There is a new frontier for the modern cyclist looking to expand their horizons and take their beloved wheels to new heights and greater distances. Gravel riding has taken center stage after essentially popping up out of Colorado’s rocky badlands not too long ago.
Today, gravel riding has become a cycling category in its own right, and the popularity of this exciting outdoor activity is only building. Bike manufacturers have quickly conceptualized and produced dedicated bike frames and systems to improve the gravel riding experience. However, this is a fairly new cycling activity, and even the experts are still debating how the best bike for gravel riding would look, feel and function on a wide range of trails.
If you have been interested in taking your cycling off the roads to the gravel paths and dirt roads on the edge of civilization, you have come to the right place. In the following post, we will provide a concise overview of gravel riding and what it can mean to you.
Gravel Riding 101: Terrain
As with most cycling categories, gravel riding is best defined by the terrain and trails the cyclist will encounter astride their noble set of wheels. Gravel riding is all about covering long distances for exploration and adventure thrills. As its name implies, gravel riding entails some rough riding, and the potential for potholes, washed-out roads, and rock slides is high. Basically, gravel riding means being prepared for whatever type of terrain you will find across your choice of path.
Gravel riding will often follow a long-abandoned trail or road, and the conditions of these roads can be nice and smooth in some parts and rough and rugged just around the bend. With this in mind, both the cyclist and the cycle must be conditioned for stability, endurance and comfort in an unpredictable environment.
Gravel Riding 102: The Cyclist
So, what is the paradigm of a gravel rider? This can be very different depending on a wide variety of factors. Two of the most important factors that will determine the nature of the gravel rider are the bike they are using and the type of trails and terrain they choose to ride.
Different gravel riders will have different opinions on what gravel riding means to them. But most agree that gravel riding is a cross between rough and tumble mountain biking and fast and agile cyclocross. Many gravel riders are converted road cyclists, looking for an escape from the perils of riding between traffic.
You have all the long-distances and high speeds of a road racer, combined with rough terrain and the peace of mind that you won’t be squashed by a Ford F-450 coming round the corner at top speeds.
So, the gravel rider will often seek out long-abandoned roads that may have been used by agricultural or mining industries in times past. These roads have often gone unattended for some time, and the obstacles and difficulties will be many. Expect washed-out roads, large fallen rocks, overgrown sections of roadway, and plenty of other mind, spirit, and physical capacity challenges.
But the rewards are equally abundant. You will see your country and local area like you have never imagined it before and open up worlds of exploration in far off lands as well. Poland, Australia, and Argentina are abounding with exquisite regions for the avid gravel riding enthusiast.
But even if you never get quite that far, you will indubitably find many treasures of natural beauty and spectacular locations within the miles of trails that you never knew existed right in your local area.
Gravel Riding 103: The Gravel Bike
Will you need a dedicated gravel bike to make the best of your gravel riding experiences? There is a good chance that a dedicated gravel bike will improve your gravel riding experiences, but there are some important points to consider.
Because gravel riding is a rather new niche, it might not be the perfect vehicle for you, the rider, and your terrain choice. You may want to consider what you are expecting to before you take a look at a list of good gravel bikes, as you may find that upgrading your bike or choosing your trails more carefully could be a cheaper route to your goals.
On the other hand, the gravel bike has been designed with some very important qualities that could make this bike the last bike you will ever need. A gravel bike is not built heavy and rugged like a mountain bike, so it can be fit with thinner tires and used as a regular road or city bike. Furthermore, they are still tough and light enough to chase a mountain bike to the hill’s top and race it back down with aplomb.
It is this versatility that is the true value of your gravel bike. Picture this; you are heading home after finishing some project in town early, when suddenly off the beaten path, you sense the rise of adventure and the call of the wild — No Problem! In a flash, you leave civilization and the blacktop tarmac behind and are soon chasing your sense of adventure beyond the next hill.
The Gravel Bike vs. the Cyclo-Cross
While the terrains that a cyclocross bike will face are virtually identical to those you will find on your gravel riding adventures, there are some important differences. Most importantly, the gravel bike is meant as a vehicle for your spirit of adventure; the cyclocross bike, on the other hand, is a sporting vehicle and meant for speed and functionality.
You will find that a gravel bike is far more comfortable and easier on the joints and soft contact points. This allows the rider to make their way through their specific terrains at their own pace. On the other hand, the cyclocross bike is built for competitions. This means it supports an aggressive riding position and features racing-style gearing and rigidity that allows for sharper cornering.
Gravel Bike vs. Mountain Bike
Of course, to the diehard gravel rider, getting jogged about by an especially rough patch of the downhill trail is just part of the fun. “If you aren’t vibrating when off the bike, why are you even doing this,” I heard one extremist say.
A solid steel or titanium mountain bike with full suspension is going to make for a smoother ride down that same hill. But you have to consider that there will be just as many stretches of smooth riding trail that reaches the horizon, and a mountain bike is going to sap the last of your energy before you make it half-way.
Your lightweight, nimble gravel bike will give you an exciting ride through the woods and allow you to make the most of every ounce of energy. Be sure to savor that euphoric feeling of accomplishment when you make it to the bottom of an especially nasty downgrade.
Gravel Bike 104: Equipment and Accessories
As you prepare your plans for a gravel bike that will allow you to chase your sense of adventure across hill and glen, you will need to think of how you will supplement your adventures by preparing for every eventuality.
Here are some ways you can improve your gravel riding experience by adjusting your equipment and gravel bike.
Tubeless tires — from thorns and nails to branches and sharp rocks, just about everything on the gravel path is trying to pop holes in your tires. Therefore, you will want to fit your gravel bike with the very best 32 – 50mm tubeless tires.
Tools and Spares — Depending on the distances you travel, you will want to bring as many tools and spare parts to make repairs and replacements as necessary. This will be an important aspect of your personal progression as a master gravel rider.
Safety Equipment and Security — Do yourself a favor and get fully equipped with a helmet as well as face, elbow, knee, and wrist protection. A security chain and lock will protect you from the criminal element.
GPS — Whether you have an excellent sense of direction or not, you will be traveling great distances, and it is very important to respect the danger that this poses. A GPS device can make it easier to navigate through confusing landscapes. In lieu of a sophisticated GPS device, you can also carry the traditional paper maps and compass — certainly, a perfect supplementary skill to learn as an avid gravel rider.
Survival Essentials — It is always a good idea to carry plenty of water and food to keep you hale and hearty on your way. In the event that you are injured or incapacitated, a first aid kit can help you stave off infection until help arrives.
Finally, if you are heading out into the wilderness alone or with a buddy, be sure to let a caring friend or family member know where you are going and when you plan to return. This will allow them to send out the search parties if you are gone too long without making contact.