Gravel riding—or all-road, or mixed terrain—is basically drop-bar cycling for anyone who doesn’t discriminate between tarmac and dirt.
Riding on gravel may not be a new phenomenon, but it has certainly exploded in popularity in recent years, and now every bike brand is scrambling to get a share of the burgeoning market.
This off-road craze is a platform for freedom, allowing you to step out of your front door and straight into an adventure, it’s less about getting from point A to point B, and more about the adventure you have in between.
So how do you get started?
Gravel riding is easy to get into, but road riders who are used to riding tarmac might be hesitant about the new challenges that come with rough terrain.
A good place to start is to head out of your front door and just start exploring. Don’t try to cover a certain distance or reach a certain destination, just head out and look for some local routes and then you can start linking them together.
Bridleways are a good place to start. These routes can offer reliable surfaces and beautiful traffic-free paths while you won’t have to worry about things getting too extreme.
Do you need a gravel-specific bike?
New gravel bikes are released every year with designs and features intended to make them faster, more comfortable, and more capable off-road. But if you are just starting to dip your toe in the world of gravel, does that mean you have to buy the latest and greatest gravel rig to enjoy gravel roads? Absolutely not!
Of course you need to make sure your equipment can withstand the more demanding terrain you’re riding, and depending on the weather and the type of surfaces you are going to be riding on this can vary hugely. The number one thing you will want to consider is your tires, because they’ll make the biggest difference on gravel roads. If you’re going to ride a road bike, try to fit the widest tire you can, ideally one with some puncture resistance built-in too.
Your tire selection, when you get it right, will allow you to enjoy your experience on the bike a lot more. You’ll be far more comfortable, and when the onus isn’t on speed, comfort is one of the most important aspects of your set-up.
That said if you find yourself riding gravel often, a dedicated gravel bike with features to improve your comfort, traction, and speed can greatly enhance the experience
Be mechanically prepared
You're on rough roads, and you’re going to see a lot fewer people, so it helps to know how to use a chain tool, and always pack a set of tyre levers.
Some gravel riders like to use saddle, handlebar, or frame bags to hold their tools, extra food, hydration, spare parts, and clothing layers to be ready for different situations.
For gravel riding, a tubeless tire setup is ideal. Tubeless tires allow you to run lower tire pressures with less risk of pinch-flatting, and tubeless sealant can seal smaller punctures to prevent flat tires. Tubeless is now the standard for off-road cycling and if you have a bike capable of running tubeless tires, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with the system so you can maintain your bike and repair it when punctures eventually occur.
No need for speed
Ride within your comfort zone and go as fast as your skills allow. Build your confidence and skills slowly and gradually. If you’re new to riding gravel you will only get better. Your average speeds on a gravel ride will be a lot slower than a road ride, particularly if you’re spending most of the ride away from the tarmac. An average of 15kmph is a good benchmark.
It’s worth knowing the scale of your adventure before setting out, so you don’t end up over-reaching your distances and accidentally being out all day when you only intended to pop out for a few hours.
The name of the game is adventure, so don’t be afraid to get a little bit lost. It’s all too easy on a road bike to obsess over distance, speed and cadence, whereas gravel riding is the perfect opportunity to get your eyes off the screen and enjoy the environment around you.
Ride with others
Find friends and groups to ride with. Sometimes it’s hard to find and explore new roads on your own. Having a friend to route-plan with can open up a ton of new roads you never knew existed. One of the cooler things about riding on gravel is that you’re generally on much quieter roads. Fewer people means less stress from passing cars, and you’ll be able to chat with your friend as you ride alongside each other. Having company is also incredibly helpful from a safety point of view.
Consider going with a professional guiding company. This enables you to get a tailor-made route that offers up enough undulation and points of interest to allow for a total immersion in, well, gravel.
Tips on how to ride gravel
When riding on a loose surface, it’s inevitable that your bike will slip out from time to time. Rough terrain beats up your body and saps your energy. Loosen up to absorb bumps. Although it is instinct to tense up, this will use so much extra energy and give you less control going into corners and navigating technical sections. The key to riding gravel well is to be smooth — pedal smooth, brake smooth, and turn smooth.
In the UK you have to be pretty alert riding on the roads to avoid falling victim to a deep pothole, however when riding gravel it is even more important that you stay attentive and pick a good line. Read the road surface ahead and scan for areas where traction may be compromised. This will become easier with time, but try to ride where the road's smoother and harder, avoid large or sharp rocks, deep holes, and piles of debris.
When it comes to riding over more challenging terrain, speed is your friend. So, although it might feel counter-intuitive, maintain your momentum – keep those wheels spinning and resist the temptation to grab at your brakes.
Don't overthink it. A good attitude and a lust for adventure are all you need and just in case you don’t know already, don't wear underwear under your bike shorts. Ever.