Cycling is part of our DNA, and while road cycling is our first love, we're equally passionate about the thrill of gravel biking. Whether you’re a seasoned road cyclist or someone looking for a new outdoor hobby, gravel biking can provide you with a new way to exercise, experience nature, and bond with other cyclists. In this guide, we share the ins and outs of gravel biking so you can hit the trails with confidence.
What is gravel riding?
Gravel biking involves riding on gravel roads, as the name suggests, and dirt trails and other unpaved surfaces. Gravel biking can encompass tranquil rides on scenic trails or endurance races on rugged terrain. This cycling discipline has gained considerable popularity in recent years because it’s versatile and adventurous but not as technically challenging as mountain biking.
What is a gravel bike?
Gravel bikes are designed to handle a variety of terrains, combining features of road bikes and mountain bikes for maximum effectiveness on the trail. They have a lightweight frame like a road bike but with wider tires for better stability, traction, and comfort on gravel surfaces.
Here are some of the key features of a gravel bike.
Gravel bike frames often have a geometry that strikes a balance between the more aggressive stance of a road bike and the relaxed posture of a mountain bike. This design provides stability and comfort during long rides over varied terrain.
Gravel bike tires typically range from 35mm to 50mm in width. The tires are wider than those on road bikes but narrower than those on mountain bikes. This balance allows for a smooth ride on gravel while maintaining efficiency on pavement.
Gravel bikes also have wider tire clearances compared to road bikes, allowing for the use of wider tires with more substantial tread patterns. This helps provide better traction on gravel, dirt, and other uneven surfaces.
Gravel bikes usually have either a 1x (single chainring) or 2x (double chainring) drivetrain, whereas road bikes typically employ a 2x drivetrain. A 1x drivetrain allows for fewer gear shifts, contributing to simpler gear transitions during rides, which is helpful when gravel biking on quickly-changing terrain.
Gravel bikes commonly come equipped with disc brakes, providing better braking performance and reliability, especially in challenging conditions. Disc brakes are advantageous when riding on gravel, where conditions may be unpredictable.
Gravel bikes typically have attachment points for accessories such as fenders, racks, and bags. This makes them suitable for bikepacking and long-distance rides where carrying gear is necessary.
Gravel bikes may have drop handlebars similar to road bikes, but some models feature flared drop bars or even flat handlebars for additional control and comfort on rough terrain.
Is gravel biking difficult?
The difficulty of gravel biking varies based on several factors, including the specific terrain, the length of the ride, your fitness level, and your experience with cycling. What may be challenging for one person could be an enjoyable adventure for you. Many cyclists find the challenges of gravel biking to be part of the appeal—the sense of exploration, the connection with nature, and the thrill of tackling diverse terrains.
If you're new to gravel biking, start with shorter, less technical routes, gradually increasing difficulty as you gain experience and confidence. Additionally, consider riding with more experienced cyclists or participating in gravel biking events to learn from others and enjoy a supportive community.
Where can you go gravel biking?
Gravel biking opens up a world of exploration, allowing you to venture beyond traditional roads and into diverse landscapes. Here are some popular places where you can go gravel biking.
Gravel roads are the most common terrain for gravel biking. These can be found in rural areas, countryside, and sometimes even in urban outskirts. Many regions have extensive networks of gravel roads that provide a mix of scenic views and challenging terrain.
Dirt trails and forest paths
Gravel bikes are capable of handling dirt trails and forest paths, offering a more adventurous and off-road experience. National parks, nature reserves, and mountainous areas often have trails suitable for gravel biking. Just be sure to bike on trails that are marked for cyclists to use.
Former railway lines converted into recreational trails, known as rail trails, can be excellent for gravel biking. These paths are typically flat, well-maintained, and pass through scenic landscapes. Though many eventually get paved if they pass through populated areas, more rural rail trails remain unpaved.
Country and farm roads
Explore the countryside and farmland on gravel roads that wind through agricultural areas. These routes often provide a peaceful and picturesque setting for gravel biking.
Gravel biking and bikepacking often go hand in hand. Bikepacking routes, which involve carrying essential gear on your bike for overnight trips, can take you through remote and scenic areas, combining the joy of gravel biking with the adventure of an overnight journey.
Gravel bikes, with their versatility, can handle gravel and dirt paths in mountainous regions. Riding through mountain landscapes provides both a physical challenge and breathtaking views.
Some coastal regions have gravel paths that run along the shoreline, offering a unique and scenic gravel biking experience with views of the ocean.
What's the difference between a gravel bike and a hardtail mountain bike?
Gravel bikes and hardtail mountain bikes share some similarities, as they both fall under the category of versatile off-road bicycles. However, there are key differences in design and intended use.
Terrain and intended use
Gravel bikes are primarily designed for riding on gravel roads, dirt paths, and mixed surfaces. Gravel bikes are versatile and excel in covering long distances on varied terrains, making them suitable for gravel grinding, adventure riding, and bikepacking.
