So You Wanna Be a Gravel Cyclist


Credit: Dom Trinh

So you want to be a gravel cyclist? I don’t blame you! This cross between a road bike and mountain bike is quickly gaining popularity, but before you start shopping, there are a few things you probably should know.

What the Heck Is a Gravel Bike?

As mentioned, a gravel bike is basically a cross between a road bike and a mountain bike. With clearance for fatter tires and disc brakes, they handle well off the pavement. Coupled with a more upright riding position and a lower bottom bracket, they are more stable than a typical skinny tire road bike.

These bikes are designed and marketed to be used on all sorts of terrain, from the road to hard packed dirt to single track trails. With the slightly different geometry from a road bike, these bikes can be a great entry into riding for someone who does not want to have to maintain Tour de France road bike position, which can be a bit uncomfortable for newbies with limited flexibility.

These bikes are growing in popularity across the country for casual riders and racers alike, and can help you explore some of the “off the paved road” options around the country.

Unexpected Differences

Gearing on a gravel bike will differ from your road bike. Sometimes it is not as easy to stand up out of the saddle when you need an extra push when on a gravel bike, so David Henkel, head coach at Speed Sherpa, which provides individualized coaching for endurance athletes, says, “Add an extra gear in your rear cassette. If you’re running a 1 x system (one front chainring), a beginner rider might want to consider an 11-40 setup rather than 11-36 to help with those tricky grades.”

Not sure what all that means? That’s okay! Your local bike shop (LBS) will be able to show you the differences in more detail.

Once you find a bike, your (LBS) will help fit you on it to make sure you are comfortable — and yes, it will feel a little different than riding your roadie. Just be aware that bike fit can be fluid as you get more used to riding and you might need a re-fit after a few weeks. Tire choice for your new steed will come into play if you start racing, but generally, a larger tire with more tread will get you started off right. Your LBS can help you make the best choice based on the most common backcountry roads in your area.

Getting the Gear

What gear do you need? This part is pretty easy — a bike helmet, a water bottle or Camelback, and comfortable bike shorts will get you started. Seeing a bike store full of Spandex can be intimidating, but a pair of basic black shorts with some padding (aka chamois) will do just fine. I like to wear bike jerseys because they have lots of pockets for snacks (remember, there is no 7-11 on the dirt road so be prepared!), but a Camelback or similar backpack will have plenty of room too.

Hitting the Old Dusty Trail

So now, you’re all decked out with your new ride and sweet fanny pack full of snacks — where should you go? Since your bike can handle trails, your options are likely much more numerous compared to strict road riding — but a few things remain the same. Remember to be visible, use lights, and be sure to warn other trail users when you are coming up behind them.

You might be able to meet up with a group (or tag along with some friends), but you can also go solo. I use Strava’s “Segment Explorer” feature to find roads and trails, especially when I am traveling to a new area.

Taking It to the Next Level

Gravel riding is becoming more popular in the racing scene, too. Races such as the Dirty Kanza test riders over a course of 200 miles, while others like Rebecca’s Private Idaho have 20-, 50- and 100-mile options.

Racing is another place where you’re likely to see some big differences between gravel and road, says Henkel, who reminds gravel riders to forget about their average speed. “If you’re a road rider and all about speed, you’ll find it on downhills but don’t expect your average speed to match your road riding. In fact, you should expect your average speed to decrease by at least 30 percent due to the nature of the hard pack but semi loose surface. Focus on your surroundings rather than how fast you’re going. It’s more enjoyable!”

Has anyone out there started riding gravel recently? What are your favorite tips and tricks? —Cara 


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