The ultimate guide to gravel biking

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Ben Jones

Cycling Basics, Other

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I still remember the day I bought my first gravel bike.

It was a bright and sunny lunchtime break from work, and the excitement of exploring new terrains was almost palpable. Sitting at my desk for the rest of afternoon was a pointless exercise in trying to look busy whilst covertly surfing the web for local trails to test out my new bike on.

Fast forward to today, and I’m still just as enthusiastic about this fantastic sport (and even better at quietly hunting out bike trails online when I should be working). That’s why I’ve put together this ultimate guide to gravel biking. Whether you’re a beginner looking to get started or a seasoned cyclist seeking new adventures, this guide is for you. So, let’s go grind!

What is Gravel Biking?

Gravel biking, also known as adventure cycling or all-road cycling, is a thrilling and versatile discipline that combines the best of road and off-road cycling. It involves riding on various surfaces such as gravel, dirt, pavement, and even singletrack trails. The freedom of exploring less-traveled routes, enjoying beautiful landscapes, and tackling challenging terrains are just a few reasons why gravel biking has exploded in popularity in recent years.

Fun fact: The history of gravel biking can be traced back to the early 20th century when cyclists would ride on rough and unpaved roads. However, it wasn’t until the 21st century that it truly began to gain momentum as a distinct cycling discipline.

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Choosing the Right Gravel Bike

Picking the perfect gravel bike can feel like a daunting task, especially with so many options available. To make things simpler, here are some key factors to consider:

Frame Material

Gravel bikes come in various materials, including steel, aluminum, titanium, and carbon. Each has its own set of benefits and drawbacks.

  • Steel: Known for its durability and smooth ride quality, steel is a popular choice for gravel bike frames. It is, however, heavier than other materials
  • Aluminum: Lighter than steel and more affordable than carbon, aluminum offers a stiff and responsive ride. Some riders may find it less comfortable on rough terrain due to its stiffness
  • Titanium: Combining the best of steel and aluminum, titanium offers a lightweight, comfortable, and durable ride. Its price, however, is on the higher end
  • Carbon: Lightweight, stiff, and comfortable, carbon is the go-to choice for many high-end gravel bikes. It’s also the most expensive

Wheel Size

Gravel bikes typically come in two wheel sizes: 700c and 650b. The choice between these largely depends on your riding preferences and the terrain you’ll be tackling.

  • 700c: Ideal for fast-paced rides on smoother surfaces, 700c wheels provide better rolling efficiency and are generally lighter than 650b wheels
  • 650b: Perfect for rougher terrain and technical descents, 650b wheels offer improved traction and a smoother ride. They may, however, feel slower on paved surfaces

Gearing and Brakes

When choosing a gravel bike, consider the gearing and braking systems that suit your riding style and conditions.

Gearing: Most gravel bikes have a wide range of gears to handle various terrains. If you plan on tackling steep climbs or regularly carrying gear (say, if you plan on using your bike for bikepacking), opt for a bike with lower gear ratios

Brakes: Disc brakes are the standard for gravel bikes, providing excellent stopping power and modulation in all conditions. You’ll find a range of brake types, including both hydraulic and mechanical disc brakes on the market, with hydraulic brakes offering better performance but at a higher price

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Essential Gear for Gravel Biking

To make the most of your gravel biking adventures, it’s essential to have the right gear. Here are some must-haves:

Helmet – Safety should always be your top priority, so invest in a high-quality helmet designed for off-road cycling. Look for features such as extended coverage, good ventilation, and a secure fit.

Cycling Apparel – Comfort is key when it comes to gravel biking. Choose moisture-wicking, quick-drying clothing, padded cycling shorts, and a lightweight, breathable, and windproof jacket. Get a quality waterproof jacket if the weather where you are tends to be on the damper side

Shoes and Pedals – Gravel-specific cycling shoes offer a balance between stiffness for efficient pedaling and flexibility for off-the-bike comfort – you’re more likely to be doing a little walking on gravel trips than you would be if you were road cycling, for example. Pair them with clipless pedals for better power transfer and control

Hydration and Nutrition – Staying hydrated and fueled is crucial on long rides. Carry a water bottle or hydration pack, and pack energy bars, gels, or other portable snacks.

