What is Gravel Riding?
In this article we will answer the question, what is gravel riding? and provide you with some useful tips on how to get started as well as answer some of the most commonly asked questions about gravel bikes and gravel riding.
So what is Gravel Riding? Gravel cycling started in the USA where they have a huge amount of space with a lot of long fire roads. Gravel cycling evolved from riders riding these long stretches of gravel and fire roads. The sport bridges the gap between road and mountain biking where riding at the speeds and efficiency of road cycling meets the ability and freedom to ride on rough and loose terrain.
Gravel bikes at first glance look very similar to road bikes with their lack of suspension, thin tyres, and drop bars. Where gravel bikes differ from road bikes is that the bars are usually wider, geometry is adapted to be more comfortable riding offroad for long periods of time and modern gravel bikes will also feature a 1x drivetrain removing the front derailleur. Wheels are also often wider and forks and rear triangle will allow for much wider tyres to cope with the terrain and requirements of riding off-road.
Why Gravel Riding?
There are many reasons to get into riding a gravel bike. A gravel bicycle opens up so many possibilities, no longer are you limited to tarmac if you are coming from road cycling and mountain bikers will appreciate the efficiency and training gains.
Personally, I tend to stick to trail riding and the gnarlier side of cycling over road riding but I do frequently go on gravel rides whether it’s to just get some miles in, improve my fitness and pedaling technique, or just to explore the area from a new perspective. Gravel cycling can be a rewarding and fun experience for any cyclist.
Where can you ride a gravel bike?
Gravel bikes are amazing! You can ride them nearly anywhere and with this unbelievable freedom you are really only limited by your energy levels.
In the United Kingdom, you are legally allowed to ride a gravel bike on all public roads excluded motorways.
A list of roads you are allowed to use in the UK:
- Byways Open to All Traffic
- Restricted Byways
- ‘Routes with other public access’ – the Ordnance Survey term for ‘white roads’ or ‘green lanes’
- Unsurfaced Roads
- Forestry Commission stone tracks
- Some unsurfaced Forestry Commission tracks
- Dedicated mountain bike trails. Many green, blue and even some red routes are fantastic fun on a gravel bike.
- Cyclepaths and cycle tracks such as converted railway lines
- Some Canal Towpaths
Is a gravel bike the same as a cyclocross bike?
Gravel and Cyclocross bikes have a lot in common but cyclocross is a sport whereas gravel is a type of riding. Cyclocross bikes are designed for racing. They have a more aggressive geometry that is targeted more at speed over endurance. I wouldn’t recommend taking a cyclocross bike out on a gravel adventure as you will get uncomfortable pretty quickly.
Do I need a gravel bike?
For a true gravel bike experience, you do need a gravel-specific bike. Yes, you probably can on some road bikes stick some bigger tyres on or get the hardtail out of the garage but neither is going to give you a true experience of gravel riding.
A gravel bike is as efficient on the road as it is off allowing you to cover huge distances at a silly pace without griding your bones into a paste.
A gravel-specific bike can also make bridleways and country lanes feel exciting. The feedback from the bike and speeds you can ride at make it an exhilarating adventure you will want to repeat again and again.
Gravel riding top tips
Choosing the right gravel bike
Choosing the right gravel bike is top of the list. Make sure you get the correct size as gravel riding can lead to long days in the saddle over rough terrain and having the wrong bike may become uncomfortable quick. You can visit your local bike shop for sizing or follow the size charts on the manufacturer’s website.
Selecting the right tyres for a gravel bike is similar to how you would select tyres for a mountain bike. You want to pick a tyre for the terrain you will be riding. You need to weigh up weight over durability, grip over rolling resistance, etc. My favourite gravel bike tyre is the Goodyear Connector which offers a nice volume of air for comfort and tracking as well as a well-thought-out tread pattern that offers plenty of grip without adding a load of rolling resistance.
What about tubeless? Well, you are riding off-road so chances of getting a puncture increase especially if riding in the summertime when hedges are being cut back leaving sharp thorns everywhere. There is nothing worse than getting a puncture out on a ride so tubeless can really take the stress out of rides. Actually, I tell a lie. There is something worse than a puncture, and that’s a puncture when you are using tubeless. Make sure you still carry a tube and a way to fit and inflate it even if you are running a tubeless setup.
Skill and Technique
Gravel riding is neither like road cycling nor mountain biking. It is firmly it’s own thing but skills can be taken from either road or mountain biking. If you are new to gravel cycling then start off easy and work your way up until you are comfortable. Perhaps look at getting some lessons.
Pedals and Cycling Shoes
If your gravel riding then you are likely to come into contact with a lot more mud and grime than you would on a road bike so although road clips and shoes will technically work you would be better off using something more mountain bike specific along the lines of a cross country cleat and shoe. You could use flat pedals if you are uncomfortable with clipless pedals but you will be missing out on all the benefits a clipped in pedal offers.
What to carry on gravel rides
Firstly carry lots of water. You’re in luck as a gravel frame closely resembles the look of a road bike which means in all probability there will be multiple water bottle mounting points. Make use of these as you can cover a lot of distance on a gravel ride and staying hydrated is really important.
Bring snacks! This should be a no brainer for anyone doing a longer ride. You need food to keep your energy levels high so grab your favourite snack and pack them in your pockets or use a bike bag.
As mentioned previously it’s sensible to take some tools, an inner tube and a way to fit and inflate the said tube. There’s nothing worse than a mechanical on a ride that you can’t fix. So be prepared.
Early gravel bikes tended to have a road bike drivetrain and quite a few still do but with 1x gears available now it seems silly to be using a front derailleur on a gravel bike. We would recommend picking a gravel bike that has a 1x system either gravel bike-specific or modified to work on a gravel bicycle. The drivetrain will be better suited to the terrain and they are often more durable to the rough terrain and grime.
What do you think of this article? Do you understand what Gravel riding is now? Have you tried gravel riding?
If you live in the South of the UK you can try my free gravel cycling route with Komoot here: Shipwrights Way Gravel Bike Ride
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