By Luke Friend
In a little under 10 years gravel riding has gone from something of a niche to full-blown phenomenon.Sure, it's not new - riders have been venturing off-road on drop bar bikes for decades. But now the equipment has finally caught up and is keeping pace with our demands and our imagination.
As cyclists we find ourselves in an exciting place, reaching a confluence where mountain bikers and roadies meet and are then free and uninhibited to decide which tributary to explore.
Gravel riding has become so diverse that it’s almost genre-defying in its sheer breadth of terrain and experience. You can race, hit the local trails and tracks for a few hours, or head off into the wilderness for a multi-day bikepacking trip armed with a fly rod, a bivvy sack and an insatiable desire to get lost.
What 'gravel riding' means to you will vary dramatically depending upon where you're based. We take a look at how US gravel riding compares to UK terrain, and where best to seek out such terrain.
Gravel in the US
It's impossible to provide a comprehensive guide to gravel in the United States in just a few hundred words. So instead we’re going to look at a couple of famed gravel destinations as well as a big city in detail.
The Centennial State is front and centre of the gravel boom and with good reason. Colorado combines wide open spaces with big skies and mountain vistas.Made accessible via its vast network of traffic-free dirt roads is what makes it a dream for cyclists. In other words, if you were painting a picture of gravel nirvana it probably would end up looking a lot like Colorado.
Steamboat Springs, located a little over 150 miles from Denver, is home to the famous SBT GRVL race that draws participants from around the world. The area boasts around 600 miles of world-class gravel riding. This equates to a sheer variety of routes that is hard to match, with rides for all ability levels.
However, it's worth noting that if you come to Steamboat Springs, don't forget to bring your climbing legs. Many routes will pack in several thousand feet of climbing. Similarly, the terrain could involve rocky single track accents, sapping your legs further still. Oh, and there's the altitude to consider.
Like its neighbour Colorado, Utah offers an expansive and dramatic landscape ideally suited to getting away from it all on a bike. It's home to desert, mountains and a rather big lake.
It cut its teeth early as a serious mountain bike destination, making its rise on the gravel scene unsurprising. Recognised for for its sublime fat-tyre trails, Moab combines the scenic beauty with an array of famed routes, including the Slickrock Bike Trail.
The state's other desert roads have also piquedthe interest of many gravel riders.These distinctive red-dust roads zig-zag their way across several of Utah's state parks. Zion, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef National Parks all provide plenty of unforgettable gravel routes suited to the more experienced adventurer.
Riding here is, naturally, hot work. The sheer isolation of these spots makes self-sufficiency a necessity rather than a luxury. You'll need to plan ahead. You'll need to carry water, a water-filter, tools, spares, food and perhaps even shelter. But in return you'll be rewarded with a view of the American West few get to enjoy.
New York City
New York City is proof that even in one of the world's busiest cities, gravel riding is possible. Outside the city limits you'll find plenty of gravel roads and trails to explore. While they may not match Colorado or Utah for their jaw-dropping views, they are varied enough. More importantly, they are a lot of fun to ride.
Many of its nearby gravel routes can be reached by riding from from the city, but we recommend using a train to escape the sprawl and doing away with having to ride junk miles.
The 26-mile Old Croton Aqueduct Trail (OCA) provides many miles of packed dirt to explore. The trail's official start is at the northern tip of Van Cortland Park in the Bronx, but it's accessible from a number of spots along the trail, including Dobbs Ferry in the lower Hudson Valley. From here it meanders alongside the Hudson River mixing largely flat terrain with a few technical sections.
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Riding to the end of the trail at the spectacular Croton Dam doesn't have to be the finish. It also serves as a jumping off point for the gravel roads of northern Westchester County. The region - less than an hour by train from Grand Central Station - provides an easy escape from the stresses of city life for many NYC cyclists.
Other nearby gravel getaways include Harriman State Park, near Sloatsburg, and Minnewaska State Preserve, near New Paltz. The latter offers miles of undulating gravel trails and beautiful views from the Shawangunk Ridge.
But you don't always have to leave the city to get a dose of gravel. Shirley Chisholm Park in Brooklyn is home to 10 miles of fresh gravel paths built on a former landfill site. In addition to the trails, it offers panoramic views of the Manhattan skyline and Jamaica Bay, and you can even spot migratory birds. Cunningham Parks in Queens is home to well-maintained trails and single track - another ideal spot.
Other US gravel hotspots
Vermont is a certified east coast gravel mecca. Sparely populated and largely rural, it's home to a vast network of gravel roads and logging tracks, connected by quiet country roads. In fact it possesses more miles of unpaved roads than it does paved.