Repair Kit – Be prepared for the unexpected with a basic repair kit. Include essentials like a multi-tool, spare inner tubes, tire levers, a mini pump or CO2 inflator, and a patch kit

Navigation – Whether you prefer a GPS device, smartphone, or old-fashioned map, make sure you have a reliable way to navigate your route…and ideally a backup plan if the first one fails (because, you know, batteries do run out and always when you’re miles from a power socket…)

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Preparing for Your First Gravel Ride

Before hitting the gravel, take some time to prepare yourself and your bike for the adventure ahead:

  1. Set up your bike: Ensure your bike is properly adjusted for your body, and double-check that your tires, brakes, and gears are in good working order
  2. Plan your route: Research local gravel roads and trails, and choose a route that matches your fitness level and technical abilities
  3. Check the weather: Keep an eye on the forecast, and be prepared to adjust your plans or gear if necessary
  4. Tell someone your plans: Share your route and estimated return time with a friend or family member
  5. Start slow: Begin with shorter rides on familiar terrain, and gradually build up to more challenging routes
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Gravel Riding Techniques

Mastering gravel riding techniques will not only make your rides more enjoyable but also safer and more efficient. Here are some essential tips and tricks to help you tackle a variety of surfaces and conditions:

Maintain a relaxed grip: Gravel can be unpredictable (often shifting unpredictably under your tires), so keep a light grip on the handlebars to absorb vibrations and maintain control. Allow your arms to act as natural shock absorbers, bending your elbows slightly to adapt to the changing terrain.

Shift your weight: When climbing, shift your weight forward to maintain traction. Lean slightly over the handlebars while keeping your rear end planted on the saddle (otherwise your rear tire can spin out). On descents, shift your weight back to improve stability, positioning your body behind the saddle to lower your center of gravity. A trick that you’ll be familiar with if you’ve got some previous with mountain bike trail riding.

Choose your line: Look for the smoothest and most stable path through the gravel, and be prepared to adjust your line as needed. Scan the terrain ahead, anticipating obstacles and changes in surface conditions. Avoid deep sand or loose rocks, as they can cause your bike to lose traction or stability. Expect the unexpected at all times!

Brake wisely: Apply both brakes evenly, and avoid locking up your wheels, which can lead to skidding and loss of control. When braking on loose surfaces, use a gentle, controlled touch to prevent your wheels from sliding out. Remember that braking distances may be longer on gravel, so anticipate your stops and adjust your speed accordingly.

Stay seated: Gravel surfaces can be slippery, so stay seated as much as possible to maintain traction and stability. Standing up to pedal can cause your rear wheel to lose grip, especially on steep climbs or loose terrain. If you need to stand to generate more power, do so carefully and keep your weight centered over the bike.

Cornering on gravel: To maintain control while cornering, enter the turn wide, lean your bike into the corner, and keep your body weight centered. Look through the turn, focusing on where you want to go, and gently apply the brakes before entering the corner. As you exit the turn, gradually apply pressure to the pedals to accelerate.

Pace yourself: Gravel riding often involves long distances and varied terrain, so it’s essential to conserve your energy. Set a sustainable pace that allows you to enjoy the ride and tackle challenging sections without feeling fatigued. Remember to take breaks, refuel, and hydrate as needed.

Riding in a group: Gravel rides often attract like-minded cyclists, so you may find yourself riding in a group. When riding with others, communicate your intentions clearly, use hand signals, and maintain a safe distance to avoid collisions. Be aware of riders around you and adjust your speed and line to accommodate their movements.

By practicing these gravel riding techniques, you’ll be well on your way to confidently navigating a wide range of surfaces and conditions, making your gravel biking adventures even more enjoyable and rewarding.

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Maintaining Your Gravel Bike

Regular maintenance is key to keeping your gravel bike in top shape, ensuring it performs optimally and lasts for years to come. In this section, we’ll dive deeper into the specifics of gravel bike maintenance, covering everything from post-ride cleaning to more advanced procedures.

Post-Ride Cleaning

After each ride, especially if you’ve been riding on muddy or dusty trails, it’s essential to clean your bike. Here’s a step-by-step guide to post-ride cleaning:

  1. Rinse your bike with water to remove loose dirt and debris. Use a gentle spray setting or a bucket of water to avoid damaging bearings and seals
  2. Apply a bike-specific cleaner to your frame, wheels, and drivetrain. Avoid using harsh chemicals or high-pressure washers, as they can damage your bike
  3. Scrub your bike with a soft brush, paying special attention to the drivetrain, brakes, and tires. Use a smaller brush or an old toothbrush to clean hard-to-reach areas. Be careful not to use your current toothbrush as this can leave an unpleasant oily, gritty taste in the mouth next time you brush your teeth
  4. Rinse your bike again to remove the cleaner and any remaining dirt
  5. Dry your bike with a clean cloth or let it air dry
  6. Lubricate your chain with a high-quality bike-specific lubricant, wiping off any excess with a clean cloth

Weekly Maintenance

In addition to post-ride cleaning, perform these weekly maintenance tasks to keep your bike in good working order:

  1. Inspect your tires for cuts, punctures, or excessive wear. Check the tire pressure and adjust it according to the manufacturer’s recommendations or your riding preferences
  2. Check your wheels for trueness by spinning them and observing any wobbles. If needed, have them trued by a professional mechanic or learn to do it yourself with the help of online tutorials
  3. Inspect your brake pads for wear and replace them if they’re worn down to 1-2 mm. Also, check the brake caliper alignment and adjust it if necessary to prevent rubbing
  4. Check your drivetrain for wear, including the chain, cassette, and chainrings. Replace worn parts as needed to ensure smooth shifting and prolong the life of your drivetrain
  5. Inspect your cables and housing for fraying, corrosion, or damage. Replace them if needed to maintain optimal braking and shifting performance

