The booming gravel category has been quick to capture the imagination of the venturous cyclist, and it’s not hard to see why. This off-road craze is a platform for freedom, allowing you to step out of your front door and straight into an adventure.
Encouraging this movement of free-spirited riding, Specialized’s Get Out Of Town weekend saw a group of women brought together in the beautiful landscapes of Somerset, England for two days of gravel rides, fire pits and local cider.
The event was coordinated by Anne Brillet, women’s category leader for Specialized Europe. “Gravel riding is becoming bigger and bigger as people are looking to explore and discover new territory,” Brillet commented.
“Riders are using the bike not only as a hobby or a training tool, but as a mode of transport for their adventure. People are looking for a bike that they can use on most terrain and can be a real adventure companion.”
For the first-time gravel rider, especially one used to road riding, this was a new challenge in adapting to ever-changing terrain – from loose gravel and farm tracks, to rocky bridleways and stretches of gruelling mud.
Here are five tips for the first timer that I picked up along the way.
1. Get the right gear, then get creative
While the increasingly popular gravel bike is an obvious choice, you can use a variety of bikes to venture off the tarmac – just make sure to pair it with the right volume tyre for the terrain you’ll be riding.
If you’re sticking with a road bike, then cyclocross tyres are an easy upgrade.
Once you abandon the road in favour of hidden bridleways and restricted byways, the freedom to roam is yours – grab an Ordnance Survey map, work out a rough route and start exploring.
“That’s the appeal – being able to go further into the countryside and explore and you don’t have the hassle of traffic to think about.” says Heidi Blundon, cycling coach and Specialized ambassador.
“It was a definite adjustment compared to road cycling.” comments Kate Wright, a first-time gravel rider at the event. “You feel more connected to nature, the adrenaline is still there, but in a very different way. In road cycling it’s all about the speed, but in gravel riding I felt that the adrenaline was more in managing your environment and stability.”
2. Practice, practice, practice
Gravel riding can be as easy or difficult as you want to make it, but if you really want to shake off any restrictions then it’s worth working on your technical skills.
For those new to off-road terrain, the first step is to practice riding on uneven surfaces – grassy parks or fields with public right of way are a great starting point. “Just try riding on different surfaces, like grass, gravel and potholed lanes and see how that feels,” suggests Blundon.
You can then work your way up to more technical terrain, such as rocky bridlepaths and steeper ground.
3. Keep the speed
Don’t be deceived by the term gravel riding. Heading off-road can throw all manner of obstacles in your path besides gravel, so be prepared for some technical features.
When it comes to riding over more challenging terrain, speed is your friend. So, although it might feel counter-intuitive, maintain your momentum – keep those wheels spinning and resist the temptation to grab at your brakes.
4. Be at one with the bike
When riding on a loose surface, it’s inevitable that your bike will slip out from time to time. While it’s instinct to seize up with this unexpected movement, the best thing you can do is stay relaxed, keep a loose grip and ride with it.
“The faster you relax and go with the flow, the more you will enjoy the experience.” comments participant Kate Wright.
The looser and thicker the gravel, the easier it is to slide about and lose traction, so avoid sharp turns, control your speed early before corners and stay seated when climbing to keep your weight centred, which will help you avoid rear wheel spin.
To deal with this, Brillet’s advice is to “be prepared to move around the bike more and use your body weight distribution to find grip and counteract the terrain.”
With loose and uneven ground comes an increased risk of having an off, but also a greater chance of a more cushioned landing, as one participant Esme Cole found out. “Even though I fell off – and I’m terrified of falling off – I was like ‘OK, cool,” she commented. “It’s a softer landing than when you fall off on the road. It’s just good fun.”
5. Look up
One of the biggest appeals of gravel riding is that you’re in it for the adventure, not the competition.
It’s all too easy on a road bike to obsess over distance, speed and cadence, whereas gravel riding is the perfect opportunity to get your eyes off the screen and enjoy the environment around you. Don’t get too carried away by the scenery, though, as it’s a good idea to keep a watchful eye on what the terrain up ahead is throwing at you.
“When I’m road cycling it’s like ‘I need that Queen of the Mountain!’ grins Helen Parkin, another Specialized ambassador who attended the event. “What’s been nice about this [gravel riding] is forgetting the Garmin and just getting outside, enjoying the scenery and not worrying about what the speed is.”
That’s a sentiment clearly shared by most of the participants, beautifully summised by Esme Cole.
“It brought back that feeling I had when I was a kid of being so carefree on those little country lanes, razzing a bike around. I felt like a kid again.”