The state boasts a number of significant gravel events that showcase the variety of gravel riding available. These include Rooted, wthebrainchild of gravel racing legend Ted King. The ex-Grand Tour rider, and two-time DK200 winner, now calls the state home. Rooted's blend of paved, dirt and mud is quintessential Vermont riding.
The mid-West's place in gravel riding history is well-documented. The farm and forest roads of Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota provided the backdrop for many of gravel's formative races. These are the roads that helped elevate gravel riding from a bourgeoning discipline enjoyed by a few die-hards to where we are today.
Variety nicely mixes with familiarity in this part of the country. The sandy roads west of Wichita in south-central Kansas are where The Open Range is held, an annual event showcasing the region's gravel credentials. A 200km route it takes in the high plains and the Gypsum Hills and proves that Kansas gravel is as varied as it is extensive.
Gravel in the UK
The UK is now a significant gravel scene, its growth driven by cyclists looking to escape busy roads and find the path less travelled.
Gravel riders in Britain and the States share a similar ethos, but the terrain can be pretty different, shaped by history and geography.Where the United States' expansiveness lends itself to having miles after miles of unpaved roads, the UK's densely-populated nature prohibits such a luxury.
But there is still a vast playground to enjoy. Ancient byways traverse the countryside; gravel roads forged by farmers criss-cross through farmland; forest trails carve open new riding routes; and national parks are home to tracks rarely seen and even rarely ridden. Here's some of our favourite spots.
Bristol and the South-West
Bristol's reputation as a 'cycling city' is well-earned. On any given day you'll see commuters navigating the city streets, club riders heading out to the country lanes and mountain bikers taking the short route to Ashton Court and its trails. So it's little surprise that gravel riding has also taken hold.
CX riders and mountain bikers have long used the network of trails in Leigh Woods to hone their skills. Located just outside the southern boundaries of the city, these wooded trails are easily accessible by bike. Hugging the Avon Gorge, the dirt trails criss-cross the property, offering glimpses of the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge. There's singletrack here, too. And plenty of dog walkers!
The nearby Mendip Hills are reachable from the city on two-wheels, showcasing the versatility that gravel bikes offers. The ability to ride miles of winding country lanes before hitting hilly dirt tracks was an option that was never really open to roadies on 25mm tires or mountain bikers on full-suss machines. The Mendips are an ideal spot for an over-night bikepacking adventure.
The neighboring county of Wiltshire is home to the famed Ridgeway. It's England's oldest road and travels some 90 miles from Avebury to Ivanhoe Beacon in the Chiltern Hills.
Once the domain of hikers and mountain bikers, the gravel boom has seen drop bar riders take to the route, enjoying the panoramic views while breathing in a bit of history. The path can be heavy going in places, with plenty of large rocks and rutted sections. Dry conditions and tires north of 40mm will make the going far more enjoyable.
The remoteness of Scotland make it a serious draw for gravel riders and bike packing enthusiasts. The country is full of spectacular routes but if you're new to the region following an established trail makes sense.
The Wild About Argyll Trail is a407-mile route that takes in the Ardgartan Peninsula, the coastal roads of East Kintyre and the Glen Want National Nature Reserve.
Mixing forest roads with cycle paths, quiet country roads and some single track, it passes mountains and lochs and sees riders enjoy both woodland coastline. You may even have time to stop and enjoy a wee dram after a dip in the ocean.
Other recommend routes include The Reiver Raid, a 175km loop in the border country of the Ale Water Valley, designed with bikepacking in mind.
Like Scotland, Wales offers gravel cyclists a chance to get out and ride in some pretty remote areas. The Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia are better known, but mid-Wales is an area that will put a smile on any gravel rider's face.
In the Elan Valley and the Cambrian mountains you'll take in quiet country lanes, gravel tracks and drovers roads. Don't discount a few stream crossings and a bit of hike-a-bike, too. You can explore theses two areas separately or weave them together on an bikepacking adventure.
The village of Rhayader serves as an accessible gateway to the Elan Valley. The majority of routes here navigate the large reservoirs and blend winding country roads with off-road cycle paths and dirt tracks.
Further south is the Irfon Valley, which in turn opens up the dirt tracks of the Towy Valley. The Cambrain Mountains are dubbed the Desert of Wales. And with good reason. The region is sparsely populated and there are few paved roads. But armed with a gravel bike, a map and a sense of adventure and the desert soon becomes an oasis.