I didn’t get into cycling until I was well into my 20s. Sure, I rode recreationally, mainly on a rented cruiser or the odd mountain biking trail. But until I was almost 30, I had no idea about the differences between a “road” and a “gravel” bike.
So my entrance into the latter was a trial by fire: just getting out into the gravel biking world and seeing what worked for me and what didn’t. Now, I’m routinely putting up 12-20 miles per ride (a big deal for me) and am starting to figure out how to do my maintenance.
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Although I’m still learning, I’ve gathered a bit of the baseline when it comes to gravel biking essentials. Of course, some investment is required, but I know I will never compete in more than the occasional charity ride, and I’m out there more for personal enjoyment and to improve in all facets of my cycling hobby. As an outdoors writer and product reviewer for SPY, I wanted to share what I’ve learned for cycling beginners. If you’re just getting into the sport, keep reading for the most essential gravel biking clothes, helmets, gear and other accessories
First, Some Key Gravel Biking Tips
Take It Easy: When starting, don’t bite off more than you can chew. It’s real easy to go overboard on initial rides, and not only is it bad for your endurance, but you can also get “spring knee,” which essentially means you’ve pushed too hard too soon, and you’ll likely be off the bike recovering from sore tendons and muscles.
Choose a Bike Shop and Stick With Them: Regardless of where you bought your bike, you’ll want to seek out a local bike shop and start a relationship with the mechanics. Most bike shop staff want to do what’s best for you and your ride, so consider each visit an investment in your overall cycling happiness. Until you learn how to do some maintenance on your own and generally feel more comfortable as a bike owner, understanding when to leave it to the pros is crucial to your cycling journey.
If You Can Afford It, Get a Bike Fit: I wasn’t sold on spending upwards of $300 for a bike fit. But after going through the process, it’s money well spent. A professional fit better personalizes your ride, potentially saving you future doctor visits and physical therapy bills. Depending on the service you go with, your professional fitter will use a range of technology and general know-how to define cleat installation, saddle position, handlebar placement and even the appropriate size of your pedal arms. Be sure to consult with the fitter before committing to an appointment. A good fit means more overall comfort in a ride dialed in specifically for you.
With all this in mind, below are 17 gravel biking essentials that are now part of my every ride. Of course, my essentials differ from the next rider’s, but the list presented here is what I’ve found to work and make riding much more enjoyable.
1. Ergon SMC Core Bike Saddle
The cyclist has only a few “touch points” where they physically connect to the bike, and arguably the most important one is the saddle. Most beginner gravel bikes come with a slightly padded saddle that’s not ergonomic, has little real support and is generally flimsy. This is one of the most important upgrades I made. Ergon makes a range of excellent, ergonomically-designed seats, and it’s made such a difference in the comfort of my ride. Gravel riders need more cushion to absorb the bumps from uneven terrain, and there’s no better place to start than what’s under your butt.
2. Priority Bicycles Zero-Offset Carbon Seat Post
As a rider under 5’ 6”, it’s almost a guarantee that no bikes in my price range will fit properly off the shelf. The issue with seat posts is that they can’t lower enough within the frame for proper leg extension and allow my feet to touch the pedals and ground. To start, go with a “zero-offset” version, which mainly speaks to the angle of the post top that most casual riders should be fine with. I immediately swapped out the aluminum post that came with my bike for this carbon fiber option. It’s only 50mm shorter, but that flexibility is crucial.
3. Shimano Clip-In Pedals (or a hybrid option)
It’s only in the last couple of months that I finally decided to make the leap to “clipped-in” riding. That’s mainly because I have access to winding rural roads (where the gravel mixes in with pavement), and I don’t have to deal with city traffic. However, I also keep hybrid pedals on my gravel bike so that I can ride with regular sneakers in the city. I can also use “clipless” (which is not really clipless) for days when it’s mostly gravel. I think it’s good to have multiple options on hand: pedals are easy to swap, and you can figure out what you like.
4. PNW Components Bar Tape
Returning to the touch points conversation, the handlebars are another crucial component. Again, most beginner gravel bikes come with a mediocre handlebar and basic bar tape. I like a bar tape with more shock absorption and one that, of course, complements the look of the overall bike. Do yourself a favor, learn how to change bar tape on your own and make this small investment to improve your overall ride. When I’m riding a bike with a “flat” handlebar in an upright position, upgraded handlebar grips can also help.
5. Delta Water Bottle Cage
I like a water bottle holder that fits a larger bottle, and I’m not too picky about material. There are lightweight options, but I’m not worried about that. If your bike doesn’t have one, cages are cheap and plentiful.
