You can ride your regular road bike on gravel – I do it all the time. Put wider tires on your road bike and your ready to roll. I ride 28 mm tires on my road bike — the maximum size that fits — and the bike handles well. Some people ride 25 mm and some 30 mm or wider.
The tire width is less important than good technique! Because gravel shifts under your tires your bike handles a little differently. The key is to do everything smoothly.
1. Pedal smoothly.
Practice pedaling with a round stroke. If you put too much power into the downstroke your rear wheel may slip.
2. Higher gear and lower cadence.
If I ride one gear harder, at a slightly slower cadence, the bike seems to have more traction.
3. Use momentum.
If you’re coming to a section with deeper, loose gravel, don’t cautiously slow down too much. If you do so, 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.
4. Turn in a wider arc.
The bike has a tendency to slide out from 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.
5. 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 lean more with your body. Practice this first on a paved road.
6. 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.
Going uphill a smooth round stroke is critical to keep the rear wheel from slipping. As you shift gears 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. 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.
Where to Ride Gravel
Before tackling an event on gravel, develop your skills on one of these:
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.
Another inexpensive way to start
If you don’t feel comfortable riding your road bike on gravel, 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.
Once you have a used bike, check everything is tight and works correctly. You may want to put on new tubes and tires. Wider tires will feel more stable on gravel.
Have fun and keep the rubber side down!
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From Wikipedia: “Gravel /ˈɡrævəl/ is a loose aggregation of rock fragments.”
I have 32mm tires on my road bike and we frequently include dirt roads and mellow single track in our rides. We do occasionally ride gravel alongside RR tracks and it’s not that great of an experience. It’s not even that interesting on the MTB.
I highly recommend including dirt roads and avoiding gravel.
Jeff vdD says
At least here in New England, “gravel” rarely refers to actual gravel. It’s more of a shorthand for “mixed terrain,” which includes pavement, bad pavement, crushed rock, dirt roads, and tamer singletrack.
Around here, in Southeast Michigan, we have abundant dirt/gravel roads and there are fewer motor vehicles on them than the paved roads, however, it is not my experience that the motorists travel any slower on them. So, they can still be very dangerous places to ride because of the loose gravel, many potholes, and numerous other road hazards like washboards that can cause the motorist to lose control of their motor vehicle. My point is, do not become complacent with your safety. Keep an eye on those motorists just like you would on any paved road.
I put 32s on my “spare” rode bike for winter riding and crushed gravel trails. Works well, but I would suggest a non-knobby tire: with minimal clearance, getting a stone caught in the tire tread could be disastrous.
Gary Turney says
Nice article. I’ve never ridden gravel, the idea just doesn’t appeal to me. After reading all the cautions with each tip, I’m even less enthusiastic about trying it. I’ll stick with solid pavement or dirt, thank you.
Brian Nystrom says
“Gravel” is has become a catch-all term for any road that’s not paved, and I’m sure it confuses a lot of people. I haven’t been to a single gravel event that was held on actual gravel; they’ve all been on dirt roads, which is fine by me.. The only true gravel I’ve found near home is a rail trail and it’s not as much fun to ride on as dirt roads (it’s slower and a bit sketchier in places). I occasionally ride my road bike on short stretches of dirt road and it’s a fun change of pace, but I’d rather do it on my dedicated gravel bike.
Strongly agree with Coach Hughes on getting a used MTB for gravel riding. With the shift to 29″ over past few years there are lots of inexpensive but still solid 26″ MTBs on used market these days. MUCH more fun (and technically easier) to ride my old MTB on local (rough) gravel than to worry about getting my carbon framed roadie dinged up (even crashed) trying to ride that stuff on skinny 25 tires.
Jeff vdD says
I’ll gently push back a bit on the “tire width is less important than good technique” assertion. Yes, a skilled rider can ride narrow tires on tamer surfaces … but it’s hard to acquire those skills if you’re starting on a narrow tire (and especially a tubed tire). That’s because the real key is tire pressure, and you can’t run lower pressures on narrow tires (especially with tubes).
IMHO, anyone new to “gravel” (mixed terrain that’s bumpier/less regular than nicely graded dirt roads) would do well to find wider tires (38-42mm is something of a sweet spot) and build technique per the points in the article above. Only then would I recommend that they start working their way toward road-width tires. Starting with road-width tires and little experience means riding gingerly rather than confidently.
William Wightman says
I’m having great fun riding my new hard-tail trekking bike on just about anything (deep grass, water…) except downhills and evil single-track. I put some urban 29″ x 2.5″ (63.5 mm) slicks on and can ride on the roads with an 18 mph road bike group. For that it requires careful attention to clothing aerodynamics. I am working to stay with the group and not do a slow bonk toward the end of the ride. It will be at least 3-4 more long rides before the body is adapted. Without the slicks there would be no hope of keeping up. With the big slicks the bike is much faster on the non-technical trails and deep/loose gravel, with a small loss in grip.
Agree with Jeff vdD that “gravel” encompasses a VERY wide range of road conditions, and that tires are more important than technique. In some thick loose conditions ANY rider on 25-28’s is almost helpless. Heck I’ve ridden some “gravel” on my MTB wishing I had a true fat tire bike (100+mm tires). And I used to do some MTB racing in my younger days.