Essential Gravel Goods and Gear

Jesse Southerland
·10 mins read
Photo credit: Cody Mann TEST NOT FOR USE
Photo credit: Cody Mann TEST NOT FOR USE

From Bicycling

Key Points

  • Tires dictate how well you’ll be able to tackle any given terrain and can make or break your entire ride. When in doubt, go wider.

  • Tubeless tires will allow you to run lower air pressure for a more comfortable ride—and save you from fixing a bunch of mid-race flats.

  • Avoid full-coverage fenders, which will just fill up with mud. Stick to a clip-on mudguard instead.

  • An extra storage bag for your frame is handy — at some point, you are going to need to carry a LOT of stuff.

You absolutely do not need to drain your bank account to stock up on gear made specifically for gravel riding, at least not at first. Generally, you’ll want to carry the basics you would for longish rides on any kind of bike. This includes a patch kit and a boot (in case you slash the side of your tire); a multi-tool that includes a chain tool; a mini-pump and CO2; a spare tube or two (yes, even if you’re using tubeless tires—they’re a great ride-saving last resort)); a tubeless plug kit for those times when you puncture a hole too big for sealant to fix; a seatbag or handlebar bag; waterbottles or hydration pack; a GPS unit; and lights.

How much equipment you need beyond this is proportional to how far out there you’ll be without any outside aid available.

Tires

We can talk bike geometry and wheel size all day, but without the right tires you’re not going to get very far. New tires are rolling out all the time, so this isn’t a definitive guide on what tires to buy—you can find updated reviews of the best tires in the gear section of our site. This is what you need to help you decipher size, tread, and other key factors.

Before we dive into the details, there’s one thing all the experts agree on: Go tubeless. No matter what size and tread you choose, make sure they are tubeless. The ability to run lower pressures will dramatically improve your ride experience, and the sealant inside tubeless tires will save you from fixing many, many flats.

➥ Width

The Industry Standard Guide to Gravel is a great starting point. Here’s some more guidance — and when in doubt, opt for a bigger size.

25–28mm: This is “groad” territory, meaning it’s just wide enough to keep cruising when the Saturday morning ride bangs a left onto an unpaved connector road. It’s also a good choice for road-centric spring-classic types of races and events that are mainly paved but feature sections of fairly well-maintained gravel roads. The same goes for many popular fondos like Jeremiah Bishop’s Alpine Loop Gran Fondo in Virginia, which is mostly pavement but features several very long, sometimes fairly rough dirt-road climbs.

30–32mm: Once you cross from mostly pavement with some gravel sections to mostly gravel with some pavement sections, you’re going to want to bump up to the 30s. This is the size you’ll see pros rocking at the Belgian Waffle Ride, a notoriously tough European-style spring classic held in California that includes 46 miles of rough singletrack climbs, sandy trails, dirt, and gravel.

33–38mm: A tire in this range, especially at the wider range, will get you through pretty much anything. It’s the go-to tire for a lot of DK200 veterans who want to move along quickly without sacrificing comfort and cushion.

40–44mm: Yes, this sounds like a monster-size tire, but with super-fast rolling rubber like the Schwalbe G-One Speeds, this size works for many different terrains. And it’s the size Ted King opted to ride at Rasputitsa in 2018 (he chose the WTB Nano tire), a smart decision given that much of that route is pretty smooth, but you often run into ruts, cratered-out roads, and ample amounts of snow, ice, and slush.

45mm+: If you’re looking to hit singletrack and go deep into adventure territory, 650b with massive tires is a horizon-opening choice. (Some bikes like the Chamois Hagar will take up to 50mm on 700c wheels for going really big). It can also be a smart setup should you decide to try your hand at the extra-ultra-endurance gravel scene. Hughes has recently been tooling around with 650bx47mm as a way to turn up the comfort level for rides that take all day…or more. “The overall circumference is pretty close to the 700x38 size. I don’t know that I would run them for fast and shorter distances, but for events like the DKXL [350 miles] or the now-defunct Trans-Iowa [340 miles], they’re an appealing option.”

➥ Tread

Choosing a tire tread can be a mind-boggling decision with the vast array of choices available. I spoke to tire guru Ken Avery, who has created tires for world champions at Maxxis and now Vittoria. “Always pick a tire based on the terrain you’re trying to ride,” Avery says, breaking it down into these categories:

Mostly hard pack: If you’re doing a ride that is 70 percent pavement and 30 percent gravel, look for a tire that has a slick center with texture on the shoulder,” he says. “You don’t want a lug or a knob, but you want it to have grip off-road. You also want the transition from upright to leaning to be smooth for cornering on pavement.”

