by Christopher Bagg October 26, 2021
by Chris Bagg, reprinted courtesy of ENVE Composites
In the spring of 2019, dear reader, I was just like you: a full-time triathlete who dabbled in other single sports, but somehow found himself signed up for a long gravel race in June after a few years of gravel-curiosity. Today gravel cycling is my primary focus, and I’m definitely that guy who just cannot wait to tell you about it. You’re a triathlete for the most part? That’s great—you’re uniquely suited for this quickly growing segment of the endurance world. Already a cyclist, either competitive or recreational? You won’t have to make too many changes to game to adapt to gravel riding.
Why has gravel riding seized the imagination of endurance athletes in the first place? First of all, it’s safer. Incidents between motorists and road cyclists continue to rise each year, a combination of more drivers on the ride, more distracted riders on the road, and more athletes picking up cycling for health, fitness, and competition. Riding on gravel roads largely removes this danger, as cars appear far less frequently. Second, gravel riding is fun. Effective riding requires paying attention to the surface underneath you, which changes regularly. Unlike road riding, where one’s focus can drift away, gravel riding demands you watch what you’re doing, overcoming small challenges every few seconds. You’ll find rides passing quickly as your brain processes new information. Third, gravel riding takes riders to remote, beautiful, and wild locations, taking you to green and wide open spaces you could never access on a road bike.
If we’ve piqued your interest, then you probably have some questions. We’ll answer those and ideally send you off inspired to find some dirt and go ride it. Welcome to the always-satisfying world of gravel riding.
Gravel bikes look very much like road bikes: drop handlebars, front and rear triangles, wheels of roughly the same size as road wheels. The primary difference of gravel rigs is the amount of space in the fork area of the bike (the two tubes that hold the front wheel in place) and in the rear triangle of the bike (the area that holds the rear wheel in place). Gravel bikes accommodate much larger tires than road bikes—sometime as much as two centimeters wider. Those wider tires allow for more traction, as the contact area with ground is larger, and wider tires can be pumped to lower pressures, which also increases the contact patch. The tires of a gravel bike acts as the bike’s suspension, and the fork and rear triangle need to accommodate those bigger tires. Second, gravel bikes feature a “slacker” geometry when compared with a road bike. Even though that sounds like the bikes are lazy, what it means is that the bikes allow for a more upright seated position than traditional road bikes, resulting in a more comfortable ride—an important benefit as many gravel events are longer than standard road races!
Maybe. If you purchased a road bike in the last few years, you probably have disc brakes on your bike (look for big rotors down by the front fork and rear triangle) you will probably be able to put wider tires on your road bike. You may not be able to install huge gravel-devouring 45mm tires, but your bike may accept 30 or 32mm tires, which will be fine for most gravel events. The real change in equipment, however, is “tubeless” versus clincher tires. Tubeless tires, as the name implies, don’t use inner tubes inside your tire, instead securing the tire with a combination of friction, air pressure, and a sealant product. Check your current wheels. If they say “tubeless compatible,” you are good to go. Check out our article on deciphering the difference between the types of tires out there to learn more, but if you don’t have tubeless tires, don’t despair! You can still ride with tubes inside you tires, but go prepared with several extra tubes, plenty of CO2 cartridges, and a hand pump. Try a few rides or events out and see if you like gravel before committing to a new bike.
The biggest difference between gravel events and bike races is that gravel events tend towards a more inclusive, egalitarian atmosphere. Most bike races categorize athletes into a tiered system, with faster riders in the higher categories and newer cyclists in the lower categories. That system, while well-intentioned (safety, fair competition), can intimidate and exclude new riders. Gravel tends to do away with that structure, allowing every athlete to start at the same time, as part of the same category and group. At many races, the men and women start together in one giant mass start. That mass start can certainly incur some stress in beginners, but newer riders tend to begin towards the back of the pack, learning each time out and beginning farther and farther forward as they gain experience. The other major difference is that many riders view these races as personal challenges, rather than competitive ones—the goal for them is to do as well as they can do, instead of measuring themselves against the finishing order of others. Triathletes will recognize that aspect of racing, often slipping easily into the goals of gravel, as will runners and long-distance swimmers: the race is against yourself, rather than against others.
If you’ve looked at pictures of some gravel races, you’ve likely seen riders wearing slim backpacks and wondered what they’re for. Many gravel races are self-supported, or offer limited aid along the way, and riders need to be prepared for the wide set of circumstances to which off-road riding can, um, expose you. Those backpacks usually contain a hydration bladder, food, and a tidy collection of tools and replacement parts. Look for a future piece in which we walk you through all the gear you may need, but a good hydration pack can provide a real sense of security to an athlete, since you can carry what you need in order to be self-sufficient.
Most gravel riding offers a step up in the difficulty of riding a road bike, but not a huge one. New athletes will mostly have to learn to be comfortable with the bike floating over the road a bit more than when riding on the road where traction is more consistent. Feeling your rear wheel drifting around behind you can be unsettling at first, but the bikes are more stable than you may think at first. You’ll discover upon returning to your road bike or triathlon bike that your descending and cornering skills have improved, as you can better feel how the road moves underneath your tires.
As with most new pursuits, you’ll find adding gravel cycling to your quiver of activities easier than you think at first. Often the biggest obstacle posed by this change is actually you, carrying all of the very normal anxieties associated with a new endeavor: will I fit in? Will I embarrass myself? Will I get hurt, either physically or emotionally? Our big suggestion? Load up your jersey with tubes and CO2 and take your current road bike (heck, even your tri bike) out for some short gravel rides and see how you feel. If you enjoy the remote destinations, the lack of cars, and the sound of dirt chirping and whirring under your tires, maybe you should explore some wider, tubeless tires and a new challenge?
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