efficient as possible. In the beginning I might have been using an XTR rear derailleur on a 'cross bike because that was what I could make work the best back then. The evolution of gravel equipment being more comfortable has made some big changes. Bikes started having more tire clearance and with that came better tires and specific gravel components. Now, people want their equipment to be more comfortable and faster. 

The support for Dirty Kanza is check-point specific and I have pit crew with a mechanic and a table with all my stuff. It’s like a Nascar pit zone; you pull up and they put your bike in the stand and run through it, you get your new backpack and whatever you need to switch out for hydration and nutrition. You need a one or two liter bladder inside the pack. I carry a tube in my saddle bag and in the pack, and an extra air cartridge, tools, and easy-access food in the shoulder straps of the pack. 

CN: Are there race tactic involved in mass-start gravel racing?

AN: It’s changed over the last six years. The strategy has been to stay in the front group for as long as possible. The strategy is also very different between the women and the men. We start on the same start line as the men with the same roll out and at the same pace. In the beginning [2015] that meant that I could stay in the first group until the first check point. Over the years, I can’t even make it to the first check point with the first group anymore because the races have gotten so much faster when Ted King is the one driving the pace at the front. Now it’s more about hanging on to the fastest group for as long as you can and then see where things go from there. 

That mentality of trying to stay in the first group for as long as possible is the strategy to trying to be successful because you’re always going to be faster in a group. You can do less work, rotate with stronger people, and that’s how a lot of the women’s races are won or how the podium usually shakes out - it depends on how well you can do in the beginning of the race. It’s not always the case and it doesn’t always play out that way, but that mentality of staying with the front group for as long as possible is important.

CN: Where do you think the future of gravel racing is headed?

AN: The obvious answer is that it's going to get big and it will get sanctioned, as much as I don’t want that to happen. There is no way to deny that gravel has the attention now and people want to know what is happening at the front of these races. That natural progression of people wanting to know about the race means it will keep getting popular. But it might change how gravel racing works. Maybe pros will get their own start waves eventually. 

For sure, the attention gravel racing is getting will continue to grow. The hesitation there is because that’s not why gravel racing started. They were just these long mass-participation events that we wanted to go have fun riding. The more people wanted to race - and I’m part of that problem - the more money is involved, and the more pressure, and it creates its own monster.

Even on the path less-travelled, SHIMANO GRX keeps things smooth and silent and puts you in perfect control. Find out more about the game-changing innovation within GRX at: gravel.shimano.com/en/technologies