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Gravel Riding - our guide

VeloVixen 11.03.22

Just a few years ago, gravel riding was a bit... out there. In every sense. Neither road cycling nor mountain biking, gravel cycling was a peculiar hybrid attracting an eclectic, but modest, crowd.

It's taken just a handful of years for all that to change. Gravel riding has quickly become a mainstream part of cycling, as people realised that those eccentric souls may have been early onto something truly rewarding.

Today, gravel riding is recognised as a fabulous way to get out and ride, every bit as fulfilling as road riding, mountain biking or commuting. Arguably more so!

But what is gravel riding? And what's the fuss about? Is it all hype? And how do I get into it? We want to help debunk some of the myths about gravel riding and give you a hand to get into it - and fall in love with gravel!

 

What is a gravel ride?

Gravel riding as a cycling style covers a broad spectrum. The crux of it is this: you're riding largely away from tarmac roads. Surfaces can include 'actual' gravel, wooded trails, forest tracks, farm tracks, towpaths and many other variations on a theme.

In fact, some people find the term 'gravel' misleading - it covers any kind of surface, and on a gravel ride you'll often find yourself 

Gravel rides range from relaxed social rides with mates through to hardcore endurance events and races - with everything in between. It's really up to you where and how you ride gravel.

 

Where did gravel riding originate?

For the most part, not in the UK. Gravel riding has actually been around for longer than road riding, as people rode the very earliest bikes on gravel. They had no choice! In fact, most of the early Tours de France took place largely on gravel (fuelled by brandy, over improbably long distances and with impossibly few gears).

Whilst many of those early pros might have given their eye teeth for some smooth tarmac, the love of gravel for its own sake gathered momentum in the United States, with its seemingly endless network of unpaved roads. Today, there are over a million miles of non-tarmac road in the US, a dream location for gravel lovers.

Back in the UK, the Rough Stuff Fellowship was established in 1957, becoming the world's oldest off-road cycling club. Today, gravel is a global trend, with passionate riders, clubs and groups across Europe, North America and beyond.

 

What's the point of gravel riding?

We've all had moments when we wish the roads would revert to dreamy Covid levels of emptiness. The noise, the (occasional) idiot drivers, the fumes... the concentration you need.

Whilst we love road cycling despite the hurdles, riding gravel allows you to escape them. It reopens your eyes to the joys of simple discovery, exploration and adventure in the wild. You can soak up the smells and sounds of the forests, of farmland, of rivers.

It allows you to break away from the need for Garmins, road maps, Strava and all the other elements can make road cycling feel a bit complicated at times. It's a little slower than road cycling, a little quicker than more technical mountain bike trails.

Out on a gravel ride, you can take things at a speed that suits. Pause and take in a view. Or hug a tree. Whatever nature makes you feel. In stressful times, the sensation of escape and renewal that gravel riding brings is priceless.

 

Where can I enjoy gravel riding?

Not all of us have access to endless stretches of idyllic expanses of Colorado. If you live in a 5th floor flat in Manchester, it can be hard to imagine getting access to good tracks and trails.

But there's a whole lot more out there than you might imagine. Until you know your local routes, it's worth doing some research - especially to avoid trespassing unwittingly. In the UK, you're allowed to ride on byways, bridleways and many forest trails. Footpaths which are not marked as shared are not allowed, however.

Unless you're taking on one of the more epic trails, like these beauties listed by the friendly folk at Red Bull, then you should expect some tarmac to be interspersed as part of most rides, but don't let that put you off.

As to where to find gravel routes, there are several good sources:

  • Komoot is a favourite for many gravel riders.
  • The UK Gravel Bike Club has a selection of the better known routes here.
  • Strava itself allows you to select a preference of 'Dirt Surfaces' when you create a route.
  • One of the most comprehensive we've found is gravelmap.com.

Don't forget, gravel offers good bang for your buck: if you're used to road cycling then you'll find rougher surfaces take more out of you. Gravel riding is generally more challenging than road riding on smooth surfaces, so a 25 mile gravel ride might use the same energy as a road ride twice the distance.

 

Do you need a gravel bike?

Strictly speaking, no. As with any kind of cycling, you'll hear diverse theories about what you 'should' ride. At the end of the day, you can justifiably ride a sturdy commuter bike, a solid road bike, a cyclocross bike or a hard tail mountain bike over most gravel trails.

That said, the blossoming of gravel cycling in recent years has accelerated the development of bikes that can make your ride more comfortable, efficient and fun.

Gravel bikes designed expressly for gravel riding are a hybrid - they're what might happen if you cross bred a cyclocross bike with a hard tail mountain bike.

They have tyres that are fatter than road tyres but slimmer than mountain bike tyres, offering levels of grip that will help let you enjoy the unpredictability of rougher tracks. Choice of tyre is important and will depend on terrain and conditions; tubeless tyres should be at lowest risk of punctures.

