“To be unbound is to be untethered and unrestrained.” (UnboundGravel.com)
Riding gravel gives you many more options than pavement! You don’t need to do an organized event. Gravel roads go where fewer people go. Because there’s less traffic, gravel roads are safer and may be a better way to get from A to B than a paved highway. Sometimes riding a few miles on gravel between two paved roads is a much more direct route. Most rural areas are a mix of pavement and gravel.
Organized gravel rides offer a range of options. A family-friendly 20-mile ride is part of the the unPAved event in the Susquehanna River Valley, Lewisburg, PA, which also has 50, 90 and 120-mile rides. At the extreme end the 200-mile race, the Unbound Gravel (formerly Dirty Kanza) starting in Emporia, KS.E
I’ve been a roadie since 1975 and love riding on the road … and it doesn’t have to be paved. Here are three examples:
I live in the Fraser Valley in Colorado mountains and US Highway 40 is the main paved road with heavy traffic especially on the weekend. We only have two county paved roads, each about five miles long. We also have a large network of gravel county and subdivision roads. A combination of the county paved and gravel roads is great for a multi-hour ride. I ride 28 mm tires on my road bike and they’re fine for flat to rolling gravel, although they don’t have enough traction for moderately steep climbs and descents.
I live in a hilly rural area and with gravel roads. To ride on pavement, I’d have to load my bike on the car, drive down, and unload my bike. I’d rather spend my time riding from home! The roads in the neighborhood are in good condition; however, the climbs are steep enough I ride my mountain bike with lower gears. My mountain bike also gives me more traction climbing and especially descending.
A couple of years ago a buddy and I rode a two-day credit card tour from Silverthorne, CO over Rabbit Ears pass (9,426 ft.) to Steamboat Springs, CO spent the night and then toured back. From Silverthorne we could have taken highway 9 north, a beautiful road along the Blue River; however, the road has no shoulder. We chose to go take county road 3 over Ute pass (9,570 feet) and then south. The Ute pass climb was paved; however, the descent and the road south were gravel — we enjoyed the quiet. We rode touring bikes with 35 mm tires.
This column covers:
- Why ride gravel
- Benefits to roadies
- Where to ride gravel
- Ways to get started for a few hundred dollars
Future columns will include tips for riding on gravel, training for events, riding in the heat, nutrition for gravel rides, preventing aches and pains and the mental aspects.
Why Ride Gravel?
It’s fun. You can’t ride as fast as on pavement, so trying to cover a certain number of miles is meaningless. You can relax and enjoy the ride itself. I often don’t turn my computer on for a gravel ride — who cares about the numbers?
Variety. Riding gravel can open up new areas to explore instead of the same old routes.
New challenges. Riding on the road your challenges are endurance, stamina and power. Riding gravel takes more technique. A hill that isn’t much on pavement becomes a much more challenging climb and descent on gravel. But don’t think of gravel as necessarily more slippery.
Safer. The highway departments chose which roads to pave based on traffic volume. If a road isn’t paved there are many fewer vehicles.
Family fun. Because gravel roads are safer, they’re a great place for family rides.
Expanded kinds of riding. If you’re up for a little adventure you could try bike packing, carrying everything you need for a weekend or longer camping trip. Or take a different way to a B&B.
Benefits to Roadies
Every roadie will become a more skillful rider and have more riding choices if he or she learns to ride even a little bit of gravel.
Smoother pedal stroke. On gravel, your rear wheel has a tendency to slip if you push down much harder than you apply force around the rest of the stroke. Climbing on gravel is one of the best ways to smooth out your stroke.
More power. As you smooth out your stroke, you’re recruiting more muscle groups, which increases your power. Also, because of the increased rolling resistance, riding gravel takes more power, especially on the climbs.
Safer bike handling. Even if you don’t want to regularly ride gravel roads and bike trails, any experience riding gravel will prepare you for the unanticipated spot of gravel on the road and allow you to ride confidently in and out of a gravel parking lot.
Where to Start Riding Gravel
Here are some places you can try riding on gravel before getting or building up a gravel bike.
Gravel urban trails. Many parts of the country are creating more and more multi-use paths and dedicated bike trails. Often these are gravel because that’s cheaper than pavement.
Rural gravel roads are far quieter than many paved roads and traffic is generally slower.
Easy mountain bike trails. Many areas have MTB trails designed for kids and new mountain bikers. These generally don’t have technical spots and are rideable on a bike with 28 mm and wider tires. If you can’t ride a piece of trail, hop off and push your bike – that’s what I do!
Rails-to-trails is helping to convert old rail lines to bike trails across the country, often through roadless areas.
Inexpensive Ways to Start
Road Bike Action has an article on the 28 Best Gravel Bikes of 2022. The least expensive is $999 and they range up to $8,000! That’s a lot of money to spend to see if you even like riding gravel. You can get started for a few hundred dollars.
Start by checking to see if you can fit at least 28 mm tires on your road bike. If you have a racing frame and can’t fit at least 28 mm tires, then look around for a used road bike that’ll take wider tires.
Another option is a used mountain bike. Look at thrift stores, garage sales and on Craigslist, etc. Look for a bike with front suspension only, or one with no suspension at all. If your gravel roads are like washboards, then front suspension is great. Some front suspension forks have a lever to shut off the suspension if you don’t want it. If you know you’ll only ride relatively smooth gravel roads then front suspension isn’t necessary, and you waste a bit of energy each time you compress the shocks, particularly when you are climbing.
You might also initially put flat pedals on the bike so it’s easier to put a foot down until you get used to riding gravel.
Yes, you’re making compromises. A bike with 28 mm tires won’t handle as well as a gravel bike with wider tires. A mountain bike is heavier than a gravel bike. But these are cheap ways to get started.
Once you have a used bike, check everything is tight and works correctly. You may want to put on new tubes and tires, either wider road tires on a road bike or relatively narrower, and smoother, mountain bike tires. Wider tires will feel more stable on gravel.
To get started, try riding your thrift shop MTB bike on gravel for a while. If you find you like gravel, you could replace the straight handlebars with drop bars, which will require changing the shift and brake levers.
Next column: Tips, techniques and skills
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Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.
Kerry Irons says
Just a note so folks don’t get confused about your ride from Silverthorne, CO 9 goes NORTH from Silverthorne to Kremling and then on US 40 to Steamboat for those who might want a paved route.
John Hughes says
My Endurance type road bike does the job. It has 700x32C tires that are a good compromise
As much as I hate to admit it, the gravel experience has been an extremely enlightening phenomenon. I too was a devout road rider and still am, but several years ago I decided to purchase a relatively new, used Specialized Diverge E5, as most of my riding buddies had retired due to health or age and most of the new riders in our area were gravel riders. Although riding alone has never been a problem for me, as I used to train for long distance tours and events in my younger days (I’ll turn 73 this year), I liked to take off on long rides of 100 miles or more which wasn’t necessarily something my friends at the time were interested in doing on a Saturday morning ride. While riding solo wasn’t a problem, especially during the pandemic, I sometimes did miss the conversations and camaraderie of riding with a group and so being able to ride with the gravel group was something I need to think about. Although I started riding gravel begrudgingly, after a few rides I began to gain a new respect for this new aspect of bike riding and now truly enjoy being able to take off in just about any direction on a ride from my home without the slightest concern as to the road surface. It has become considerably more interesting being out on a ride and coming across a road or trail I’ve always ridden by in the past on the road bike and taken it rather than going, “I wonder what’s down that road?”.