by Steve Thomas
Taking your bike onto gravel roads adds to your ride. You can’t zone out on loose surfaces. You don’t need a mountain biker’s handling skills, but you can’t phone in your technique, which is part of the fun. Gravel – it’s like road riding, but with an edge, a slightly rocky edge. Here are some riding and equipment tips to consider before things get bumpy.
Climbing on dirt is much heavier and slower than on the road. Grades can suddenly ramp up; staying close to your low gears is essential. Always look ahead, especially at switchbacks.
Stay in saddle and keep it light on the bars as much as you can. When you do stand up, do it gently. Avoid rapid acceleration. Keep gears smooth and your weight over the saddle and back of the bike until you sense the limit of traction. Remember that tire grip can vary a lot with gradient and surfaces, so keep your pedal stroke silky smooth and light.
Scrub your speed gently and evenly between any corner. Allow at least double the braking distance that you would on the road. And, do not brake in a corner.
Unless the road is very smooth, stand on the pedals and keep your weight back slightly, with arms and legs slightly bent to absorb the bumps and to allow the bike to bounce around some. Always keep a firm grip of the bars, while also allowing them to move around.
Keep your distance from other riders, and don’t automatically follow their lines. If it’s dusty ahead, ease off and allow it to clear some. Try to stay relaxed physically, yet very alert mentally, without getting nervous.
Racing lines that you’d take on asphalt are rarely an option on dirt and gravel as wear from large vehicles, weather and erosion reduce their feasibility. You should always look for the safest and smoothest option.
Look well ahead, especially at what lies on the other side of the corner, and then trim your speed very evenly with both brakes.
The edge and centre of any off- road bend is rarely a safe option. Avoid cutting centre ridges in an approach to a corner. Unless you know the line well, stick to the wellworn surfaces and play it safe.
The Bike for the Ride
The geometry of most gravel bikes sits somewhere between a cyclocross bike and a road race bike. Compared with a road machine, the gravel rig is designed to be more comfortable and stable on rough ground, as well as more robust, while also retaining that responsiveness and fast-reaction feel. These features come largely through a slackening of geometry.
In reality, the designs are a hybrid, and are not far from some of the faster touring or audax bikes that have been around for decades, only with a modern slant.
A regular race bike can handle regular dirt and gravel, although for a bigger rider it can feel harsh at times. Clearance is an issue in the wet, but for dry smooth dirt, it’s good to go.
A cyclocross or touring bike is great on the dirt and frees you up to ride all but seriously demanding mountain bike routes. Both are a little sluggish on the road, but comfortable with it. As for the gravel bike? Sweet. It’s often not as nimble as a ’cross bike, or a road bike for that matter, but smooth over the long haul.
Wheels and Tires
Slightly wider rims and more spokes will give a softer ride with less chance of impact punctures. Deep rims may look and feel nice, but they also make for a rigid ride, which can induce more rider fatigue – especially if you’re a bigger rider.
Depending on the terrain, 28– 36 mm tires are best. If it’s dry and not so rough, 28s are great. Some modern gravel bikes offer enough clearance for knobbier treads as wide as 40c.
Road rim brakes are fine on smooth and dry roads. But as soon as you get grit and crud on your brake pads, the muck will scour your rims, which will wear their surfaces and lower stopping performance. If you do ride rim brakes off-road, consider flipping them open at times to increase clearance and be sure to clean up after.
Cantilevers are great, as they offer more pulling power and clearance than rim brakes, and are much easier to clear. Sadly, they are slowly becoming extinct.
Disc brakes are without any doubt the way ahead, especially for gravel and off-road riding. Cable-pull discs are more effective than regular rim and canti brakes, but they are a few stops short when compared with hydraulics. Once you’ve had discs, you will never go back.