6. Bivo Duo Water Bottle
I didn’t think there was much to dissect within water bottles until I started using a Bivo. These bottles are engineered for easy drinking, and I am a convert. I love these things; they have a color to match my bike. With any bottle you choose, make sure the drinking nozzle has a cover so you’re not drinking dirt and muck in addition to your beverage.
I’m not going to give you “the helmet lecture.” Wear one. It’s as simple as that.
8. Road Cycling Shoe
Like snowboarding boots, I don’t see a reason to consider anything other than BOA technology when buying cycling shoes. The ability to hone in a fit is second to none, and they’re generally on higher-quality footwear. Not choosing to clip in? Don’t be bashful. A pair of flat athletic sneakers could also work on hybrid pedals. The former is more for those who want to get the most out of their pedal stroke, while the latter is still a great choice for the casual rider.
Read More: The Best Cycling Shoes for Spin Class
9. Lead Out! Frame Bag
I never subscribed to the vision of storing snacks and a phone in the back pocket of a jersey or shorts. A frame bag gets the essentials out of the way in a tightly compacted area. I love this bag from Lead Out! because it stays put, I can easily clean the exterior post-ride, and it can hold a surprising amount of goods.
10. Cycling Eyewear
So here’s the deal with cycling eyewear: There are a million brands at a million price points. Because I test a lot of eyewear, I have a pair for every weather and light condition, but that doesn’t mean you should. You need something to cover your eyes while riding because there are too many variables in the air. For under $100, you can get a very good pair of shades from Tifosi that will satisfy most beginner gravel cyclists. What I think is the better option is to bump up your budget to the $150 range and search for something on sale from Smith or another comparable brand. You don’t want to skimp on the quality of your eyewear, and I like a mid-tint lens to deal with bright conditions but also for overcast days. If you need the light condition flexibility, then by all means, head straight to the top of the range and check out Roka.
11. Bike Shorts
I didn’t start with pads, but the extra cushion helps take the edge off the bumps. I’m still out on whether or not I like a full bib short, but supposedly it also makes you faster? I’ll take it.
12. Recovery Tool
If you find yourself addicted to longer distances, as I have, some recovery options will help in the long run. It’s worth researching to figure out what works for you, but I love having a massage gun on hand, plus the Roll Recovery R8, which does a lot of the rolling work for the user. Your quads and calves will thank you.
13. Bike Multi-Tool
For one reason or another, I often turn to a simple multi-size Allen key. It’s a simple tool, yet it can handle so many adjustments on my bike. They’re great to have around and inexpensive.
14. Flat Repair Kit
If you want to make gravel cycling a regular thing, you’ll need to learn some basic maintenance. Fixing a flat is one of those things, and several available kits make it super simple. When you inevitably get a flat, you’ll want to fix it and get moving again rather than waiting for someone to pick you up.
Costlier Changes I Made But Can’t Live Without
It’s almost a sure thing that when you get into gravel biking, you’ll consistently salivate over potential upgrades to take your rig to the next level. I go through the same thought process almost daily, but there are also realistic limits to consider. If you’re entirely sold on a future in gravel, you can start looking at these three options to help take your ride to new heights.
When searching for a bike, I was looking for smaller frame sizes with a smaller handlebar width to accommodate my smaller reach. Fortunately, my gravel bike came with one from the factory. Still, on my road bike, the factory bars had a strange curvature tilt that aggravated my wrist, so I found a suitable alternative in an overall shorter look. I opted for a more expensive bar with some other engineering integrated, but there are plenty of great sub-$100 options. You’ll also need to match a stem relative to your reach, which can be done through your bike fit (preferred) or watching a few videos online.
16. Better Wheels
Along the same lines as several other components mentioned here, the stock wheels coming with your bike will work for the average rider, but even I wasn’t aware of what a wheel upgrade could do for your pace and feel. You get an aerodynamics boost and a likely weight reduction — a double win. There are all sorts of great used options for wheels, and no, you don’t need to spend a grand on a full carbon set. At least, not yet.
17. Bike GPS
At first, I didn’t understand the value of a dedicated bike computer, but it elevated my overall ride. Having pre-planned routes set to go is a much cleaner experience than trying to do the same through a phone, especially if you’re heading onto dirt roads that may not be fully marked through Google Maps. Karoo’s interface is dialed in for such a situation and integrates with several other popular route-tracking and fitness apps. I like the Suunto integration to see where other riders have been recently.
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