Tips & Resources
Forget about the travel bug, in recent years we’ve seen a significant increase in riders being bitten by the gravel bug.
Forged from an underground scene somewhere between the adrenalin junkies of mountain biking and the lattes-in-lycra road riding crew – gravel riding has exploded into the main stream, with a number of big gravel events popping up around the country, and big bike manufacturers capitilising on a new market.
What’s all the fuss about?
Gravel riding has been described as being “less about getting from point A to point B, and more about the adventure in between.” At its core, it is fueled by a desire to broaden the potential of exploration by bike beyond where the bitumen roads can take you.
But it is not so easy to put in a box. ‘Gravel riding’ can mean many different things to different people, ranging from well-maintained unsealed rail trails, to rocky, pothole-infested and neglected bush fire trails – and everything in between.
The boom in popularity seems to be on the back of evolving bicycle technology coupled with the changing landscape of road riding. Gravel riding is often seen as a more low-key, relaxed style of riding, where you don’t need a team or a uniform and can ride for hours without seeing a single car. It’s about freedom. Deciding that turning left looks a bit more interesting than turning right.
Decorated gravel racer Alison Tetrick describes it well, as “everything I ride my bike for. I don’t ride my bike to win; I ride my bike to challenge myself and to have fun. I needed to lower the pressure in my life, and the tire pressure in my wheels. At the end of a gravel race day, we all might not have ridden the same speed, but we conquered the course. We can cheer at the finish, eat the pizza, and talk about our adventure out there.”
Do you need a new bike?
Before you run off to the bike shop, Bicycle Network General Manager of Commercial and gravel enthusiast Glen Janetzki advises aspiring gravellers to think about how often you’re going to go off road.
“Most casual gravel riding can be done without any major gear or equipment changes from road riding – except maybe a more cautious approach to speed and corners, a lower PSI in your tyres and a heightened sense of adventure,” says Glen.
A gravel bike has the essential make-up of a road bike, except a gravel bike is built for longer days in the saddle instead of racing. Therefore, a dedicated gravel bike generally has a lower bottom bracket, taller head tube and slightly longer chainstays.
The longer wheel base and slacker head tube angles assist with stability and less weight over the front wheel can reduces some directness or twitchiness in steering. Most would also feel that a more upright position is more comfortable for a long day in the saddle.
There isn’t any dramatic difference in geometry between the two bikes, except that gravel bikes utilise disc brakes to create a more generous clearance for fatter tyres (up to 45c).
What about tyres?
There is certainly a direct correlation between the grade of off-road riding you’re doing and the optimal size of your tyres, as described in the below table by bicycling.com.
25 to 28mm: This is “groad” territory; the size of choice when the ride is mostly pavement, but includes sections of fairly well-maintained dirt or gravel (such as a rail trails).
30 to 32mm: Once you cross over from mostly pavement with some gravel sections to mostly gravel with some pavement sections, you’re going to want to bump up to the 30s.
33 to 38mm: This is the gravel tire sweet spot. A tire in this range, especially at the wider end, will get you through most gravel events, allowing you to move along quickly without sacrificing comfort and cushion.
40 to 44mm: These suckers are ready for a big adventure—a good choice if you know you’re going into (maybe literally) uncharted territory.
45mm+: If you’re looking to hit singletrack and go deep into adventure territory, 650b wheels with massive tires is a horizon-opening choice. Monster tires can also provide extra comfort for ultra long and hard outings like DKXL, which is 350 miles long.
Take the rough with the smooth.
If you ride mainly on smooth roads but like the idea of being able to spontaneously head off road when the opportunity presents itself, stick with your beloved road bike. Slow up a touch (especially on corners where gravel can pile up), lower the PSI in the tubes a touch, maybe pack an extra spare tube and your sense of adventure – but don’t stress about needing any new or expensive equipment.
If you start to incorporate more and more gravel in your diet, think about the tyre size scale above and whether or not your brake system allows for thicker tyres (read: Disc Brakes v Rim Brakes).
The truth is, almost all modern bikes are built exceptionally well and are able to handle minor changes in surface. You can do 90% of what you need with the most basic of equipment – this is one of the great glories of riding bikes.