Gravel riding has become one of the most popular forms of cycling in the U.S. Whether it’s because it provides access to scenic areas only available to those who venture off the beaten path or offers a respite from dodging cars and fighting traffic, it’s easy to understand the allure of gravel riding.
But what does it take to get started? Does it require any specific gear or equipment? Can you still stoke your competitive racing fire? Whether you’re just getting started, thinking about purchasing a gravel bike, or are an experienced rider looking for tips and best practices, this guide will help you get the most out of your gravel riding experience.
Table of Contents
What is Gravel Riding?
Gravel riding, unlike other riding styles, has a rather broad definition. It’s generally characterized as riding a drop-bar bicycle on terrain falling anywhere between smooth asphalt and steep rocky inclines. For one person, it could be defined as gliding along crunchy country roads. For another, it might be climbing more challenging unmaintained rutted-out trails. The good news is both definitions are technically correct.
Although gravel riding’s broad definition creates a lot of freedom and flexibility in how you can approach it, it still comes with questions. After receiving countless inquiries from riders, ex-pro road racer turned gravel cyclist Neil Shirley developed the “Industry Standard Guide to Gravel,” or ISGG. The ISGG breaks gravel roads into four categories based on terrain and difficulty.
Smooth, well-maintained dirt roads that have either very small gravel chunks or none at all. These roads are in better condition than many paved roads in the U.S. and are hard-packed, offering little more difficulty than riding on tarmac.
Expect potholes, washboards, and probably loose, blown-out corners. There is likely to be gravel outside the main tire tracks that could cause an extra challenge if you come off your line.
Infrequently maintained roads that require a high level of skill due to exposed rocks, tire-eating rain ruts, sand bogs, and any number of other unexpected challenges that could arise around the next corner.
Non-maintained forest roads and surfaces with deep ruts, rock gardens, and potential landslides left for the next gravel rider to stumble upon.
Where Can You Ride Gravel?
The great news is there’s no shortage of options for gravel riding. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are roughly 2.2 million miles of unpaved roads in the United States. Not to mention the seemingly endless miles of trails and singletrack.
The best source of information for gravel routes is going to be your local bike shops and cycling community. They’ll not only be able to point you in the right direction but most likely provide you with a sizeable list of rides to get you started. However, if you’re looking for additional resources, here are a few we highly recommend.
Ride with GPS is an online library of user-generated routes. It provides filters that allow you to find rides based on criteria such as length, elevation, and surface type. You can even use its keyword filter to search specifically for “gravel.” Routes can also be downloaded, so they’re available offline. This is nice because it removes the need for reliable cell service when riding. Ride with GPS is free for its basic features but requires a paid subscription to access premium features such as turn-by-turn directions.
Gravelmap is another user-generated database of gravel and dirt roads and paths. The website allows users to add, share, and manage their favorite routes. Since users are encouraged only to add routes they’ve ridden, you can reliably use them to plan your rides.
Backpacking.com is also an excellent resource for finding gravel routes in the U.S. and abroad. Some routes can be easily ridden in a single day, while others can be turned into multi-day bikepacking trips.
Regardless of the route, it’s always wise to check the weather forecast and trail conditions before heading out. Additionally, it’s important to know that some trails, roads, and recreation areas may require permits or written permission to ride.
Do You Need a Gravel Bike?
Gravel bikes are often considered the midpoint between road and mountain bikes. Similar to a road bike, its frame is lightweight and rigid, which makes it fast. It also has drop bars that offer multiple hand positions for longer rides. Conversely, it has the low gearing of a mountain bike, making it easier to stop, start, and climb steeper hills. Its frame also provides more clearance for wider, grippier tires. These features allow gravel bikes to handle rugged terrain and move more efficiently over long distances.
That said, it’s not essential that you use a gravel bike when riding off-road. There are categories of gravel you can easily ride using a traditional road bike setup. There are also others you can tackle by simply modifying the bike in a way that helps it perform better on that specific category of gravel. For example, riders who are limited by tire clearance on their road bike, and want to avoid buying a second bike, will use smaller 650b wheels. This allows them to run wider tires without changing the frameset.
