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Nitty Gritty: Is Gravel Your New Cycling Thrill?

Gravel Cycling

There’s a new craze sweeping the cycling community, and for once it’s not all about the newest piece of gear.  For decades, many have seen battle lines between those who prefer the smooth, flowing expanses of pavement and those who savor the thrill of the mountain trail.  However, those lines have now been blurred due to the newest hot topic in cycling: gravel cycling.

Once the sport of a fringe group of die-hard enthusiasts, this discipline of cycling is experiencing a dramatic rise in popularity of late.  With more and more events springing up around the country and the selection of gravel gear becoming broader and more affordable, more and more cyclists are looking away from their traditional disciplines to find variety in the world of gravel cycling. 

So, does this mean that you should take a look at this hot new disciple?  Let’s take a look at what gravel cycling entails and maybe you might find yourself leaving the pavement or trail behind.

What is Gravel Cycling?

If there is one word to sum up the entirety of gravel cycling, it is this: variety.  Gravel cycling isn’t about getting from point A to point B (though there is a bit more of an emphasis on this when racing is concerned).  It is instead about the journey that one takes to get there.  Even when racing, most events focus around a longer, slower style where the focus is more on the challenge of arriving than the time it takes to get there.  As such, the routes of these events see every type of terrain one could imagine.  When it comes down to it, any unpaved surface you can ride on a drop bar bike is considered “gravel”.  This includes smooth, well maintained dirt roads, pothole filled fire roads, rocks, ruts, sand, and even singletrack.

At its core, gravel cycling is all about the fun of being on a bike.  It is an adventure on two wheels unmatched by any other cycling discipline.  Alison Tetrick, former professional road cyclist turned highly decorated gravel racer says, “It was adventurous and fun.  It was everything I ride my bike for.  I don’t ride my bike to win: I ride my bike to challenge myself and to have fun.  I needed to lower the pressure in my life, and the tire pressure in my wheels.  At the end of a gravel race day, we all might not have ridden the same speed, but we conquered the course.  We can cheer at the finish, eat the pizza, and talk about our adventure out there.”

I don't ride my bike to win; I ride my bike to challenge myself and to have fun.

Alison Tetrick, Pro Gravel Racer Tweet

Why has Gravel Cycling becoming so popular recently?

In the famous words of Bob Dylan, the times they are a changin.  Today we find ourselves in an exciting time in the sport of gravel cycling due to a few key factors.  As drivers get more and more distracted, we hear more and more frequently of serious accidents involving cyclists and distracted drivers.  Many road cyclists are crossing into gravel simply due to the fact that it is, as they say, the road less traveled.  Gravel riders often literally go hours without seeing a car while riding the dirt back roads of America.  When traffic is encountered, it’s usually traveling slower than on paved roads due to the fact that the surface is loose and dangerous at high speeds.  For this same reason, drivers are less likely to be distracted by electronic devices or other distractions.  When the constant worry is removed, the ride can be much more relaxed and enjoyable.

For those newer to the sport of cycling, gravel cycling can often be the most inviting and approachable way to get into racing.  The low-key nature of gravel events lends itself well to those who don’t know how to approach the high-stakes, high adrenaline world of road or mountain racing.  Most gravel events have riders ranging anywhere from competitive racers to casual riders out for an adventure with friends.  The Lycra and aero helmets are much more scarce, and everyone is simply there to have a good time.  It creates a sense of camaraderie among riders rarely seen in other disciplines.

The last piece of this puzzle is the gear itself.  As more people have discovered the joys of gravel riding, bike manufacturers have worked hard to create better bikes and gear to make riding on rough surfaces safer and more enjoyable.  Whether it is disc brakes, wider tire clearance, or tubeless tires, each advance has brought more stability, control, and ultimately enjoyment to riding gravel.  This, in turn, brings more people into the sport because they feel safe and confident riding this equipment, so the cycle continues.  This makes for a fast growing discipline that is turning out to be an exciting trend to watch.

This sounds awesome...how to I start?

Before loading up your bike and hitting a dirt road near you, there are a few things you want to make sure your bike is ready for.  While some road bikes may handle the surfaces seen in gravel cycling well, others may be very poorly suited for it.  Perhaps the most important thing to look at is your tire clearance.  Anyone who has ever accidentally ended up on a dirt road while out riding on their narrow road tires knows the terror of hitting that loose dirt at speed on that tiny little patch of rubber.  The feeling of your bike skating across the very top of the dirt with no sense of control will very quickly teach you that lesson.  While some surfaces may be ride-able on tires as narrow as 28c, most surfaces will be much safer and more enjoyable when ridden on a tire with a larger footprint.  The second thing to consider is your position on the bike.  That low, aero position that worked great on smooth pavement will leave you battered and bruised at the end of a day of gravel riding.  A more upright position that keeps you seated with your weight distributed across both wheels will make for a much more enjoyable day.  Lastly, having components on your bike that were designed for use on gravel will not only make the ride more enjoyable, but make your bike last longer as well.  Bottom bracket bearings such as Hawk Racing’s FSS with CX Seal line offer superior protection from the dust, dirt, and grime that are prevalent while riding gravel. 

So, you’re bike is ready, now what?  Depending on where you live, finding gravel may be easier than you think.  For those of us living in the American Midwest, dirt and gravel roads are easily within reach.  One only has to look left or right while driving down any road in the Midwest, and their view will be filled with unpaved back roads.  For those in urban areas, this may involve a bit more travel.  Luckily, there are resources out there to help you find the perfect roads for your next adventure.  One such resource is gravelmap.com, a user-generated website with a Google-type interface.  This website highlights gravel roads tagged by users in yellow.  Since it is user-generated, it may not show everything in your area, so there’s plenty of exploring involved as well.  Another good place to look is the National Forest Service.  National parks are full of unpaved service roads that are open to non-motorized vehicles and provide a great place for the adventurous to get out and ride where the pavement ends.  This brings the side benefit of also being gorgeous scenery.  Lastly, let others figure out the route for you by signing up for a gravel event near you.  These can range anywhere from small local rides to huge events like the Dirty Kanza.  Find something that fits with what you enjoy and want to do, and have fun with it.  After all, gravel cycling is all about the joy of being on two wheels.

Maybe I’ll see you where the pavement ends.

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