Have you heard of this gravel cycling craze that's growing in popularity? What once seemed fringe—and more than a little crazy—has grown bit by bit to where it is now "a thing." If you haven't jumped in with two feet already, maybe you are at least a little gravel curious?
Gravel cycling has gotten the attention of bike manufacturers and gear manufacturers. They are making all sorts of gravel-specific products. But what do you actually need to get started? Really, it's just a sturdy bike and a bit of an adventurous spirit.
We hope these practical tips are enough to get you out on the gravel roads and giving it a try.
You'll need a bike that is capable of handling gravel. You don't need the perfect gravel bike to get out there and get a taste of what gravel riding is all about. But, to have a good experience, you will want something more robust than a regular road bike with 23 mm tires.
Cyclocross bikes, mountain bikes, gravel-specific bikes, and hybrid bikes are all great. As long as the bike fits you and has tires 32 mm wide or more, you are ready to go.
You don't need a lot of extra stuff to get started. Take whatever you usually take on a ride. As you ride more and go on longer rides, you'll need a way to carry more food, more water, more tools, etc., but you don't need to worry about that yet. Just be sure that the list of what you carry includes water, a basic repair kit, and a way to call for help.
Tips for Your First Gravel Ride
1. Find a good tire pressure.
Start with a pressure near the low end of the range printed on the side of your tire. Go for a ride on the local gravel and see how it feels. If things felt rough, try even lower on you next ride. (Don't be afraid to go lower than what it says on the tire.) If you get to a point that it feels like the tire was squishy or squirrelly (try not to confuse this with the feeling of rocks or sand under the tire being squishy or squirrelly), try higher pressure on your next ride. Repeat this process until you find a pressure you like.
2. Look ahead. Always.
Look for changes in color or texture, so that loose gravel and other difficulties don't take you by surprise. Of course, you do this in any kind of bike riding. However, if you come from a paved background, you may not anticipate what a major factor changing gravel conditions may be.
3. Prepare for fresh gravel.
By looking ahead, you can see fresh gravel before you are on top of it. A big patch of loose stuff will result in a slower speed, even if only slightly. Shift down one gear just before you hit it, so that you can maintain your cadence.
If you come from a mountain biking background, this is probably second nature. But if you have been primarily a road cyclist, you may not have ever considered the benefits of standing. In a rough and rutted intersection, or a stretch of washboards, try adding a gear and pedaling while standing. This can make things easier on your body, and it gives you more control over the bike.
Compared to road riding, gravel riding is harder on the body due to all the bumps and vibrations. Compared to mountain biking, tension can build up in your shoulders and arms without the more active body shifts on singletrack. Take care of yourself and start stretching before you get achy. There are plenty of stretches you can do while riding. Do some shoulder rolls, arm swings, and neck stretches. Stand up with your pedals at 3 and 9 o' clock, stretch your hamstrings, and do yoga poses—cat and cow. All of this will keep you more comfortable, longer.
6. Manage expectations.
You probably have an idea how fast you ride on paved roads. You will notice that your speed on gravel is not the same. Be okay with riding more slowly, especially in the beginning. As you get more confident on gravel, you will get faster. However, don't expect to be as fast as you are on pavement unless it is the smoothest of gravel roads.
7. Stop and smell the roses.
At least take a moment to look around and enjoy the scenery. One of the great things about gravel riding is not riding the gravel, but where the gravel roads take you. Old bridges, huge oak trees, a field of alpacas… you never know what you might see.
Tips for Gravel Hills
Gravel roads tend to have steeper climbs than paved roads. (Fire roads and "B roads" can be even steeper.) When things get steep, moving your body forward will keep your weight centered between the two wheels. This keeps the front wheel from unweighting and gives you better control. Also, being positioned directly above the pedals can make things easier when you have run out of gears.
9. Pedal in smooth circles.
If you start mashing on the downstroke on a steep climb with loose sand or gravel, your tire can accelerate during that downstroke and break loose. To maintain traction, focus on pedaling in smooth circles and keeping your speed even. On a related note, if you need to change from a seated to a standing climb, change positions smoothly. A quick motion can cause you to lose traction.
Gravel Maintenance Tip
Riding on gravel roads is a lot dustier than paved road riding, or even mountain biking. This means your chain will get dirty a lot faster. Our "It's Easy to Clean Your Bike Chain" article has two sets of chain maintenance instructions. Use the "A Quick Relube" instructions after almost every ride. (Do it before the start of any ride where you have driven on gravel roads to get to the start of your ride, because the chain will probably be completely coated in dust.) Periodically, use the "A Chain You Can Eat Off" instructions to lengthen the life of your chain.
Go Have Fun!
We hope you go from being gravel curious to being the next gravel enthusiast. But even if that doesn't happen, we hope you go out there and have a little fun. That's kind our thing, "making cycling and running fun for everyone."
Regardless of what happens next, be sure to share your adventures with us.
Special thanks to Jennifer Riedemann for giving us a fresh set of eyes through which to see gravel and for contributing to this article.
If you would like to read more, check out all our gravel content.