Riding gravel is harder than spinning on smooth pavement, but with good technique, it gets a whole lot easier.
If you remember nothing else: Relax and stay loose!
Shifting your weight and changing your cadence over challenging terrain will help you make quicker forward progress.
Expect the unexpected and embrace the adventure. That’s what gravel is all about.
If you’re coming from a road or mountain biking background, you’ll find riding gravel, well, different. If you’re brand new to cycling, you might discover that riding gravel is much harder than it looks in all the cool photos.
In her first foray into gravel racing, at the 120-mile unPAved event in central Pennsylvania, experienced rider Chris Hadgis discovered that among many miles of buttery smooth dirt roads there were about 30 miles that made her wonder what she had gotten herself into. Death-gripping the bar and bouncing over the rocks like “human popcorn” on her admittedly overinflated tires, Hadgis called on skills she’d picked up during an adventure ride through the Mojave Desert. But it wasn’t quite enough.
“I was keeping my weight over my rear wheel on descents and in the middle of the bike on climbs so that I wouldn’t lose traction and skid out. But my thighs and forearms were burning as I hovered out of the saddle and pushed down on the pedals, trying to steer and maneuver my handlebars around the sharp rocks covering every inch of the steep climb in front of me before descending into puddles.”
And that about sums up the challenge of gravel riding: Ride enough courses, and at some point, you’ll find yourself facing rock gardens, ruts, soft sand patches, washboards, and other challenges you certainly don’t find on pavement. Maybe you’d be at ease if you were facing these challenges on a mountain bike, but you’re not, so you are most definitely not at ease. But with a little know-how and experience, you will be.
Here are some tips to help you handle whatever the ride throws at you. Practice whenever the terrain gives you a chance, no matter what bike you’re on.
➥ Stay Relaxed
If you do nothing else, relax. Your bike needs breathing room to float freely beneath you. This allows the bike to correct its path and maintain forward momentum when you’re moving through sketchy terrain. Wrap your hands around the top of the bars, and keep your elbows bent and arms relaxed. Your body can soak up the lumps and bumps. If you’re hanging on for dear life, it’ll feel more like you’re jackhammering along rather than floating. It’s also far more fatiguing to fight the bike than it is to let it adjust as necessary to maintain forward momentum.
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.
➥ Go Easy on the Brakes
If you’ve ever done a slow-speed race or tried to track stand, you know your bike is far more stable at speed. This is doubly true on bumpy terrain. Scrub too much speed, and the bike will break traction and start bouncing. It’s really hard to control a bouncing bike. Your front wheel especially needs to be free to roll or you run the risk of washing out and losing control. If you need to lower your speed, feather the brakes, favoring the rear. Reserve the lion’s share of your braking for when you’re going straight.
➥ Work Your Weight
Smooth, efficient gravel riding requires proper weight distribution. This is especially true when you find yourself negotiating technical terrain such as chunky climbs and descents and the occasional rock garden.
Your tires need to be properly weighted to keep contact with the ground and to respond to turning and braking. Pay attention to your front wheel especially. It’s good to get your weight back when negotiating technical terrain, especially when going downhill, but you need enough weight on the front wheel for it to go where you want it to go.
It can be a bit of a dance to take your weight off the front wheel enough to clear larger obstacles and then move it forward again to maintain a controlled flow. In general, you want to shift your weight to the back to allow the front tire to get up and over an object, and immediately shift it forward to give the back tire room to move. Curbs are a good place to practice this. As you approach the curb, lean your weight back slightly and lightly pull up on the bars to lift the front wheel. Once on the curb, move forward and off the seat to lift the rear wheel next.
➥ Use Your Eyes
Keep your chin up and eyes forward, scanning the terrain for the smoothest surfaces. You don’t want to be crisscrossing all over the road. Often a small adjustment lets you stay on the most stable surfaces and avoid deep piles of gravel that can wipe out your front wheel.
When entering a rock garden or navigating a technical descent, use your long vision, scanning 10 to 15 feet ahead to find the smoothest line. Keep your weight between center to slightly back. You want some weight on your front wheel, but not so much that your wheel has no freedom to move. “You never want to look where you don’t want to go,” says Tetrick, “or that’s where you will go.”
➥ Crank Through the Rough Stuff
The first year I did Rebecca’s Private Idaho, it felt like 85 miles of the 94-mile course were a sea of stutter bumps. There was literally not a smooth surface to be found, though Lord knows we all searched for one. Riders tacked back and forth across the lane looking for even a moment of relief. We were on a road surface called “washboard” or “corrugation.” It looks like both a washboard and a corrugated sheet of metal.
Riding washboards and other steeply, stuttery surfaces like cobblestones demand that you keep momentum to prevent being bucked about or bogged down. Cranking a bigger gear at a higher speed is the way to go, as it accomplishes two things: You travel farther per pedal stroke in a bigger gear, keeping you on top of the stutters rather than bashing into them, and it makes you a little heavier in your feet and lighter in your seat. Sitting lightly on or over the saddle will allow the bike to bounce a bit without beating you up. You may also want to shift your weight back a bit to unweight the front wheel slightly, making it easier to float over the bumps. This also takes some of the pressure off your arms, as they absorb the road chatter.