In the majority of cases, the overwhelming sentiment in the cycling community is to “run what you brung.” However, if your goal involves racing or taking on higher categories of gravel, having a bike designed specifically for that type of riding is recommended. Not only will it improve your comfort, traction, and efficiency, but it will greatly enhance your experience as well.
Why Are Tires Important for Gravel Riding?
Since tires are the contact point between your bike and the riding surface, they significantly impact the quality and enjoyment level of the ride. This makes it important to match your tire type, size, and tread to the conditions you expect to encounter when riding.
Tubeless tires are highly recommended for off-road riding for several reasons:
- They have the ability to run a lower tire pressure. This leads to increased ground contact, which improves grip. Lower tire pressure also provides a smoother and more comfortable ride.
- Reduced weight from your tires. This allows you to expend less energy when accelerating and climbing.
- Decreased risk of pinch flats. Although still possible, they’re extremely rare with a tubeless setup.
- You don’t need a patch kit for minor punctures. Because of the sealant that coats the inside of the tire, small punctures (even some as large as 3mm or ⅛”) will self-seal.
The tire size will depend on your frame’s tire clearance and the pressure you like to run. The larger the tire, the lower the pressure you can run. As mentioned above, lower tire pressure will improve grip and ride comfort. The ISGG recommends the following sizes of tires for the different categories of gravel:
- Category 1: 25 to 28mm range
- Category 2: 28 to 32mm range. Going up in tire size compared to an everyday road setup is recommended in order to benefit from the reduced risk of pinch flatting and pneumatic suspension a higher volume tire allows.
- Category 3: 33 to 38mm range. Unless a Category 3 Gravel section is added merely as a short connector, a gravel bike with tires that offer side knobs is the recommended equipment to achieve both speed and safety.
- Category 4: 38 to 42+mm range. Going with high-volume tires will help provide pneumatic suspension, reduce the risk of a pinch flat, and provide greater traction in the corners and on steep, loose climbs.
Similar to size, the category of gravel you plan to ride will determine the level of tread you should use. A slicker tread will deliver more speed and be better suited for lower categories. Whereas a knobby tread will provide more grip and be ideal for higher categories of gravel.
Weather can also play an important role in tread selection. For wetter, muddier conditions, you’ll want a more aggressive, knobby tread. When riding dry hardpack, a slicker tread is typically best.
It’s important to note that road and trail conditions change over time due to weather, road construction, and maintenance. Make sure you always have the most up-to-date information regarding conditions and adjust your tire setup accordingly.
What Gear is Recommended for Gravel Riding?
Shoes & Pedals
When gravel riding, it’s not uncommon to encounter sections of road or trail that require you to dismount and walk. If you’re wearing traditional road cycling cleats, these sections could potentially destroy them fairly quickly. Because of this, most people that ride gravel use clipless mountain bike shoes and pedals. The recessed cleat and shoe lugs make walking in soft dirt and uneven terrain much more manageable.
However, the “rules” of gravel riding aren’t set in stone. If you choose to, you can get along just fine in traditional cleats. Some riders even prefer flat pedals to clipless when performing more technical riding. What’s most important is if you’ve found something that works for you, it’s ok to stick with it.
Although you may not encounter the same number or degree of bumps in gravel riding as you would when mountain biking, gravel roads and trails aren’t always smooth. This can often lead to your chain being derailed. Because of this, many gravel-specific drivetrains have chain retention technology to ensure the chain stays in place. In addition to keeping your chain on, these drivetrains provide smoother and quieter shifting on rough, bumpy terrain.
By its very nature, gravel riding can take you off the beaten path and miles from civilization. Because of this, it’s essential to be prepared and self-sufficient. Here are some basic supplies you should always carry with you and know how to use:
- Spare tubes (even if you’re running tubeless)
- Tire levers
- Hand pump or C02 inflator
- Patch kit and tire boot (in case you slash the side of your tire)
- Tubeless plug kit (if you get a hole too big for sealant to fix)
- Chain quick links
- Cash (a dollar bill can also work as a tire boot in a pinch)
How Do You Ride Gravel?