Hardtail mountain bikes are designed for off-road trail riding on more technical and challenging terrains. Hardtail mountain bikes feature front suspension forks but lack rear suspension, making them suitable for cross-country trails, singletrack, and other mountain biking adventures.
Generally, gravel bikes are equipped with a rigid fork, meaning they lack both front and rear suspension. This helps keep the bike lightweight and efficient on smoother surfaces.
Hardtail mountain bikes have a front suspension fork, which provides some shock absorption for the front wheel. This feature helps absorb impacts and enhances control on rough trails.
Gravel bikes often have a geometry that blends elements of road bikes and endurance bikes. The geometry is optimized for comfort during long rides and stability on a variety of surfaces.
The geometry of a hardtail mountain bike is designed for more aggressive riding positions and maneuverability on technical trails. The geometry is often characterized by a lower front end for improved control during descents.
Gravel bikes typically have wide tires with a moderate tread pattern, providing grip on gravel and dirt. Tire widths on gravel bikes generally fall between 35mm and 50mm.
Mountain bikes, including hardtails, often have wider, knobbier tires compared to gravel bikes. Tire widths can vary, but they are generally wider than those found on gravel bikes and are designed for more aggressive off-road conditions.
What’s the difference between gravel cycling and road cycling?
Gravel cycling and road cycling are two distinct disciplines within the broader category of cycling, each with its own characteristics and considerations.
Gravel cycling involves riding on a variety of surfaces, including gravel roads, dirt paths, and sometimes more challenging off-road trails. Gravel cycling emphasizes versatility and the ability to navigate unpaved terrain.
Road cycling, in contrast, primarily takes place on paved roads. Road cyclists focus on smooth surfaces for efficient and fast riding.
Gravel bikes are designed to handle a mix of surfaces. They typically have a more relaxed geometry for comfort, wider tires with tread for better traction, and features that allow for the attachment of accessories like fenders and racks.
Road bikes are optimized for speed on paved surfaces. They have a more aggressive geometry, thinner tires for reduced rolling resistance, and are generally lighter for efficient climbing and acceleration.
Gravel bikes use wider tires with more substantial tread patterns to provide stability and grip on varied surfaces. The tire width can vary, but it's generally wider than what is found on road bikes.
Road bikes have narrower tires with smoother treads to reduce rolling resistance and enhance speed on paved roads.
Gravel cycling offers a more adventurous and diverse riding experience. Gravel cyclists enjoy exploring scenic landscapes, tackling challenging terrain, and the freedom to go off the beaten path.
Road cycling emphasizes speed and efficiency on smooth roads. Road cyclists often focus on distance, speed, and group rides.
Events and races
Gravel events and races have gained popularity, featuring routes that include gravel roads, dirt trails, and mixed terrains. These events often prioritize a sense of adventure and camaraderie.
Road races are typically held on paved roads and vary in format, including criteriums, time trials, and longer road races. Road cycling events are more traditional and have a strong competitive element.
Can I use my road bike for gravel riding?
While a road bike is primarily designed for smooth paved roads, some road bikes can handle light gravel riding to a certain extent. However, there are limitations to using a traditional road bike on gravel, and it's essential to consider the bike's design, tire clearance, and your riding preferences.
If you do decide to try gravel biking with your road bike, choose wider tires with a tread pattern suitable for gravel riding. Keep in mind the limitations of your bike's tire clearance–road bikes typically have limited tire clearance, meaning they can only accommodate relatively narrow tires.
Additionally, you should reduce the tire pressure in your road bike tires to improve traction and provide a more comfortable ride on gravel. Avoid overly rough or technical gravel trails, and choose more forgiving routes to your road bike's capabilities.
While it's possible to explore gravel paths and light trails with a road bike, if gravel cycling becomes a significant part of your riding, investing in a dedicated gravel bike would offer a more optimal experience. Gravel bikes are purpose-built for the challenges of mixed-terrain riding, providing better stability, comfort, and versatility for gravel adventures.
What should I wear for gravel biking?
Choosing the right clothing for gravel biking is essential for comfort, protection, and performance. Here are some recommendations for what to wear when gravel biking.
Always wear a properly fitting bike helmet for safety. Gravel biking means you’ll experience a variety of rough terrain which can make a bike fall particularly gnarly. A MIPS helmet is highly recommended for gravel cycling.
Wear a moisture-wicking jersey to help keep you dry and comfortable. Gravel jerseys often have a more relaxed fit compared to road cycling jerseys, providing extra comfort during longer rides.
Shorts, bibs, or tights
Consider padded cycling shorts or bibs to provide cushioning and reduce chafing during long rides. Look for those with a chamois that suits your riding style and preferences. If riding in the colder months, consider cycling tights to stay warm.
Wear cycling gloves with padded palms for better grip, comfort, and protection. They can also help absorb shock and reduce hand fatigue.
