And it doesn’t have to be expensive.
I frequently ride gravel roads and bike trails on my road bike and really enjoy it as a literal change of pace with new scenery. I ride 28 mm tires on the road and they’re fine for flat to rolling gravel, although they don’t have enough traction for moderately steep climbs and descents. I also have a touring bike with 35 mm tires, which works pretty well, even on the steeper stuff.
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. If you decide you like the experience of riding on gravel then you could participate in the new, very popular gravel events.
This column covers:
- Why ride gravel
- Where to ride gravel
- Ways to get started for a few hundred dollars
- Bike handling techniques
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. Gravel roads go where fewer people go, usually in rural areas. 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 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.
Link routes. Sometimes riding a few miles on gravel between two paved roads is a much more direct route.
Safer. 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.
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.
Hike a bike. You don’t have to ride up all the steep pitches!
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.
Where to Ride Gravel
Urban gravel 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.
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 gravel bike. 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
RoadBikeRider reviewed the Top gravel bikes for under $2,000.
The least expensive is $1,500. 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 special 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.
Because gravel shifts under your tires your bike handles a little differently. The key is to do everything smoothly.
Pedal smoothly. Practice pedaling with a round stroke. If you put too much power into the downstroke your rear wheel will slip.
Higher gear and lower cadence. If I ride one gear harder, at a slightly slower cadence, the bike seems to have more traction.
Use momentum. If you’re coming to a section with deeper, loose gravel, don’t cautiously slow down too much. If you do you may get bogged down and end up pushing your bike. Then it’s hard to remount and get going on lots of loose gravel. The same applies when the road changes from pavement to gravel. You may not want to ride the gravel at 20 mph but you don’t need to slow down to 10 mph.
Turn in a wider arc. The bike has a tendency to slide out under you when you turn the front wheel too much. By taking the long way around a curve you don’t need to turn the front wheel as much.
Don’t lean the bike. On the road you lean the bike into the corner but if you do that on gravel the bike may slide out. Corner with the bike more upright and leaning more with your body. Practice this first on a paved road.
Use a loose grip. The front wheel is going to move around. If you’re gripping the handlebars tightly, then you’ll reflexively try to correct for each little movement of the front wheel. You may inadvertently over-correct and the front wheel will go out from under you. Hold the bars loosely and allow the front wheel to take care of itself.
Climbing. Going uphill a smooth round stroke is critical to keep the rear wheel from slipping. As you shift try to compensate with your cadence to maintain a constant force on the rear wheel. Any sudden change in power or cadence to the rear wheel can cause it to lose traction. You will notice a difference depending on how much tread is on your tires.
When you stand. Out of the saddle you’re applying much more downward force and your rear wheel may slip. Shift your weight back to find the traction point.
Brake smoothly. Because it takes longer to stop, start braking earlier and gradually apply more pressure so you don’t lock up the wheels, which is easy to do on gravel.
Use more rear brake. As you brake, your center of gravity shifts forward and you unweight the rear wheel, which may skid if you use too much front brake. When you’ve braking on gravel apply the rear brake just a little more firmly to keep your center of gravity over the middle of the bike.
Get your butt back. The above works well on the flats and gentle descents. On steeper descents you need to use more front brake. To prevent going over the handlebars shift your butt to the back of the saddle or even off the back to keep your center of gravity over the bike.
Have fun and keep the rubber side down!
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.
John Johnson says
Gravel is one of the preferred riding surfaces in Mid-Missouri. We have the Katy Trail which gives us the opportunity to incorporate the gravel roads and trail into our routes. The trail is great but gets boring riding the same route out and back. The MIssouri River runs close to the trail and the gravel roads that connect are very challenging and scenic. The local bike shops are selling many more gravel/adventure bikes than road bikes. This trend is also reflected in the local races of which there are numerous gravel races as opposed to road races and criteriums., except for KC and St. Louis.
Thanks for the article on gravel riding.
Kerry Irons says
Road Grouch here. I’ve ridden hundreds if not thousands of miles of gravel roads over the decades, often as a part of a detour around construction sites or riding during construction. The dirt in my shoes and the grit in my chain have put me off the concept. Many of my riding buddies want me to get a gravel bike. My response is that I have “been there, done that” and by far prefer the smooth pavement of our many quiet county roads. YMMV
Richard Paul Handler says
Better to lube chains with Squirt, an aqueous suspension of paraffin particles. Rigorous chain lube tests have been performed by Velo Magazine staff. Squirt is faster than all the commonly purchased oil based lubes and because it sheds grit as it moves, the difference in power consumption is even greater, vs. oid based, riding gravel. (Also faster than virgin olive oil, Mobil-1; both were tested.)
