Gravel racing has taken off in North America, if not around the world. This type of riding is not new, as many long-time gravel cyclists will remind you, but its growth in terms of races, rides and technology in the last 10 years is what makes gravel worth your attention. Riders who fall in love with gravel cycling typically list adventure, low-key atmosphere and fewer cars as benefits of taking the road less traveled.
WHAT IS GRAVEL CYCLING?
Gravel is a really unique discipline because it expands your options for routes and, similar to mountain biking, can mean a lot of different things depending on your bike, tires, skills, fitness and where you are in the world. The main purpose of this discipline is exploration, mixed surfaces and quieter roads that foster community and fun.
HOW IS A GRAVEL BIKE DIFFERENT?
You could be forgiven for thinking gravel bikes are cyclocross bikes, and certainly many road and cyclocross bikes can be used for light, if not full-on, gravel riding and racing. You will generally see wider tires on purpose-built gravel bikes, that are crafted for endurance and durability rather than lightness and speed. Most gravel bikes use a dropped handlebar, like on road bikes — and their frames are built for comfort and stability, which makes them less great in the corners for those wanting to race cyclocross or lean hard into criterium corners or mountain descents.
Since road bikes now generally come with disc brakes, the options for wide tires that are slick or slightly knobbed really open up options. I have really enjoyed having a 28–32c road tire that is built to be flat-resistant for training so I can explore quiet gravel roads, use bike paths or even take on some light trails that might create new loops or routes with more safety, challenge or fun.
IS RIDING GRAVEL MORE DANGEROUS?
While you need to be a bit cautious when you corner or brake because there is less traction on gravel, that does not mean your total risk is higher or there are more crashes on gravel rides. It is wise to work on your braking and cornering to thrive on gravel but the skill demand to ride many gravel routes is not nearly as high as mountain biking, especially since your bike will have tires, brakes and geometry that improves your handling. Gravel roads tend to be very quiet, the speeds your group can go are slower and there are fewer cars, intersections and other hazards.
The feeling of riding beside a friend for hours with no stop in your conversation and cool scenery all around you is ‘the why of gravel.’ This experience is a great change from hard road or mountain bike rides and can add a nice balance to your weekly and yearly training.
While there are epic gravel events like Dirty Kanza, a 200-mile race that invites 2,500 racers each year, there are other bucket list races. Some others include: Belgian Waffle Ride (California), LandRun100 (Oklahoma), Paris to Ancaster (Ontario, Canada), Rasputista (Vermont) and Crusher in the Tushar (Utah). These events and their popularity helped create a demand for gear development, tire development and bike development that is making riding and racing this way faster and more enjoyable. New brands have popped up and many existing brands have started shifting their focus on road bikes toward burlier gravel or ‘all-road’ setups. With all of these big events and fancy gear to distract us, it is wise to proceed cautiously and try out gravel with the gear you have.
WHERE TO BEGIN
If you have a bike — road, cyclocross, mountain — you’re ready to dabble in the gravel. So many mountain bikers never ride the road and so many road cyclists won’t use gravel paths. There are many ride options that open up just by taking the bikes we have and exploring.