Riding gravel roads inherently involves dealing with rocks, holes, and washboards. When encountering rougher terrain, it’s natural to tense up and white-knuckle your handlebars. Even overwork your brakes. Doing so can beat up your body and cause exhaustion. Worse yet, it can lead to an accident, especially at higher speeds. It’s important to relax, stay loose, and let the bike do the work.
Choose Your Lines
Choosing a good line is an important part of riding off-road. As the terrain you’re riding becomes more technical, your line choice becomes even more important. Good lines are smoother and harder and, as a result, provide more comfort and better traction. Finding a good line comes down to consistently looking ahead at what’s coming up instead of what’s immediately in front of your wheel. Steer clear of loose gravel and deep patches of dirt or sand. Avoid sharp rocks, large holes, or anything that could puncture a tire.
Control Your Cornering
Turning at speed can be tricky, especially on gravel. If you’re not careful, you can skid out and end up on the ground. Make sure to take the cleanest line and avoid any loose gravel. Pedal position is also important. Your inside pedal should be in the 12 o’clock position, with your outside pedal at 6 o’clock. This prevents the inside pedal from clipping the ground and provides counterbalance with the outside pedal.
Sit on Climbs
While it’s common for road cyclists to stand when climbing to get max power, doing so while riding on loose terrain can cause you to spin out. If climbing gets tough, stay seated and gear down. By remaining seated, you’ll keep more weight over your rear tire, improving grip and traction.
Are There Gravel Races & Events?
Although gravel riding is a newer discipline, there’s no shortage of races and events you can participate in. Unlike road races, which tend to be intensely competitive, gravel races have a similar feel to running races. They’re more about the social aspect of riding and the experience of taking on some incredible and challenging terrain.
That’s not to say that if you want to stoke your competitive side or test your limits, gravel riding isn’t for you. These same events give you the opportunity to compete against some of the best riders in the sport. Gravel also offers events such as Unbound Gravel XL that will push you to your limits and have you cursing your decision to sign up.
Regardless of where you are on your gravel riding journey, you’ll have no trouble finding a race or an event that’s perfect for you.
Now that you have a better understanding of what gravel riding is and how to get started, it’s time to saddle up and start exploring. If you’re ready to find the perfect gravel bike for you and would like some help, check out our buying guides for gravel bikes.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is gravel riding so popular?
Gravel riding has gained popularity in recent years for several reasons. The biggest being it’s safer than riding on paved roads. Because gravel roads have significantly less traffic, it means fewer nerve-wracking encounters with cars. Gravel riding also takes riders to more remote areas, which tend to be both scenic and adventurous. Additionally, gravel riding events have a more relaxed, laid-back feel that’s welcoming to riders of all skill levels.
Can I use a gravel bike as a road bike?
Absolutely! However, if you’re planning on doing a lot of riding on pavement, there are a few drawbacks to using a gravel bike versus a road bike. Many gravel bikes run a 1x (single chainring) setup. This means at higher speeds or on descents, you may run out of gears. Additionally, gravel bikes typically utilize wider tires for comfort and stability on rough roads. However, these tires tend to be slower than traditional road tires on paved surfaces. Gravel bikes are also heavier than road bikes. This can make climbing hills more challenging.
Is it necessary to have a GPS device for gravel riding?
While it’s not necessary to have a GPS device for gravel riding, it can be helpful for navigating remote areas with limited signage or cell service. GPS devices can also provide information on distance, elevation, and terrain, which can be useful for planning and tracking rides.
Is there an electric version of a gravel bike?
Yes. Electric gravel bikes, also known as e-gravel bikes, combine the versatility and off-road capabilities of traditional gravel bikes with electric motor assistance. These bikes make it easier to tackle rougher terrain, steeper climbs, and ride longer distances. The downside, as with all electric bikes, they’re heavier than their non-electric counterpart and have a limited motor assist range.