The line between on and off-road cycling is blurring. But has that always been the case? Mountain biking as we know it began in the 1970’s. Even 30 years before that cyclists were riding cyclocross. So, what’s gravel riding all about? Is it more of the same or a natural evolution?
For us, gravel riding means simply riding your bike and exploring unknown paths and trails, no matter the terrain. It includes road cycling, but allows you to venture off the beaten track.
While the word ‘Gravel’ may operate as a marketing catch-all term, the idea behind do-it-all bikes and exploring new routes is definitely heaps of fun.
Intrigued? Here are some essential tips to make the most out of your gravel experience.
1. Tyre volume – go big
The great thing about riding rigid bikes off road is the feedback you get. It’s exhilarating to throw a hardtail bike down good trails. While you’ll need a mountain bike for gnarlier trails, most of the UK is there for you to enjoy.
But, you’re going to need a little suspension to take this on. The best way to add some comfort? Wider tyres.
Finding the optimal width and tread for your tyres means finding the balance between rolling resistance and comfort. With a wider tyre you can run lower pressures, offering greater levels of grip – especially useful in wet conditions (all too common in the UK).
At lower pressures, however, you risk pinch flats with inner tubes. This is just one of the reasons many gravel riders have converted to tubeless.
The sealant should work for most thorns and small rocks, plus lets you ride at lower pressures without pinching the tube.
If you’re coming from the road, a good starting tyre width is 38mm. But to take on more rugged trails, you can go bigger, even up to a huge 50c.
2. Gravel bike setup
Climbing on loose gravel, mud, chalk or grass isn’t the same as tarmac. You’ve got your wider tyre to help with grip, but having smaller gear ratios is equally important.
You’ll be especially grateful for that smaller gear if you plan on embarking on any bikepacking trips. Bikepacking, incidentally, has become a big part of gravel riding. Gravel bikes often have plenty of eyelets for mounting racks and bags – ideal for camping gear.
We’ve got a full list of UK off-road bikepacking routes just here.
Alongside that smaller front chainring, and potentially dinner plater sized cassette, you can think about upgrading to a flared handlebar. This will help give you more control on descents – more akin to a mountain bike bar.
3. What should I wear?
As with all cycling clothing, there shouldn’t be any rules in our opinion. But, if you’re coming from a road cycling background, generally there’s little need to be too concerned with aerodynamics anymore.
That translates to baggier t-shirts, looser shorts, and generally leaving the small aero jerseys in your cupboard.
Bib-shorts or cycling shorts are still very, if not more, crucial for comfort, however. Always be on the lookout for a quality chamois. Some gravel specific shorts even come with pockets to allow you to wear a looser t-shirt – making up for the lack of jersey pockets.
You could choose to wear a cycling short liner underneath mountain bike shorts if that’s your preference, too.
If you really want to fit in with the gravel crowd, there are certainly some trendy hallmarks. Bumbags, casquettes and paisley bandanas are all fashion essentials.
The bumbag, while ticking some fashion boxes, is also a useful way of stashing any snacks or tools away.
4. Good route planning
This is arguably the most important tip on the list. Depending on your route, you could up feeling woefully under-biked on a mountain bike trail, or underwhelmed by loose tarmac bike paths.
It takes time and experience to discover the best bridleways and trails around you to explore. If you’re the adventurous type, you could just head down any path or trail you discover. You never know what you might find, but always be aware of land rights and permission along the way.
A more sure-fire way is to go out with experienced friends, or tap into online resources such as Komoot, an app which highlights popular gravel tracks.
You’ll find your average speed isn’t going to look as impressive compared to road cycling, but this is absolutely OK! We’re not concerned with going fast here, gravel has a lot more to offer than number crunching.
The real joy of a well planned gravel cycling route is discovering new trails, challenging off-road climbing, and fun technical descents. And all that comes with the right planning – and adventure.
5. Bike maintenance
Gravel specific bikes tend to focus on durability and ruggedness. Why? Because a typical lightweight road bike is really going to suffer off-road.
That, unfortunately, doesn’t mean taking less with you on a ride. Really, it’s the opposite. You’ll be on remote roads away from traffic, you won’t be seeing as many people, or petrol stations and shops.
It’s a good idea to be mechanically prepared. Other than your usual multi-tool, it’s worth taking a tyre boot and a chain tool – especially if you’re going on a longer multi-day trip. It’s not uncommon to slash a tyre sidewall on a rocky downhill section, and snapped chains is something that it’s worth knowing how to fix too.
You can use our bike repair maintenance guide to give your bike a thorough check over before every big ride.
Bonus tip: Enjoy it!
More than anything, enjoy the serenity of no traffic, soak in the bridleways, rip the technical descents, and have fun!