In testimony to the lower friction, when I moved components to a new frame thus replacing my Shimano chain, it showed minimal stretch after 11,000 miles. For me that was a record, an outlier of durability vs. prior experience with other lubes.
With Squirt it’s not necessary to wash the chain after gravel. Just brush it. Before initial application, wash the chain thoroughly to remove oil lube.
Since 2015 Squirt has been my sole lube on all my bikes.
Do not confuse Squirt with White Lightning. White Lightning is a heavy oil suspension of paraffin. In Velo tests it was incredibly slow and it picked up and held lots of dirt. Not recommended in any circumstance.
Since Squirt is water based, do reapply after riding in heavy rain, but let the chain dry first so the applied layer of Squirt will move into chain pin joints by capillary action.
Richard Paul Handler says
Also, very nice to be able to contact the chain without soiling skin and clothing. As with oil lubes, Squirt turns black on road bikes. This is from accumulation of tiny rubber particles deposited on pavement. When ridden exclusively on dirt Squirt remains beige. Handling chain transfers only a wax to your skin, easily wiped off.
Julian Shapiro says
Gravel? What’s that? If I go off road on my area, I’m in sand- fine white beach sand. The name of the game is float. MTB w 2.5” plus or a fat bike.
Bringing up the topic of gravel biking in a group of roadies is a sure way to start an argument. Most, like Road Grouch above, simply don’t like getting themselves and their pristine road bikes dirty. And, that’s Okay.
I personally like gravel riding for all the reasons stated. My bike is a retired 15+ year old cyclocross bike. I changed out the crankset from the typical 46/36 to a 46/30 and the cassette to a 12-30. (Same old Ultegra 6700 derailleurs.) The tires are 38c and mounted tubeless. But, all that really isn’t necessary. A stock cyclocross bike would work just fine. So, if you are looking for a good deal on a used bike for gravel try the local cyclocross club. With the trend to 1X cranksets there should be some 2X bikes gathering dust.
Richard Paul Handler says
Very nice article!
Gravel vs. pavement is like alpine skiing off piste vs. groomers. Those who prefer groomers can have lots of speed and fun, but in my younger skiing decades I prefered off piste with adventure.
John Tonetti says
I think the use of the term “gravel” is a misnomer. As someone who grew up riding a 10-speed (when there really were 2 chainrings x 5 rear cogs) on rural roads, you learn pretty quickly that riding unpaved roads means riding where the gravel isn’t. You never know what’s under the gravel, and there’s really nothing quite as exciting as the loss of momentum when you hit a deep patch of small stones. Also, you learn to avoid puddles, because you truly have no idea of what’s under the puddle (also good training for roads, too.)
One of the downsides of unpaved riding is that you need to clean your bike deeper and more frequently. The dust or mud really clings to the drive train parts, and can get into places you never thought it would, particularly the headset and bottom bracket (believe it or not).
For me, it’s fun, but it’s not getting me off the road. You didn’t mention that cross bikes make perfectly good gravel bikes just by swapping out tires in most cases.
Ron Newbury says
I’ve been riding bikes for 60 years now. I am still a multi-sport athlete and am in fair shape; Fit-Bit says “excellent.” I’ve had many crashes over the years, including a couple in the last few years on my road bike that have my left shoulder sounding like Rice Crispies whenever I move it. These were both related to gravel; one in a parking lot at a winery that suddenly switched from pavement to gravel, and another at night as I was turning around and couldn’t see gravel on pavement until it was too late to avoid. In both cases I was down so fast I didn’t have time to extricate my shoes from clips, or put my arm out, which was probably fortunate. Traditional road tires will not provide sufficient displacement to avoid unstable, unseen and unknown bases in gravel. I’ve had cyclocross tires at times, and they’re certainly better. I now live in a very hilly area of southern Oregon and find myself mostly on my mountain bike in case I have to avoid the all-too-frequent aggressive drivers, or the frequent patches of gravel and sound found on the pavement.
Richard Paul Handler says
Ron, the wider tires are indeed safer and more comfortable. Chosen properly they are nearly as fast as many road tires. For instance the rolling resistance of my 35mm Schwalbe G-One Speed TLE is similar to that of the ever popular tubed Conti Gatorskin in it’s common 25mm size inflated to twice the pressure I use. And mine take me many miles on gravel with no traffic.
Definition of aging: wider touring skis, wider kayaks, and wider bicycle tires.
From Jacksonville, in Southern Oregon.