I am new to gravel riding and have recently learned there are more trails in my area than I originally thought. My goal is to build skills this summer and join some races in the fall. Any recommendations for building technical skills on gravel roads? How is it different from riding on pavement? Are there any online resources I can use to learn from that are more gravel specific than this forum? Any help on what I should bring with in long gravel rides? All insight is greatly appreciated!
Start with the biggest tire you can fit on your bike and run the lowest pressure you can without pinch flatting. It sounds simplistic but the decreased chatter and increased stability will make the learning curve much less steep. You’ll have more confidence and be able to focus on actually paying attention to how the road feels beneath you. You’re lowering the cognitive load by smoothing out the roughest stuff.
I also enjoyed the book “Gravel” by Selene Yeager - a lot of very basic, practical information about riding gravel that you may be able to incorporate into your riding.
At the end of the day though, two things are true: If you’re a confident road rider with some decent technical skill, a jump to gravel isn’t super hard (I’m talking gravel, not the single track routes some people try to pass off as “gravel”) and more time in the saddle on gravel will do wonders for your ability. Dont over think it too much, start slow and ride a lot.
The variety of textures changes grip and power delivery. You are constantly scanning for the best lines. Some descends are also highly technical.
Just ride a lot, experiment and go around the edges of what is rideable.
Water purification, matches, insulation. It depends how remote your routes are.
Finally, if you are doing sandy steep climbs, make sure you have the appropriate gear.
I disagree with trying to “run the lowest pressure you can without pinch flatting”.
I tried this for a while and was running 15-17psi. The ride was cushier but handling was poor. It’s like you are fighting the front tire flopping over constantly.
I finally settled on 25 psi as a good middle ground. (I originally started with 35psi which was too hard and beating me up.) On the same bike I’d run 50psi on the road.
What size tire and how much do you weigh?
To the OP, I think the biggest difference between road and gravel is cornering. You can’t lean into a gravel corner the way you can on the road and expect to maintain traction. Instead, you have to be strategic, choosing a line, sometimes using ruts or contours to your advantage, slowing down a bit, and expecting your tires to slip a little. It’s old hat for folks who ride MTB but for me it’s super fun and super intimidating, as it goes against my natural roadie instincts.
“Gravel” means very different things depending on where you are in the world. Here is the US it means very different things from state to state but most states have a network of county roads that are some form of gravel. I’m in Texas and in a state this large gravel roads can be very different from county to county. I’ve ridden on Colorado where some of the “gravel” roads are smoother than the chipseal paved roads around here. Around me they generally top gravel roads with crushed limestone. It is large, chunky and loose when first laid down and over time gets crushed smaller and smaller with traffic and becomes smoother and more hard packed. It drains well and rarely do I see “mud” but every now and then there is a road that is not topped with anything is is natural and more prone to mud.
All that to say - I recommend finding a local source - riding clubs or event organizers and start following the social media and participating in rides/events. As far as more general sources I like Gravel Cyclist and Riding Gravel. Two good sites that put out reviews and information related to gravel riding.
This is one of the funnest parts of gravel IMO- the same road can be almost totally different depending on the time of year, recent rains, and how it’s been cared for. I find that riding gravel keeps me much more in tune with weather and little details of the terrain than riding road does, for this reason. Also, there’s typically a lot less traffic, which is nice.
If you have mtb experience, it will be an easy switch. If not, corners and deep stuff will be new skills. If you get into sand, sometimes it’s easier to spin over the top, sometimes you need to dig deep and push big gears. Sand can make you fishtail. Changing surfaces are always sketchy areas where things can get slippery. When it gets crazy bouncy, try standing up and keeping the weight in the pedals with a very light grip on the bars. On bumpy gravel, it’s often best to sit in the tread pattern cars have left or on the crown or edges of the road. Look for the best surface and learn to ride different lines.
I think the point the first poster was trying to make was that you can probably go much lower on psi than you think with wide tubeless tires. Don’t go so low that things get slippery, but going lower will keep things from bouncing around, make the bike easier to control, and keep you from getting beaten up by the bars. For example, I ride 700x43 and run 37 psi. When I first started, I probably would have aimed for the top end of whatever is printed on the tire because that’s what I did when I started riding road.
@Pbase totally got what I was (poorly) saying - you want to add some confidence and reduce some stress. I’m also on 700x43 and I run about 40-45PSI
Cornering definitely changes by surface type and you just need to ride to learn. Gravel is a new thing for a lot of people but it is just bike riding. Like others have said the definition changes person to person and region to region. Something to remember is that these roads were around long before Gravel Cycling and many people were out there on 23mm tires a long time ago.
Totally agree with this. A little MTB experience will really help. I first started riding an old hard tail MTB years ago on rocky, rooted trails that would get loose and dry in summer. I learned to get up out of the saddle, lower the center of gravity and pick my lines. All that helps with Gravel.
Also agree with the lower pressure. Finding the sweetspot will vary with tire/wheel combo, rider weight, etc. but there is a psi where you can avoid pinch flats and have a much smoother and faster riding experience by letting the tire conform to the surface.
Try find a gravel parking lot or similar where you can do figure 8s for practice cornering.
But I find for specific questions where you are looking for advice, this TR forum is hard to beat.
All the usual tire and drivetrain repair stuff. One thing that’s different than road is keeping you chain in good condition on long dusty gravel rides. You should bring lube and a cloth with you. Or try a waxed chain (I’m trying that this year).
Oh, and make sure you have your bike set up tubeless, and have tire plugs and a boot.
This is an important point! Maintaining momentum through gravel corners is a whole different game! Most gravel turns go from hard-packed tire track, through a central ridge of loose chunky gravel, to another hard-packed tire track, through another ridge of loose chunky gravel, and finally back into another hard packed tire track. Being able to do that safely at speed is definitely an acquired skill.
It’s also where you’ll find the flaw in the ‘ride at the lowest tire pressure you can’ approach!
Thank you everyone for the wisdom and comments, keep it coming! I occasionally ride a mountain bike but there are only a few trails in my area (Columbus OH). I love adventure cycling and want to do big rides on gravel and maybe some racing in the future. I have joined the local groups and FB and there seems to be a mix of different gravel types in the area, I am planning on starting small with 20-30 mile routes and upping it from there.
40-45mm tires. I weight around 190.
Alot of the good gravel routes and rides around me are 50-70 miles. Does it make sense to work up to the distance, or maybe just give it a shot and go really slow?
Depending on your experience with any “rough” riding like MTB, you may want to ease into it. Totally subject to the quality of your roads, but generally speaking you will get some more fatigue on gravel when compared to the same distance on paved roads.
The sometimes constant vibrations, even small ones, can add to your overall fatigue level. I’d suggest a shorter route, even and out and back, that you almost think is too short. You don’t want to get way out and realize you bit off more than you can handle. Baby steps approach and be conservative would be my recommendation.
I find the hardest adjustment to be certain style of hills. Where I live we have a bunch of steep climbs that are gravel. Loose gravel and standing up do not go well together, when you go to apply pressure it will cause wheel spin. Making sure to have correct gearing will really help.
If you live somewhere flat, this wouldnt be a concern.
Hilly fireroads are my gravel. It’s significantly slower than the road. I also find it more mentally tiring - there’s no switching off on the terrain we’re on - only on the tarmac between forests.