Mostly dry gravel: Once you leave the pavement for mostly gravel, you want a more textured centerline so you roll fast and still have good traction for climbing and braking. And the shoulder tread should be more pronounced to dig into the softer surface and give you grip when you’re cornering, Avery says. “I use a fish scale design in the center. When you’re rolling, the scales are flat and smooth, but when you hit the brakes, those edges stand up to give you traction.”

Mostly muddy dirt roads: Traction is king here, so you want tread, but you don't want tires with knobs that are so tall that they squirm on pavement or really slow you down, Avery says. “A good mud tire has a mixed tread, with the knobs tighter in the center, so it still rolls faster, but more spaced out toward the outside.” The pattern will also be designed to form clearing channels that push the mud from the center to the outside of the tire. Avery also likes to use siping, or grooves, on top of the knobs to help them flex and provide more surface area for the tire to maintain contact.

Who knows what you’ll find out there?!: For those events that aren’t “mostly” anything, you’ll want an “all-arounder,” or mixed-condition, tire. These have a tightly spaced center tread to reduce rolling resistance on hard-packed or pavement roads that’s pronounced enough to dig into softer surfaces. The tread will also have an even profile and feature a mud-clearing pattern to help prevent the tires from getting packed up should you hit sloppy stuff.

Mudguards

Gravel rides are generally sloppy affairs. Because the roads aren’t paved, once they’re wet they turn to mud. It can be tempting to run fenders. Don’t. Full-coverage fenders don’t allow much tire clearance, so they pack up with mud very easily, which will slow or completely stop your roll.

Instead go with clip-on mudguards like the Portland Design Works Origami Rear Fender, which clamps onto your seat tube. Or try the type that attach to your saddle rails, such as the Ass Saver by Ornot or the Ass Saver by Ass Savers.

Neither of these setups will fully prevent your rear tire spray from showering the poor souls behind you, but the guards will help keep the worst of it off of you, meaning your behind won't be saturated in muddy water for the entire ride.

The brand Ass Savers also offers a mini mud flap that you can strap to your fork legs with Velcro straps. As someone who has finished many a ride with her face fully caked in mud freckles, I recommend these for rides in sloppy conditions.

Bags and Packs

When you’re going to be out there all day, or maybe even days, you’ll need all sorts of extra supplies like sunscreen, repair tools, extra layers, emergency equipment, and plenty of food. Your jersey pockets aren’t going to cut it. In fact, I’ve found that’s true even for many people who never ride their gravel bikes more than 40 or 50 miles.

Some gravel bikes have bolts to attach a bag—often called a bento box—on top of the top tube. It’s an easy-to-access stash of ride snacks and other goodies. To carry food plus other supplies, there are larger, sturdier, weatherproof bags that hang from the top tube (and are strapped tight by attachments to other tubes) to sit inside the main triangle of the frame. Look for bags with mesh side pockets, which make it super easy to stash your gels and bars; easy-to-access openings, so if you’re wearing thick gloves you can open zippers and buckles easily, including cases with magnetic closures that help you get in and out on the fly; phone holders; and protected power ports, so that if you outride your GPS battery life, you can tap into reserve power from a spare battery stashed in the bag.

Some riders also use traditional, zipped-shut saddlebags. These can work, especially as a supplement, but make sure to triple-check that the bag is 100 percent secure and won’t rattle around or bounce off. Also, note that gravel riding is rougher on all equipment, including saddlebags. I’ve had zippers get gunked up during long, rainy, muddy rides to the point of barely opening. Another option is a roll-up type of bag that straps to the underside of your saddle. I’ve used one of these, a Speedsleev, on some of the rockiest, most jarring descents in the country, and it’s never come loose, or rubbed or snagged on my shorts the way some saddlebags do.

Miscellaneous Ride-Savers

You might not think of packing these, but you will never regret doing so.

Gear cleaning brush: You won’t always need this one, but when you need it, you really need it. If you’re on routes such as Mid South, Kanza, or other rides known for notoriously sticky mud, your drivetrain can get so packed that you can’t move. This $5 tool will get you through the gunk. Otherwise, you’re going to be foraging for a stick, which isn’t always a reliable solution.

Spare derailleur hanger: There have been years at Kanza when dozens of riders DNF (did not finish) in the first 25 miles because they snap their derailleurs trying to power through a sticky mud bog. A hanger will save you; without it, you’re done.

Duct tape and zip ties: Gravel events feature rough terrain. Rough terrain sometimes breaks things in unexpected ways. A strip of duct tape and a few zip ties stashed in your supplies can get you out of a number of binds. I’ve seen riders duct tape their shoes back together when their soles peeled off. Zip ties can fasten bottle cages, if you lose a bolt. And they don’t take up much room in your pack. ❖

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

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