Where did gravel riding come from?
Gravel riding began in the US where long, remote stretches of fire road bridged the gap between the worlds of road, mountain biking and cyclocross. The more remote and technical terrain allows riders to hone their passion for racing, exploration and adventure. It’s a change from the usual focus on speed and science for some, and a respite from the roads for others.
Many started out on modified road, cyclocross and mountain bikes, until the bike industry took note of the boom and began creating gravel-specific models, helping gravel to gain a foothold as a new global discipline. Rides no longer ended when the roads did, because gravel bikes were built to withstand some rather ferocious terrain.
For Max Burgess, who organises ‘gravelventures’ with his clothing and travel company Podia.cc in his adopted home of Poland, and elsewhere in eastern Europe, “it’s about freedom – that sense of adventure that comes with being able to go anywhere.”
Where can I ride gravel?
The US is perfect for gravel riding, with a third of its 4.1million-mile road network being unpaved, but you can find genuine gravel experiences anywhere if you know where to look.
In the UK, you have to dig deeper and work harder to find them, stitching together bits of road, bridleway, towpath and non-technical mountain bike trails. But what the UK lacks in unpaved roads, it makes up for with potholes. So a gravel bike, with a chunky rubber set-up, might actually be a better bet than a dedicated road bike.
In truth, we’ve been enjoying gravel-riding adventures in the UK for more than a century, which makes the current trend something of a throwback – only now with a trendy name and state-of-the-art bikes that are up to the job.
Do I need a gravel bike?
Yes and no. Gravel bikes are niche. They’re not as equipped for tarmac as a road bike, nor for the dirt as a mountain bike. They’re the ultimate n+1 bike.
On the other hand, the gravel bike is versatile, and it might be the only machine you ever need. If you’re not a road racer then a gravel bike, with a narrower tyre width, can handle any sportive or road ride with your club, with added comfort. Likewise, if you’re not a dedicated mountain biker and just fancy adding some adventure to your rides, some thicker rubber will do the job off-road.
Sven Thiele, founder of cycling events company HotChillee, has seen a rise in this approach. “What I see emerging is people getting one nice frame, and two sets of wheels and tyres – a narrow, slick tyre for the road and some 38-42mm for gravel,” he says.
“I started as a road rider but I’d say 85 percent of my riding is now done on a gravel bike. The beauty is that you’ll be riding somewhere and think ‘let’s just see what’s down there,’ and it gives you the chance to do that. I’ve ridden a 204km team time-trial on the road on my gravel bike – I just took the knobblies off and put the slicks on.”
Is a gravel bike the same as a cyclocross bike?
Gravel bikes and cyclocross bikes do have a lot in common, but there are crucial differences as well.
Cyclocross is a sport, so the bikes are designed for racing. That means a lower, more aggressive riding position, sharper steering, and higher gearing. The geometry is less endurance-focused, so most organised gravel events would prove uncomfortable. The tyre clearances aren’t as generous, since the UCI has a 33mm maximum rule for competition, and you’re less likely to have mounts for mudguards and racks.
Since gravel bikes aren’t restricted to racing, a lot of these needs are met.
Do I need a gravel bike if I have a hardtail mountain bike?
It’s true that a mountain bike with front suspension is going to be more comfortable on unpaved roads, but hardtails aren’t as versatile as gravel bikes. If you’re taking on paved roads between unpaved stretches, you’re going to feel the lag on the hardtail, whereas the gravel bike will feel much more efficient. Plus gravel enthusiasts will tell you that what you come up against off road — loose rocks, sand, water or roots — is all part of the adventure.
Burgess embraces that uncertainty: “with a 100km gravel ride you’re going to get a mixture of gravel, tarmac and some sections where you get off and push, and I don’t think such distances are possible on a hardtail.”
For Deborah Goodall, one of the organisers of the Yorkshire True Grit event in the North York Moors, gravel riding takes her back to the early days of riding her rigid mountain bike. “If I went out on the same tracks and paths on my current mountain bike it wouldn’t excite me because the bikes handle it too easily,” she says. “But with a drop-bar gravel bike, you get to the bottom of a descent, look back and think ‘I can’t believe I’ve just got down that’. Maybe it just makes me feel younger!”
What equipment do I need for a gravel event?
Tubeless tyres are a must, since you’re likely to be prone to pinch flats off road. In fact, tyre choice is even more important for gravel riding than road, and you should always research your route to make sure it’s rideable. Tyre widths can vary from 32–50mm with varying degrees of tread.
Carry tools and spares, including chain tools and links – heading away from civilisation has its perks, but it’ll bite you on the bum if you’re ill-equipped for a mechanical. Burgess is a fan of Tubolito inner tubes for when his tubeless setup fails – the bright orange tubes can save around 100g on standard tubes and take up half the space, while being stronger to boot.
Having a route planned on a GPS device is invaluable. Apps such as Komoot are helpful because they make suggestions based on its users’ experience, meaning you can build a ride around the best gravel sections, climbs and coffee stops.
Burgess uses Komoot to plan his gravelventures: “you can choose gravel-specific routes, and I like the way it breaks each route down into different surfaces so you know what you’re looking at.”
Of course, nothing stops you combining the GPS with the ever-useful paper map when it comes to long trips in the wilderness.
Start with an event
There’s an increasingly impressive mix of races and audax-style, time-limited endurance events these days, so you’re spoilt for choice.
UK gravel events 2019
Here are some of our hot picks of UK-based gravel events this year.
Surly Dorset Gravel Dash
- 25–26 May
- Swanage, Dorset
- 100 miles
- Find out more about the Surly Dorset Gravel Dash
Yorkshire True Grit
- 21–23 June
- North York Moors
- Find out more about Yorkshire True Grit
- 22–23 June
- Cambrian mountains, mid-Wales
- Find out more about Gritfest
- 13 July
- Isle of Arran
- Find out more about Grinduro
North America gravel events 2019
Here are some of our hot picks of US and Canada-based gravel events this year.
- 1 June
- Emporia, KS
- Find out more about Dirty Kanza
- 20 July
- Canmore, Canada
- Find out more about Dirty Alta
Hell of the North Texas
- 21 July
- Paris, TX
- Up to 260km
- Find out more about Hell of the North Texas
Middle Creek Gravel Grinder
- 11 August
- Stevens, PA
- Up to 82km
- Find out more about Middle Creek Gravel Grinder
Ochoco Gravel Roubaix
- 24 August
- Prineville, OR
- Up to 193km
- Find out more about Ochoco Gravel Roubaix
Gravel events elsewhere
For some great events outside of the UK, be sure to check out Thiele’s HotChillee, which hosts gravel events in South Africa and Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, as well as monthly rides in the UK.
Over the next five parts in this series, we’ll be delving into the world of gravel and adventure cycling, showing you where to ride, the technique and skills involved, and finding out more about event experiences and bikepacking.