What on earth is gravel biking? Is it like road biking but with bad road conditions, or is it a super mild version of mountain biking?
Ehhh...it's kind of both. “Any terrain between the steep, rocky inclines of mountain biking, and the smooth asphalt of road biking" can be considered gravel biking. What's the appeal in this variability? Adventure.
Because "gravel" can mean so many things, you'll likely find a lot of variety in the gravel courses that are out there. You may even find yourself at a trailhead with one expectation only to find that your gear is fairly inadequate for the terrain ahead of you. Many riders, however, say that's part of the thrill.
Despite all its variability, there is some standardization of gravel trails. Spearheaded by seasoned bike racer, Neil Shirley, the Industry Standard Guide to Gravel (ISGG) helps take some of the mystery out of gravel biking.
Ready to learn more? We've pared down research from several articles to get you started on your first gravel adventure.
Gravel bikes have no suspension, longer wheelbases, and frames that are designed to flex. We won't go into too much detail on frame type because without a doubt, the most important thing about a gravel bike are the tires. And choosing the right tires depends on the terrain you'll be riding on.
- Slick tires will minimize rolling resistance and are best on smoother surfaces like hard-packed dirt or gravel.
- Semi-slick tires will have a slick or file-tread center section to minimize rolling resistance. The sides of the tire will have raised side knobs for gaining traction and navigating loose terrain.
- All-rounder gravel tires usually have low-profile knobs on the center of the tire (for smoother surfaces) and higher knobs on the edges to give you better handling on rougher terrain.
- Knobbier tires more similar to mountain bike tires are good for finding traction on loose surfaces.
There's no need to go out and get a brand new set of gravel-specific gear. Much of what you already have for your current road or mountain bike (assuming you already have some gear) will work for gravel riding. To be sure you have the basics covered, here's a simple list of parts and gear that you should have.
- Tire patch and repair kit (with tubeless plug kit if riding tubeless)
- Mini tire pump
- A spare tube (or two) even if you are using a tubeless tire — bicycling.com says they're a great ride-saving last resort.
- Bike bag (seat bag, handlebar bag, etc.)
- Water bottles and mounted rack, or hydration pack
- GPS unit (helpful but not always necessary)
Supplement additional gear items where you think you'll need them.
If you're used to riding on paved and mostly flat terrain, you'll want to start with some easier trails where you can practice different riding techniques and skills. This guide covers several important skills that every cyclist should know. We've summarized a few of the points below.
- On rough downhills, you'll want to move your hands to the drops of your handles while keeping your elbows bent and relaxed. This lowers your center of gravity and helps you gain more stability. You may also want to shift your weight to the back of the seat with your legs bent.
- Brake before you need to turn. Braking while turning increases your risk of losing traction causing you to slide and possibly crash. Feather your breaks to get to a safe speed before arriving at your turn.
- Avoid wheel overlap. If riding in a group, you are responsible for your front wheel. Your front wheel should be at least 6-12 inches away from a fore-rider's rear wheel. Keeping this distance give you space to respond if the rider in front of you needs to move to avoid a road obstacle.
Gravel riding can be challenging (especially when terrains can widely vary). Keep your cool by practicing mental strategies that allow you to be responsive, confident, and in control. Not every ride will be 100% enjoyable or rewarding; some will be quite challenging and frustrating. You can build your grit for race day by practicing in conditions or on terrain that you don't enjoy.
- Ride in crumby weather.
- Choose trails that are a bit outside of your comfort zone.
- Go for a ride when you don't "feel" like it. Building your mood tolerance can help with mental toughness on race days when things don't go as planned.
- Use positive self-talk.
In all, practice things that are hard and forgive yourself if you don't perform to your expectations. Some days will be better than others; that's the nature of the ride.
Getting in the saddle isn't everything. Be sure to incorporate strength training into your routine. Whether you do body weight exercises or have access to a full weight room, strength and resistance training is important for muscular, joint, and bone health.
Strengthen that core, do your squats and dead lifts, and work on flexibility while you're at it. You've got this!
Want More Tips?
Check out this comprehensive guide from bicycling.com.