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A Guide to Gravel Biking

   Words by Tom Worsfold

   on 07/08/2020 13:30:35

Words by Grace Lambert-Smith

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.

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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.

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Initially gravel bikes spawned from heavily modified road models, outfitted with wider tyres and tough componentry. Nowadays with the recent surge in popularity purpose built gravel bikes are available from most of our top brands including Specialized, Cannondale, Whyte and Giant.


Our top pick - The Specialized Diverge

Featuring an all new makeover for the 2021 season, Specialized have built the Diverge to be more fun, fast and capable than ever before. Longer, lower and slacker is no longer a moniker for just the world of mountain biking - the Diverge features angles that draw heavily from their Epic XC bike, making it a confident adventure weapon. Compatible with both 700c and 650b wheels the Diverge can quickly change its focus, giving it an inherent versatility that few other bikes can match.

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Where and why would you ride one?

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.

So what’s the appeal?

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.

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What to look for when buying a gravel bike

Drivetrain

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.

2020 saw the launch of the specific gravel orientated Shimano GRX drivetrain. Featuring a wide range cassette, hydraulic disc brakes and a 1x specific crank, GRX uses gravel specific ergonomics to set itself apart as a quiet and durable drivetrain. See our GRX equipped bikes here.


Tyres

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. Specialized’s Pathfinder tyres are an excellent choice for mixed-terrain riding, offering off-road grip and low rolling resistance on tarmac.

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.


Brakes

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.

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Pedals

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.


Accessories

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.


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