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7 circles of gravel hell

A vocabulary guide for appropriately describing how epic your weekend ride was

Gravel Hell

Sometimes gravel riding is cruising along a perfectly graded strip of unpaved road, basking in the sun and soaking up an incredible view.

Other times, gravel riding is struggling along, mashing pedals at best or walking at worst, while pushing through dense brush, soaking wet and with no view to speak of.

Gravel Hell
Living the gravel dream in Montana.

As someone with a deep appreciation for “Type 2 fun,” I look forward to both scenarios equally. One’s just… takes a bit of distance from the event itself to properly appreciate. Developing an appropriate vocabulary for just how epic your last gravel ride was is a crucial part of relaying to others that your slog was actually quite enjoyable.

It’s also an important part of convincing unsuspecting friends to join your next adventure so you don’t have to ride alone.

Every ride is different, and every local route offers up unique challenges. But, to kick start your own personal gravel vocabulary, here’s some of our favorite. From slight struggle to leg-shattering slogs, these are the 7 Circles of Gravel Hell. Enjoy!

Gravel Hell
Double track and blue skies. Beautiful.

The 7 Circles of Gravel Hell


Blissfully hard-packed dirt. Fast, full of traction. A wonderful magic carpet ride of dirt tracking through the forest or field. Until it rains. It then becomes a slippery mud-pit of zero traction and constant laughter. Like an adult slip’n’slide.


Oof. That one probably hurt. Power-sapping like a never-ending cyclocross lap. No traction and no hope of making it through without dabbing, unless you’re on the fattest of fat tires. Also: hilariously fun to ride.

Gravel Hell
Pretty. Also, pretty sharp.

Blast Rock

Roads made for logging trucks, literally blasted into hillsides. Sharp for bikes, small vehicles and under-prepared trucks. Just fine for trucks with human-sized tires and a wheel-count in the double digits. Hard packed and fast, until your tire is flat. Ugh.

Multi-use mixed surface

Sounds like a trip to the tax office. Actually quite fun. Steady rolling, easy to ride, some traction in corners and rarely implanted with large stones. Go fast, slide just enough to have fun. The dream.


The lottery ticket of gravel riding. Could be a lovely, mossy surface over hard-packed gravel. Could be near-perfect double track, or remnants of asphalt with green poking through as nature reclaims what is hers. Could be impossible to navigate stretches young forest poking through asphalt – too close together for bars to squeeze through, but already too sturdy to bend or give way. Occasionally obstructed by deep troughs when well de-commissioned. Fun like riding through a living set of Fern Gully. Frustrating like trying to get to your campsite before dark when your Garmin keeps auto-pausing because you’re moving too slow.

Gravel Hell
Testing the Knolly Cache in zero traction, zero visibility conditions.


Not pebbles, but still small enough they can be called a surface, sort of. What beaches are made of on the west coast, and weird backroads are made of when they cross stream beds in the Rockies or run alongside lakes in Ontario. Bigger than pebbles, but just small enough that your tires sink into them and stop. Difficult, if not impossible to navigate on two wheels, unless descending. Then just difficult, if not impossible to steer. Also: difficult to walk in. Godspeed.

Pea Gravel

Sounds nutritious, possibly delicious. Actually power sucking and difficult to navigate. Sit, don’t stand. Suggest, don’t steer. Either entertaining or atrocious, depending how cracked you already are. Especially deep and traction-less on certain rural prairie roads.

Gravel Hell
You don’t need a special vocabulary to describe “Steep.” 30 per cent switchbacks. Big rocks. Lots of walking, even with mountain bike gearing.