Choose cycling shoes that are comfortable for long rides. You may opt for mountain bike shoes with recessed cleats, as these provide easier walking on gravel and off-road surfaces.
Learn more: Cycling Shoe Size, Fit, Style Guide
Wear moisture-wicking socks to keep your feet dry. Consider choosing socks that are higher cut to provide extra protection from dirt and debris.
Learn more: Do You Really Need Bike Socks? (A Cyclist Guide)
Protect your eyes from dust, debris, and the sun with cycling-specific sunglasses. Consider lenses with UV protection and, if riding in varying light conditions, photochromic lenses can be convenient.
Jacket or vest
Depending on the weather, bring a lightweight, packable cycling jacket or vest. This can provide protection against wind and light rain. Look for options with ventilation to prevent overheating.
Consider wearing a cycling cap or a bandana under your helmet to keep sweat and sun out of your eyes. Arm sleeves can provide additional protection from the sun.
If there's a chance of rain, bring a waterproof jacket and pants to stay dry. Consider shoe covers to keep your feet dry in wet conditions.
Learn more: 20 Tips For Cycling In The Rain
Gravel bike repair kit
Gravel riding often involves venturing into diverse and sometimes remote areas, so it's important to be prepared with the right gear. Carry essentials like a spare tube, tools, a pump, and a patch kit, as well as any necessary nutrition in a saddlebag or frame pack. For longer rides, consider a hydration pack or additional water bottles.
Gravel riding techniques and training tips
Gravel biking involves a unique set of challenges compared to road cycling, and specific techniques and training can enhance your skills and performance. Check out these tips and techniques that will help you adjust to gravel cycling and improve your rides.
- Body position: Maintain a relaxed but engaged body position. Keep your elbows slightly bent and your weight centered over the bike for better control.
- Cornering: Approach corners with caution, especially on loose gravel. Lean your bike rather than your body, and choose a wider line for stability.
- Braking: Use both brakes judiciously. Gravel can be slippery, so apply brakes smoothly to prevent skidding. Consider using more rear brake to prevent front wheel lockup.
- Tire Pressure: Experiment with tire pressure to find the right balance. Lower pressure provides more traction on gravel, but be cautious not to go too low to avoid pinch flats.
- Cadence: Maintain a steady cadence to help with bike control. Shift gears appropriately based on the terrain to keep a consistent rhythm.
- Climbing and descending: On climbs, shift to an easier gear and maintain a steady cadence. When descending, shift your weight to the rear, keep your pedals level, and stay loose on the bike.
- Grip on the handlebars: Hold the handlebars with a firm but relaxed grip. Too tight a grip can lead to fatigue and difficulty controlling the bike.
- Unweighting: Lift your weight slightly off the saddle when riding over rough sections to allow the bike to move beneath you. This helps absorb shocks and maintain traction.
- Terrain variety: Incorporate a variety of terrains in your training rides to simulate the conditions you'll encounter during gravel rides. Include gravel roads, dirt paths, and uneven surfaces.
- Endurance training: Gravel rides often involve longer distances, so build endurance through progressively longer rides. Include both steady-state rides and interval training.
- Strength training: Strengthen your core, legs, and upper body to better handle the demands of gravel riding. Include exercises like squats, lunges, and core workouts. Check out our guide on Strength Training For Cyclists →
- Technical skill sessions: Dedicate time to improving your technical skills. Practice cornering, braking, and riding over different types of terrain to build confidence and control.
- Bike handling drills: Set up drills to improve your bike handling skills. In a controlled environment, practice quick turns, riding over obstacles, and navigating tight spaces.
- Interval training: Incorporate interval training to improve your ability to handle changes in intensity, which is common in gravel riding. Include short bursts of high intensity followed by periods of recovery.
- Fueling and hydration: Practice your nutrition and hydration strategy during training rides. Know how to fuel for sustained energy during longer gravel rides.
- Pre-ride bike check: Develop a pre-ride routine to check your bike's condition, including tire pressure, brakes, and gears. This ensures your bike is in optimal condition for gravel riding.
Remember to gradually increase the intensity and duration of your training to avoid overtraining and reduce the risk of injuries. Additionally, participating in organized gravel events or group rides can provide valuable experience and motivation for your training.
Gravel biking events and races
Exciting news for 2024 – the Gran Fondo Hincapie calendar is expanding to include a captivating gravel fondo winding through the picturesque foothills and mountains of California's Central Valley. Secure your spot for the Merced Gran Fondo Hincapie and embark on an unforgettable gravel adventure. You can also dive into the excitement of one of the top 20 gran fondos in the USA.
If you just want to get out there and enjoy gravel biking on your own time, check out some of our favorite trails in the southeast.
- 11 Best Bike Trails in South Carolina
- 10 Best Bike Trails in North Carolina
- 10 Best Bike Trails in Georgia
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