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“Gravel” has a broad definition—generally, any terrain between the steep, rocky inclines of mountain biking, and the smooth asphalt of road biking. In practice, it translates to gorgeous scenery, pleasantly challenging conditions, and no cars. Combined with advances in bike technology, gravel’s decades-long explosion of popularity makes sense.
Whether you’re a novice rider who needs a first bike, or you’re a pro looking for your next race, this guide will give you everything you need to get the most fun out of your next ride. Make sure to click through each section for the full guide to each topic.
What is Gravel?
Gravel remains mostly undefined, which is exactly the point. One person might imagine quiet, slightly crunchy roads. Another may see challenging, steep, cratered-out, boulder-pocked trails. Both are correct. Which means, it helps to know what you’re getting into, especially when choosing your gear.
To date, the best guide was created by former pro road racer and all-around badass bike racer Neil Shirley. He went all-in on gravel early on, and had tons of people asking his advice on tires and equipment. He started writing a document he called the Industry Standard Guide to Gravel (ISGG) for Our Outdoor Office. It began as a joke—who could “standardize” gravel? Turns out, his categorization was actually pretty useful.
Gravel courses range from Category 1 (smooth, hard, road bike-friendly dirt) to Category 4 (deep ruts, rocks, and potential landslides, best handled with high-volume mountain bike tires). Click through for deeper descriptions and tire recommendations for each category.
Choosing a Bike
Say, “gravel bike,” and some riders will roll their eyes. "All bikes are gravel bikes," they say. Which is true. But past a certain point, especially with tires, you learn that the right equipment makes any ride more fun.
As with all aspects of cycling, gravel-specific bikes have no suspension, long wheelbases and frames designed to flex. They cost from under $1,000 to over $10,000, with most mainstream bikes falling between $1,500 and $3,500. Generally, more expensive bikes are lighter and come equipped with higher-end wheels and components.
After deciding your budget, think about what kind of riding you want to do. From there, we'll guide you through the best options.
Don’t drain your bank account to stock up on accessories made specifically for gravel riding, at least not at first. Generally, you’ll carry the basics you would for any long ride:
Patch kit and a boot, in case you slash the side of your tire.
Multi-tool that includes a chain tool.
Spare tube or two (even if you’re using tubeless tire. They’re a great ride-saving last resort)
Tubeless plug kit for those times when you puncture a hole too big for sealant to fix
Seatbag or handlebar bag;
Waterbottles or hydration pack
How much equipment you need beyond that is proportional to how far out you’ll be without any available aid. But no matter what, you will need to pay attention to one thing: your tires.
We can talk bike geometry and wheel size all day, but without the right tires, you’re not going to get very far. Our guide will help you decipher size, tread, and other key factors.
Gravel riding is brilliantly simple, but a few specific techniques will help you enjoy the ride and push your performance. Practice them whenever the terrain gives you the opportunity.
On rough descents, you’ll need even more stability and shock absorption. When descending, move your hands into the drops, elbows still bent and relaxed. This lowers your center of gravity. Shift your weight to the back of the seat, and bend your legs to use them like springs that absorb the bumps and allow the bike to continue tracking in a straight line. On really rough terrain, hover out of the saddle to give your bike even more freedom to move beneath you. Visit this section for a full list of tips that will help you descend with more confidence.
Before any event or adventure, there is the little voice inside that asks, “Can I really do this?” That doubt is not lost on the event directors who create courses. When you ride Crusher in the Tushar, there will be moments when you promise yourself that if you just finish, you will sell all your stupid bikes and take up paddle boarding. But then, you cross the finish line. Your endorphin-flooded brain starts fantasizing about doing it again.
Gravel requires extra effort. You need to train your brain the same way you train your body. When all else is equal, the riders with the most grit — a psychological trait that makes someone work harder, longer, and more often without giving up — will be most successful on gravel. Fortunately, it's something you can learn.
Strength Training for Gravel
What’s missing in many a rookie’s repertoire: gravel-specific fitness. Gravel riding, and especially racing, requires a different level of fitness, strength, and stability than you use for pure pavement riding. Don’t believe it? Line up for Mid South 100 in Oklahoma, where you’ll face 107 miles of red, rutted, rural roads that turn to peanut butter when wet, and see how that compares with your typical century.
That’s why even whippet-thin distance runners are now in the weight room doing deadlifts and full squats. Strength training ultimately makes you more efficient, more powerful, faster, and less likely to get hurt. Continue on to get started.
Ride Training for Gravel
How much time you dedicate to training largely depends on your goals. If you’re looking to score a podium spot or make the top 10 in your age group, you’ll have to put in more training time than if you’re simply looking to beat the time cutoffs and finish in one piece.
Coaches we've spoken to often describe training as a bridge between where you are and where you want to be. The longer the event, the bigger your bridge, and the farther out you should start training to build it. Use these basic rules to gauge your training time.
Handling Gravel's Extremes
You did it. You signed up for a massive gravel adventure. But after the initial thrill, another emotion bubbles up: panic. It’s natural to be concerned. Big gravel events are infamously hard. Heck, even professional bike racers like Ted King, who rode—and won—his first Unbound Gravel 200 in 2016 are often dumbfounded by the conditions they find.
“Ignorance was in fact bliss, as I really didn’t know what I was getting into. In a previous chapter of life, I’d ridden inordinately long rides, raced cobbled classics, pedaled across vast flat plains. But until you do Unbound Gravel, there’s nothing you can really do to prepare for Unbound Gravel. It’s a totally zany, one-of-a-kind, all-day monster of a bike race, and as soon as I won it, I told myself NEVER AGAIN.”
That doesn't have to be you. There are steps you can take for gravel adventures of any size that will give you your best shot at an enjoyable, successful day. The key is to go beyond "putting in the miles," and plan a bit of deliberate preparation.
“Is this a race or a ride?” Event promoters and experienced racers get asked this all the time, because registration pages can be vague. Sometimes, it's intentional. The spirit of gravel has traditionally been more about the experience—traversing this amazing and sometimes amazingly challenging terrain to the best of your ability—than crossing the finish line first. However, cyclists being cyclists, when we pay money and zip-tie number plates to our bars, we want to race. Others, however, get turned off by an ultra-competitive gravel-racing environment. If you want to know what you're getting into, ask.
Our guide will take you through the different event formats to help you find the right one for you.
Adapted from Gravel, by Selene Yeager
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