Your guide to Gravel cycling.
Most of us have been on a road ride that ended up with a bit of questionable road trickery because of a mapping mishap but after returning home with both bike and rider in one piece, we secretly enjoyed it. With the rise of dedicated gravel racing events as well as a lust for exploring near and far off the beaten track, gravel riding has become a discipline of its own. From bridleways to rugged farm tracks, a gravel bike can be your go-to machine for whatever the road ahead throws at you.
What is a gravel bike?
Gravel bikes are the essence of adventure, allowing you to explore from your front door. Although visually similar to a drop bar road bike, they are capable of riding all manner of terrain including bridleways, canal paths, singletrack and more. From humble roots of riding fire roads in the US, gravel cycling is a global adventure phenomenon.
Most gravel bikes will look like road bikes with increased tyre clearance for wider rubber and mudguards, easier gearing for rougher terrain and relaxed, confidence inspiring geometry for endurance riding. Many models will also have capacity for 650b wheels further increasing the range of rubber you can fit between your fork. Gravel bikes have increased agility due to their lightweight frames and drop handlebars, meaning hike-a-bike is a little easier when the rough gets rougher and cruising down compact gravel descents is that little bit quicker.
Why buy a Gravel bike?
Gravel riding sees for many a welcome shift in focus from FTP's and KOM's, to exploration and adventure. You can comfortably ride all day, with the bikes blending together many proven features seen on touring, cyclocross and mountain models. This versatility sees roads and tracks blend into one, supplying a one-bike solution for any rider looking to conquer their local terrain.
It is easy to think of gravel bikes as niche, being not quite as efficient as a specific road or mountain bike on their respective terrain. But for many, gravel bikes could provide the perfect solution to the N+1 conundrum. You can think of them as an adventure road bike, offering the perfect opportunity to answer the age old question of "where does that pathway lead?"". They also make a great option for those with a mixed surface commute thanks to their tough wheels and often burly build kits.
What specifications should I be looking for on my new Gravel bike?
When it comes to the spec of your gravel bike, there are so many combinations of componentry to look out for. This makes it more enjoyable and fun when you find the perfect gravel bike for your needs. With drivetrain, tyres, brakes, pedals and finishing kit to think about, it can be tricky to figure out whats best for you. In this next section, we will explore the different options when it comes to the spec of your gravel bike.
Some gravel bikes run a similar setup to a road bike with slightly smaller chainrings. Having two chainrings offers versatility across tarmac and gravel: harder gears for the road and easier on the gravel. Other models will have a single chainring (1x) with a wider range of gears on the cassette. The rise of 1x chainsets has been driven by the fact they're lower maintenance and simpler to use. Look for a wide range cassette that achieves at least a 1:1 ratio ready for the rough stuff.
Thanks to the rise in popularity of gravel riding, most tyre manufacturers offer a whole range of rubber to fit your needs. UK trails have a habit of being more damp than their continental counterparts, so you'll need something that has a good amount of grip that won't slow you down on the tarmac. You may also want to consider converting to tubeless to avoid unnecessary flats. What gravel tyres should I choose? In the range of gravel tyres, you can get wider tyres with a more aggressive tyre pattern and these will tackle off-road trails with ease whilst skinnier tyres with a slick profile are often faster on the roads but still capable of off-road exploration.
As for tyre pressures, you'll need to experiment across different terrain. If you're from a road cycling background, it might feel daunting to stop pumping at 40psi but trust that lower pressures offer increased comfort and grip across the bumps.
Most gravel bikes come with disc brakes as standard nowadays, though if you look around you might see some cantilever brakes among the crowd. Hydraulic disc brakes bring increased stopping power in all weather conditions, pushing you to ride faster than ever before.
You will want to stay away from SPD SL road cycling pedals when you spec your gravel bike. Sometimes, a trail will be rutted or too rocky to cross in which case you'll be on foot. "MTB pedals" with recessed cleats are far better for hike-a-bike sections and if conditions are muddy, you'll be grateful for their clearance and functionality.
What accessories will benefit me on a Gravel bike ride?
It's not necessary to have an entirely different wardrobe just because you're now riding gravel bikes but there are a few bits that will make life easier. Take hydration for example: you're likely to go over a rooted sections of woods as well as a few rocks here and there so your water bottles might rattle their way out of the cage. Hydration packs? are popular in MTB world and they've got a place in gravel riding too because of their large capacity and easy access to water.
Lighting is important on gravel rides and while the romanticised image of gravel riding in front of a wake of dust on a hot day gives us hope for the UK climate, the reality can be entirely different. To be on the safe side, make sure you've got a "powerful front light" in case of low visibility and poor weather conditions.
For your longer Gravel rides or if you plan to go on a bikepacking adventure, luggage and luggage racks are a clear neccessity for all of your belongings. Since Gravel cycling first hit the market, people have ensured that Bikepacking is a good way to spend a weekend away on the bikes whilst exploring new terrain that you wouldn't achieve in a single day. At the rear of the bike, there are often plenty of lugs to equip your steed with a pannier rack which will carry the majority of your belongings. Meanwhile up front, riders can attach frame mounted bags on the toptube and downtube as well as a handlebar bag that sits just infront of the cockpit... perfect for your multi-day explorations.