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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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.