What is Gravel Riding?What do you call it when you take a drop-bar bike off the pavement? Well, we’d like to welcome you to the world of gravel riding. Gravel cycling has been around as long as we’ve had bikes and unpaved forest roads. Some people even believe that gravel riding was the first and original kind of cycling. It makes sense considering paved roads were not as accessible in the early days of cycling. Modern gravel riding and gravel bikes were born out of races that started in the early 2000’s like the Dirty Kanza, a race that pushed beyond traditional cyclocross, short lap, territory.
What Makes Gravel Riding Different than Mountain Biking and Cyclocross?
Some key differences between cyclocross bikes and gravel bikes are purely in the build and geometry of the bike. Gravel bikes typically have a more relaxed and upright posture for the rider to ensure comfort on longer, all-day rides. Gravel bikes run drop bars, tend to run much wider tires than road bikes (narrower than mountain bikes though) and thus have frames with more tire clearance than road bikes, have a more relaxed geometry than road bikes, but more aggressive than mountain bikes, feature ample gear attachment points and more often these days simpler gearing set-ups (aka single front chainring).
Gravel for some is those cyclocross and Dirty Kanza type races. For others and a growing majority of gravel riders, it’s an unpaved road and long-distance single track trail riding, bikepacking, and overnight rides. It’s the idea of taking your drop-bar bike where they formerly didn’t belong a.k.a, not on smooth black tar pavement. Bikepacking at its core is throwing your minimalist camping essentials onto your bike and setting out on the trails to explore the backcountry. It is an outdoor adventure that is gaining more and more traction and popularity, especially for those who love to camp, bike, and be outdoors. In short, gravel riding is a way to discover new trails and places, take you on trips near and far, and do races (if you’re competitive).
Why do it?
You may be asking what makes gravel riding special and why should I give it a shot? Simply put, we love the freedom of it. It’s about exploration and adventure, getting out there. It’s not about speed (road biking), it’s not about jumps or flow tracks (mountain biking) - it’s about the journey. It combines some of the best parts of hiking, human-powered travel, the views, the trail, with biking, moving a bit faster through your environment + the fun and beauty of gravity.
The other big piece is around safety. If you’ve biked on paved roads long enough, you probably have a story about either getting hit by a car or almost getting hit by a car. It’s freakin’ scary. And the consistently rising number of cyclists killed every year in the US is driving more and more cyclists into Gravel territory. Taking your bike onto dirt/gravel roads, while not totally removing the element of cars, though often it does, significantly reduces the likelihood of getting hit since speeds are lower and cars are far fewer.
Getting the Right Bike
First things first, you’re going to need a bike. We recommend you hit up your local bike shop. Not only will they gladly sell you a new bike (good luck right now though, the entire country is still in the midst of a cycling craze), pick their brains about where to ride and what you’ll need and they’ll likely be more than happy to share the local info on the best places to start riding. You won’t find that knowledge at Walmart or Dick’s. Support local. It’s important to note you don’t necessarily need a gravel-specific bike to get started, though it certainly can help provide a more comfortable and efficient ride. Have a mountain bike? That’ll work just fine. Have a road bike? It might not work out, but if you’ve got enough clearance to run tires at or over 38mm it could work if you stick to more tame dirt/gravel roads. Try swapping out your road tires for the widest and burliest tires your bike frame will accept.
Planning Your First Trip
Next, plan a day trip or if you’re feeling ambitious, an overnighter. Most areas in the US have dirt or gravel bike trails where old railroad lines once stood. These are great to start on to get comfortable riding longer distances on variable surfaces. For those who feel overwhelmed trying to figure out where to start, there are a multitude of online resources available to help you plan out your first trip and route. One great website is bikepacking.com. It’s 100% geared towards the folks looking to go out on overnight extended bike tours, but they have so many great educational articles, videos, and guides for the aspiring gravel rider. The Radavist is another great site for bike inpso, routes, news, and reviews.
If you are feeling extra adventurous, you can pull up Google Maps or a website like Gravelmap.com to start looking at routes in your area. There are gravel-specific routes out there that people have started to consistently ride, but really most forest roads will do. Strava’s heat maps will also show you where other riders are riding which can be a good indicator of a decent route to check out. Get as creative and adventurous as you want it to be.
Essential Tips for the Beginner Gravel Rider
It wouldn’t be right to just send you out into the gravel riding world without a couple of tips for your first adventure. One important piece is to carry plenty of water either in your cages or on your back + the necessary repair gear to at the very least fix a flat. Think through a few possible gear failure scenarios and pack spare parts/tools accordingly. Remember, you are going to want to pack as light as possible, so think about ways you can shed off that extra weight. Maybe that means cutting off the end of your toothbrush and replacing your towel with just a few paper towels. There are plenty of ways to get creative when it comes to saving weight.
**Most of these resources and tips are not geared towards the race set, so if that’s what you’re after check out some other sites like https://gravelcyclist.com/ and https://www.ridinggravel.com/ to learn more about gravel races and events taking place.**
So, ready to ride? Maybe your legs are faux pedaling under your desk as we speak. Mine are! The freedom and exploration that comes with gravel riding is bound to take you to new places that you will never forget. While this is not a be-all-end-all guide to gravel riding, we’ve covered the basics. Be sure to check out the other resources linked to in the blog to go deeper and continue your journey into the world of gravel cycling, and leave a comment with your favorite bike packing routes and what you find special about gravel riding!