4 Essential Skills for Better Bike-Handling on Gravel

Peter Glassford
by Peter Glassford
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4 Essential Skills for Better Bike-Handling on Gravel

Gravel grinding is the latest craze in the cycling world — races like Dirty Kanza are selling out, people are heading on 100-mile weekend adventures, and riders are loving the freedom of exploring the roads less traveled without the hardcore mountain biking element.

If you haven’t explored off the pavement, it is definitely time to add some bigger tires to your road bike and take a (cautious) look at this rapidly growing segment of cycling culture. You can certainly ride light gravel paths and well-kept gravel roads on your road bike, but you might appreciate the better braking, traction and stability a gravel-specific bike provides.

Regardless of your bike, your skill level determines what gear setup you can make work as the roads get steeper, looser and bumpier.



Apart from simply being stubborn and tough, you can improve your control and comfort on gravel in a few ways. Bike setup is your first defense, with bigger tires set at lower tire pressures being an easy modification. Adding more or changing to thicker bar tape is another modification for hand comfort as is investing in mountain-bike styled gloves to pad your hands on bumpy roads and to protect them in a crash.

In terms of technique, using all three hand positions — hoods, drops or tops of the bars — helps you improve your balance and control. For higher-speed descents, where there is a risk of your hands getting bumped off the bars, it is best to get low on the drops where you can modulate the brakes smoothly and have a firm grip on the bar. This can be unnerving, but lower really is better, especially when it means your hands stay on the bars!

For flat, bumpy sections where you are pedaling, take a cue from the spring Classics races where riders use a loose grip on the tops of the bars, gripping like you would on a mountain bike to allow a more upright position and the ability to adjust the pressure on the bar and to each wheel. The rest of the time, on smoother roads or while climbing, riding in the hoods — the most natural style — is ideal.



Cornering is a skill worth practicing, no matter how good you think you are. When riding gravel, you often cannot lean your bike, turn your bars or brake as aggressively as you can on the road since the loose gravel offers much less traction than pavement and grippy road tires.

Practicing helps you gradually learn to read the surface you are on, but to learn faster, make sure your intervals are done on roads or trails where you can work on cornering during and between intervals (while you recover back down the hill) so you can see how different strategies work. It’s paramount to brake gradually (covered below) prior to a corner so that as you start to lean the bike into the corner, you are not also asking for traction with your brakes and tires.

Another tactic to practice is riding on the flat ground and seeing how far you can move your hips to one side of the bike, to the other side of the bike, and also behind the saddle. This ability to separate your body from the bike helps you understand how you can adjust the lean of the bike independent of your body to optimize traction and achieve a perfect corner.



Road riders quickly realize fighting for traction on steep climbs is new territory. Whether you are seated or standing, you want to hone a smooth pedal stroke and to hover your hips over the saddle when standing. To practice this, your easiest drill is to go to those steep, loose sections and practice riding up them. If you don’t have many gravel hills at home, try riding through sandpits or up steep grass climbs in a local park. Finding a hill you can do intervals on that will also challenge your position and pedal stroke adds a whole new level of focus and difficulty to your intervals — and prepares you for hard moments in gravel events.




Braking is critical for gravel and much different than the road because traction can be greatly reduced and the road surface very bumpy, especially as you approach junctions that already are marked with braking bumps from cars. Learning to modulate your brakes very gradually — rather than panic braking — is essential to avoid sliding out or skidding when you want to slow down.

Practice controlled braking in a safe park or on a quiet trail where you can gradually apply the brakes and hold them just enough to slow you down, but not so much that the tires lock or that you are not braking. Play with this ‘modulation’ on flat or grassy slopes that will add gravity to the equation. A slow race down a gradual, grassy hill can help you feel the importance of your position and braking control.

So what are you waiting for? Gravel riding means more roads, fewer cars and bigger adventures.


About the Author

Peter Glassford
Peter Glassford

Peter is a cycling coach and registered kinesiologist from Ontario, Canada. He travels frequently to work with athletes at races, camps and clinics. He also races mountain bikes for Trek Canada and pursues adventure in all types of movement. Follow @peterglassford on Twitter, or check out his online and in-person coaching at www.smartathlete.ca.


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