➥ Spin on Silt and Sand
When I rode across Michigan in the Coast to Coast Gravel Grinder, I encountered silt and sand. Lots and lots of silt and sand. The worst of it felt like riding through the dunes by the beach. To avoid spinning out and going nowhere when the terrain turns soft and loose, shift into a smaller gear and spin a higher cadence. Certain kinds of mud can require the same technique. Keep your grip loose and let the bike “autocorrect” as it needs to. Your pace will drop to a crawl, since you’re making less forward progress per revolution, but some forward progress is better than none.
➥ Turn With Your Body, Not the Handlebar
This is generally true in cycling but especially so in gravel riding on loose surfaces. Your bike responds to weight shifts and leans. You don’t need to—and really shouldn’t—turn the bars too much when entering turns. It can cause your front wheel to lose traction and slide out. Instead, shift your body, turn your hips, and look in the direction you want to go, gently pushing down on the inside of your bars as you push down on the pedal with your outside foot.
The traditional advice on paved turns does not always apply on gravel roads. Generally, when executing a paved turn, you take a wide berth leading into it, then ride through the apex of the turn, and exit wide, essentially riding as straight through the curve as possible. That can all go out the window when you’re on roads that resemble the surface of the moon. The inside of the corner often has the worst road condition and is where large piles of gravel can accumulate. When it’s safe and possible, ride farther out into the road to find the smoothest line. Above all, check your speed well ahead of the corner and ride within your skill level and comfort zone.
➥ Grind the Climbs
To conquer steep unpaved climbs with loose or rough surfaces, you need to stay relaxed (as we’ve talked about earlier). As the climb gets steeper, pull back a bit on the bars to send more power through your torso and into your pedals.
Shifting around on the saddle can help you recruit different muscle groups while giving others a rest. Move back toward the rear of the saddle to better employ your glute muscles. This is especially useful when you’ve run out of gears. You need to put that much more power in every pedal stroke. Scoot forward, toward the nose, to engage your quads. Slide back to center to use a bit of everything. Shifting your weight around is particularly helpful on long climbs, in order to keep your legs fresher.
When climbing up a very steep vertical pitch, you may find your front end losing traction or even popping off the ground. At that point, slide forward on the saddle and lean low over the bars to weight the front wheel.
Remember to drop your heels on climbs. Your feet are the platform that puts power into your pedals. To make that platform as powerful as possible, keep your feet flat, lock your ankles, and drive down through your heels or the midfoot . Keeping your heels low also engages more hamstring and glute muscles and puts less stress on your calves.
Generally speaking, you should climb seated most of the time. For one thing, seated climbing saves energy: With your rear planted on your saddle, your body weight is fully supported on the bike, and your leg muscles can expend all their energy, pushing the pedals and powering you up the grade. It also keeps your weight centered over the bike, which is essential for maintaining traction for your rear wheel.
On the steepest stuff there will be times when you just have to stand up and give it a little more oomph. When you must stand, keep your back straight and hips pushed back over the bottom bracket. If you pitch your body too far toward the front wheel, the back tire will break traction and skid. For steep, double-digit grades, you’ll need to hinge forward and lower your upper body over your bars to keep your weight centered (and the front wheel in contact with the ground), but your hips should remain back over the bottom bracket.
Hovering also works wonders. Instead of outright standing, keep your upper body relatively parallel to the bike and lift your butt off the saddle for just a little extra torque (and also a nice little leg stretch) while still maintaining traction.
➥ Negotiate Potholes
Some gravel roads are smoother than pavement. Others look like they’ve been ground zero for a meteorite shower. Gravel courses in wetter climates often include roads that have craters filled with water much of the year, so it’s anyone’s guess how deep they are.
Skirt around potholes when you can, but when you’re in a throng of 20 other riders vying for the same sliver of real estate, that’s not always realistic.
Fortunately with tubeless tires, your chances of pinch flatting are far lower, but you still shouldn’t smash into the edges of a pothole full throttle. If you have to go straight through, take as much weight off your wheels as possible. Relax your grip, lift yourself up and lightly out of the saddle, allow the bike to roll through, and absorb the impact with your arms and legs. (You can do a full-on bunny hop if you’re a master of that maneuver, but do not attempt that in the middle of a pack if you’re not.)
If you can’t gauge the depth of the hole, ride the outer edge, if possible. Otherwise, be prepared to sink or even stop. Never go into a large puddle full send—it might swallow your front wheel and launch you over the bars.
➥ Shred the Singletrack
Singletrack trail in gravel rides tends to be pretty polarizing: Some riders really love it; others really loathe it. If you’re in the latter camp, getting more comfortable on it will shift you farther toward the happy side of the scale. Here are two simple, highly effective techniques to get better on narrow trails.
Literally keep your chin up. Often when riders get on scary unfamiliar terrain, the tendency is to drop the head and stare down at the ground right in front of the tire. But your bike follows your eyes, so this automatically slows you down and makes you more likely to get bogged down by obstacles you’d rather avoid. Keep your head up so you can look as far down the trail as possible. This gives you time to process what’s coming, find the line you want to follow, and automatically adjust to the terrain.
And stay loose. When you get anxious, your natural instinct will be to tense up and sit poker straight. That raises your center of gravity and limits the bike’s ability to flow beneath you. Bend your arms and knees, lower your torso, loosen your grip, and try to ride fluidly, like water flowing down the path. ❖
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