Gravel events and gravel bikes are exploding in number and variety around the globe. But what is gravel, exactly? For some, it’s buttery-smooth dirt roads. For others, it’s rim-smashing, tire-slashing flint tracks. And really, is gravel fun to ride? Here, two experts break down the four types of gravel and the two types of fun you can have riding it — and how proper gear and camaraderie can make all the difference.
Neil Shirley’s Four Types of Gravel
Retired from professional road racing, Neil Shirley now uses the engine that put him on the US national podium behind Levi Leipheimer and George Hincapie to motor on gravel around the US. He’s won events like Gravel Worlds, and pulled stunts like riding 175 of the Dirty Kanza’s 200 miles on a makeshift singlespeed after a mechanical. Most days, he just likes exploring on a 700c bike, well off the paved roads.
Recently, Shirley put together this list on the four types of gravel, half-jokingly calling it ISGG, for International Standard Guide to Gravel. Frankly, it is something we wish we had come up with at BikeRadar, so we are stealing excerpts here below (with permission).
“My first gravel event was the Crusher in the Tushar back in 2012,” Shirley said. “At that time there weren’t many equipment options other than just a standard ‘cross bike with 33mm tires. We’re fortunate to now have so many options, like tubeless tires in just about every size and tread pattern conceivable.”
“The four categories I came up with are from my own riding experiences and although the differences between each one seem minimal, I felt the equipment needs did change enough to warrant breaking it down to that level,” he said. “I’m definitely not saying that someone can’t ride 28mm tires on Cat 3 gravel; sometimes that makes it more fun. The guide is simply about informing riders who might not be experienced in the world of riding drop-bar bikes on dirt what I think the ideal equipment is for the surface condition. Plus, if I only had two gravel categories it’s hard to make an ‘Industry Standard Guide to Gravel’, right?”
Category 1 gravel: Smooth, well-maintained dirt roads with little to no small gravel chunks
- Ideal bike: Road bike
- Tire size: 25-28mm
- Event examples: Haute Route Rockies, Battenkill Roubaix
Category 2 gravel: Dirt roads with potholes, washboards and loose corners
- Ideal bike: Endurance road bike
- Tire size: 28-32mm
- Event examples: Gravel Worlds, Dirty Devil, Boulder Roubaix, Belgian Waffle Ride, Grapes Of Wrath
Category 3 gravel: Poorly maintained roads with bigger rocks, ruts and/or sand
- Ideal bike: Gravel bike
- Tire size: 33-38mm
- Event examples: Rebecca’s Private Idaho, Landrun 100, Crusher In The Tushar, Rock Cobbler, Gravel MOB, SPNDX Stampede, Chino Grinder
Category 4 gravel: Non-maintained tracks or roads with deep layers of sharp gravel
- Ideal bike: Gravel bike
- Tire size: 38-42+mm, or Road Plus (650b wheels with 42+mm tires)
- Event examples: Dirty Kanza, Grinduro, Lost and Found
As for his favorite category, Shirley said he doesn’t have one.
“It’s all pretty awesome. Anything that gets me off the pavement and away from cars is my favorite,” he said. “There’s a 30-mile lunch loop that I ride regularly with a 50/50 split between pavement and dirt that I’m always excited about. After living in the same area for seven years I started getting burned out on doing some of the same road rides, but once I started adding dirt into the mix I could connect one paved section with another via dirt and it opened the door for a ton of new ride options.”
Nick Legan’s Two Types of Fun
A former pro mechanic who has worked everything from the Tour de France to the Olympics, Nick Legan has been doing gravel events for years. He was the first person I knew who went out to the Dirty Kanza. At the time, we were both working for VeloNews, and he came back talking about how hard it was, how he had to hunker down, soaking and shivering, in a ditch in the middle of nowhere while a lightning storm raged across the open plains. The endeavor took well over 12 hours. He was a hurting unit, and unsure if he could finish. Afterwards, back in Colorado, he couldn’t wait to go back.
Legan and my coworker and Kansas native Josh Patterson introduced me to the concept of Type 2 fun. Josh has done Dirty Kanza more than a half-dozen times. Watch his video on The Perfect Gravel Bike here. Legan is the author of Gravel Cycling: The Complete Guide to Gravel Racing and Adventure Bikepacking.
So what is Type 2 fun? Experiences like Legan’s first Dirty Kanza are Type 2 fun – the type of enjoyment that comes well after the event.
Type 1 fun: Present-tense enjoyment; what most of us mean when we say ‘fun’
- Enjoying a ripping descent, watching a good comedy
Type 2 fun: Retrospective enjoyment — but often a little grim at the time
- Surviving a grueling challenge, enduring an embarrassing-at-the-time but funny-later saga
“I’m not sure where I first heard of Type 2 fun, but it was an idea that instantly appealed to me. It helped explain why I liked some of the things I like. The long rides, the hard rides, the hike-a-bikes, battling headwinds for hours, winter overnighters. I love that kind of riding,” Legan said.
“The most important aspect of Type 2 fun is that it’s the only kind that can be transformative,” he said. “Type 1 fun doesn’t challenge you. It doesn’t force you to adjust your perspective on a situation in which you find yourself. Ideally, sport and physical endeavors are about growth, both physical and mental, sometimes even spiritual.”
“The only potential pitfall is that you don’t deal with Type 2 fun well and it shifts into misery,” he said. “Suffering and misery don’t need to be elevated or romanticized. They suck. Floating in the middle of Type 1 and misery is the key.”
Find the right gear and your tribe, and come back for more
Both Shirley and Legan said the social element of the gravel scene is a big driver for their continued participation. They’ve both done at least 20 events, ranging from formal races with timing chips to the ‘here’s a map and meet at the pizza parlor afterward’ type of events.
“The atmosphere is a really big part of the appeal for me,” Shirley said. “It’s the people that create an environment that’s welcoming to all riders and who want to have a fun time, on and off the bike.”
“Then there’s the equipment side of the equation that’s really appealing,” he added. “Knowing what tires or gearing might be right for a specific event keeps it interesting in trying to make sure you’re prepared to the best of your abilities.”
For Legan, it’s about problem-solving, personal growth and community.
“The challenge is both physical and mental, especially at a longer event. I like exploring my limits. It’s at the fringes of our experience that we get to know ourselves even more profoundly,” he said.
“The constant problem solving occurs before and even during a gravel event,” he said. “Staying in that mindset requires optimism. So it’s a positive feedback loop that I find addictive. As a gear guy, I love diving deep on bike, tire, gearing choices. But I also love the logistics of nutrition and hydration. Even the clothes you bring along can have a huge impact on the experience.”
“But it’s the people who bring me back. It’s when I go to Emporia, Kanas for Dirty Kanza, or Rebecca’s Private Idaho, or Land Run 100 that I get to see some of my favorite people. It’s a homecoming,” Legan said. “They are so enthusiastic, supportive, and inspiring. What’s not to love?”