Gravel cycling is popular because it offers a way to explore new areas and get away from traffic. These sound like good things but there is a catch. Gravel means that many things you likely do without thinking about on your road bike can become intimidating on gravel. Cornering, braking, standing and simply adapting to the constantly changing terrain requires you to develop your skills to enjoy this discipline. But fear not, a little bit of skill practice will have you riding safely and with more efficiency.
Standing might not sound like a skill, but many athletes who come to off-road cycling, especially if they ride indoors a lot, do not spend enough time standing. Gravel roads demand you stand up to ride down steep terrain and that you ride over bumps, logs, ruts and other obstacles. To ride your bike smoothly over this terrain you need to get off the saddle and let the bike move underneath you while you stay relatively stable and centered.
For descending or rolling over things, you will generally assume the ‘ready position,’ which is standing with your pedals/cranks level and your nose approximately over the stem/handlebar.
READ MORE > 3 DRILLS TO IMPROVE YOUR BALANCE ON THE BIKE
Braking on gravel can be unnerving because you won’t be able to stop as quickly and skidding happens much easier. The solution is, much like learning to drive a car, going to an empty parking lot (or grassy field) and then working on your emergency maneuvers and stopping quickly while staying in control.
You also want to be confident in getting in front of your saddle and putting a foot down. If putting a foot down is a concern, then practice starting and stopping in a grassy field until it’s easy and you can do it with both feet quickly and confidently. For new riders (or any rider who is nervous about unclipping), it is worth using flat-pedals and shoes until fundamental skills like stopping, slow-speed balance, and your position are refined.
Cornering on gravel is one of the top concerns I hear in bike-skills coaching sessions. You may confidently fly around twisty mountain road descents but be terrified of a flat gravel pathway. Your first step is to find a grassy field and work on cornering your bike. You can use pylons or a few water bottles and jackets to make a course and work on your slalom or make a figure-eight to alternate right and left-hand corners. Mix up the surface and gradually try out more challenging surfaces and terrain.
Gravel rides require you to adjust your gearing, cadence and position more often than on the road. Grinding gears, being in the wrong gear, running out of gears or riding at very low cadences seated can be signs you need to work on using your gears, accelerating your cadence and standing to keep your momentum. If you can shift smoothly as you come into the climb and (yes) even while on the climb, you will find you are able to stay on the bike more often and avoid grinding in hard gear. The ability to stand and also look ahead is a big help to your shifting ability.
Vision and attention are two concepts road cyclists are generally pretty good at due to monitoring traffic and other riders in their group. The idea is you are looking where you want to go (around the corner, missing the pothole, etc), but you are paying attention to other things in your peripheral vision. In mountain biking we call this ‘trail scanning’ and by this we mean actively taking in the information you can see, hear and feel so you can respond to challenges and reduce the chances of getting surprised. This can be a focus of a section of your ride that is technical, but you can also practice while walking or even while reading this article. What else can you see going on while you read these words? (Something out the window? Someone else in the room?)
THE BOTTOM LINE
These five areas are where I see road cyclists typically struggle when they venture off-road. Reflect on how you can integrate some of these skills, drills and concepts into your next ride, even if it is just a spin around town or through the local park focused on skills.