Monthly Maintenance

Perform these more in-depth maintenance tasks every month or after several long rides:

  1. Check your headset for play by holding the front brake and rocking the bike back and forth. If you feel any movement, your headset may need to be adjusted or replaced
  2. Inspect your bottom bracket for play or roughness by moving the crank arms side-to-side and spinning them. If you notice any issues, have your bottom bracket serviced by a professional mechanic
  3. Inspect your pedals for play or roughness by spinning them and applying side-to-side pressure. Service or replace your pedals if needed
  4. Check all bolts on your bike for proper tightness, including stem, handlebar, seatpost, and derailleur bolts. Use a torque wrench if specified by the manufacturer to avoid over-tightening

Seasonal Maintenance

At least once a year, or more frequently if you ride in harsh conditions, perform these comprehensive maintenance tasks:

  1. Disassemble, clean, and re-grease your headset and bottom bracket
  2. Service your suspension forks and rear shocks, following the manufacturer’s recommendations
  3. Bleed your hydraulic disc brakes to maintain optimal braking performance and prevent contamination
  4. Replace your chain, cassette, and chainrings if they show significant wear or have reached the end of their lifespan

By following this detailed maintenance schedule, you’ll keep your gravel bike running smoothly over the rough stuff.

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Exploring the World of Gravel Events and Destinations

Gravel biking has given birth to a thriving community of riders and a growing calendar of events. From local group rides to multi-day races, there’s something for everyone. Participating in these events can be a great way to meet fellow gravel enthusiasts, challenge yourself, and discover new routes.

Ready to explore the world on two wheels? Here are some of the top gravel riding events and destinations to add to your bucket list:

  • Dirty Kanza (Emporia, Kansas, USA): One of the most iconic gravel races in the world, the Dirty Kanza takes riders through the rugged and beautiful Flint Hills region of Kansas
  • Tuscany Trail (Tuscany, Italy): This self-supported bikepacking adventure covers over 500 km (310 miles) of scenic gravel roads, passing through charming Tuscan villages and breathtaking landscapes
  • The Rift (Iceland): Experience the otherworldly beauty of Iceland’s volcanic landscapes in this challenging gravel race that circumnavigates the country’s largest freshwater lake
  • Transcontinental Race (Europe): This self-supported, ultra-distance bike race challenges riders to traverse thousands of kilometers across Europe, including a mix of paved and gravel roads
  • Belgian Waffle Ride (USA): With multiple locations across the United States, the Belgian Waffle Ride offers a unique European-style cycling experience, combining elements of road racing, cyclocross, and gravel grinding. Riders can expect challenging courses, scenic vistas, and, of course, delicious Belgian waffles
  • Gravel Worlds (Lincoln, Nebraska, USA): This annual gravel race takes riders on a pirate-themed adventure through the rolling hills and quiet country roads of Nebraska. With multiple distance options and a fun, welcoming atmosphere, Gravel Worlds is a must-do event for gravel enthusiasts of all levels
  • The Dirty Reiver (Kielder, England): Inspired by the gravel rides of the American Midwest, the Dirty Reiver takes riders on a challenging and scenic journey through the remote forests and moorlands of Northumberland. With multiple distance options and a festival-like atmosphere, this event has quickly become a favorite among UK gravel riders
  • Bikepacking Events: For those who love the challenge and adventure of multi-day, self-supported gravel rides, bikepacking events are a perfect fit. Examples include the Arizona Trail Race in the USA, the Trans Germany Bikepacking Race, and the French Divide, which take riders on epic journeys through diverse landscapes, combining gravel riding with camping and self-sufficiency
  • Grinduro Scotland (Isle of Arran, Scotland): Grinduro (a global series) has expanded its unique race format to the rugged and beautiful Isle of Arran in Scotland. Combining gravel racing, mountain bike enduro, and a festival atmosphere, Grinduro Scotland offers a fun and challenging experience for riders of all levels
  • The Mid South (Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA): Formerly known as the Land Run 100, this race takes riders on a challenging and picturesque journey through Oklahoma’s red dirt roads. With a reputation for unpredictable weather and challenging conditions, the Mid South offers a true gravel adventure
  • Local Gravel Group Rides: Many cycling clubs and bike shops organize regular gravel group rides, which are a great way to meet fellow riders, explore new routes, and improve your gravel riding skills. Check with your local bike shops or search online for gravel group rides in your area
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Summing up

As you embark on your gravel biking journey, remember that the most important aspect is to have fun and enjoy the freedom of exploring the world on two wheels. With the right bike, gear, and attitude, there’s no limit to the adventures you can have. So get out there and ride, and don’t forget to share your experiences with fellow gravel enthusiasts along the way. Go grind some gravel.

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