Drop handlebars on a gravel bike allow you to vary your position to stay comfortable and in control (they're often wider than on road bikes), whilst tyre clearance is extended to allow for fatter tyres and to prevent clogging.

Gravel specific groupsets allow for a wider range of gears than you would find on most road bikes, and electric variations are becoming more widely available too. Gravel bikes also have fixings for luggage mounting, for when your gravel riding becomes multi-day - more of that later...

A gravel bike gives you the best of both worlds: it's robust and versatile, yet quicker and more exciting than a mountain bike. And it can also be used on tarmac without losing too much performance.

In fact, if you we're only allowed one bike on your desert island, a gravel bike could be it.

 

What should I wear for gravel riding?

As with bikes, you don't strictly need anything special. However, 2022 has seen gravel clothing for women burgeon. Every major cycle clothing brand is now aware of the appeal of gravel riding, and have reflected that in designs that have been well tested and researched.

So what is a typical gravel cycling outfit? Bib shorts are very popular, both for comfort and practicality - often referred to as cargo shorts, they have pads that are especially good for rougher surfaces, as well as pockets in the legs for snacks and valuables. For female cyclists, they often offer practical clip solutions for al fresco calls of nature.

However, depending on what you find comfortable baggy shorts paired with a good liner are also a good option for gravel riding.

Gravel top halves are - like gravel bikes - a cleverly considered hybrid design. They tend to be closer fitting than baggy mountain bike jerseys, yet more relaxed than figure-hugging road jerseys. Technical t-shirts can be an alternative to specialist jerseys.

In keeping with their natural environment, gravel jerseys will often include a proportion of natural merino wool to help regulate your temperature and avoid you getting smelly! Often they come in more muted colours - after all, this is a natural environment where it can feel more comfortable to blend in rather than stand out. 

Base layers can be invaluable on a cooler outing, and a reliable lightweight jacket is indispensible on all but the most guaranteed sunny days.

And don't forget some form of gloves - whether full finger on colder days or fingerless mitts for warmer adventures. Hands tend to blister more quickly on bumpier surfaces (see: Belgian cobbles!); gloves help to keep the soreness in check whilst also improving your bike control.

 

What else should you take on a gravel ride?

The distance you intend to go, and how far from 'civilisation', will dictate how much other kit is worth taking. You should always take a puncture repair kit, spare tubes and a working pump. A multi-tool is crucial too, given that your bike could get rattled about more on rougher surfaces.

Gravel riding has spawned a new generation of adventure luggage. Frame packs, handlebar rolls and seat packs are all neat, compact ways to carry spare clothes, tools, food and weather protection. They allow you to take comfortable quantities of extra gear without changing the dynamics of how your bike rides.

You'll need this kind of storage especially if your gravel riding extends to... bike packing.

 

So what is bikepacking?

Bikepacking is a natural extension of gravel riding. A standard gravel ride will usually involve a day out, whereas bikepacking brings overnight stays into the equation.

This is where a good set of on-bike luggage becomes vital, allowing you to bring whatever you need (rationed, clearly!) to camp or stay in hostels or refuges on your route.

Bikepacking is viewed as a more adventurous version of more traditional touring trips - which usually remain on roads and make use of panniers hanging from either side of front and rear racks.

Whatever you call your cycling adventure, it's sure to be a glorious experience and will allow you to discover new places, meet new people and challenge yourself in new ways.

 

Does gravel riding involve different skills?

For road cyclists, moving away from the comforts of relatively smooth tarmac can be an adjustment. You'll need to learn what works best for you through practice, but there are some basic guidelines that should help:

Choose your line

Learn to 'read' where you're going, looking beyond your front wheel so as to avoid the bigger stones and roots, and the deepest gravel areas.

Get your position right

On rougher surfaces, keep your body centred over your bike and make sure your arms and elbows flex - this allows your body to act as a kind of natural suspension system to soak up the bumps!

Don't hold too tight

Don't grip your handlebars too tight - whilst you might think it would control you better, you're actually better off loosening off a little and letting the bike 'run' more. It will also avoid exhausting your hands. 

Climbing

Make sure you hit hills with some momentum, and stay in the saddle whenever possible - for road cyclists, this might feel unnatural, but it will help prevent your wheel from spinning. If you're in the right gear, it should be comfortable.

Descending

For steeper hills, it will help your control to be out of the saddle. Keep your weight a little further back on the bike, flex your knees and arms and keep your pedals level so they don't catch on the ground.

Braking

Don't brake too hard, or you'll skid. Practice feathering your brakes so you can control your speed on any descent. Disc brakes are usually more reliable than caliper brakes if conditions aren't great.

 

Gravel is a whole new world of adventure, fun and challenge. At VeloVixen, we've loved taking it on, and can't wait for more of you to join us!

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