Nine tips on how to get started with gravel riding

Whether you're drawn to an adventure or the car-free roads, here's how to get started

Gravel Week
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Riding on gravel may not be a new phenomenon, but it has certainly been growing in popularity in recent years. From bike sales to event registrations and social media content, all signs indicate that the gravel trend is here to stay.

The Tour de France covered unpaved roads from its early years and we’ve all enjoyed unique events like Strade Bianche, but recently we’ve seen a whole new world of off-road riding open up.

Gravel riding offers all the adventure, enjoyment and effort of road cycling, but with a wilder edge and without having to worry about car interactions. 

WorldTour pros like Taylor Phinney, Laurens Ten Dam, Ian Boswell, Peter Stetina and even Peter Sagan have all turned their attentions to rougher terrain, while plenty of brands are quick to try to define what gravel is and what bikes and gear are needed.

But If you're reading this, you might be new to off-road riding. Maybe you're looking to try bikepacking this summer or perhaps its the quieter, low-trafficked paths that are drawing you in. 

We’ve been gaining experience in gravel here at Cycling Weekly, so here are our top tips for your first rides off-road:

Start out by just exploring

Gravel bikes offer the best of both worlds
(Image credit: Michelle Arthurs Brennan)

The best way to start riding is to head out from your home and just start exploring.

You may want to recreate some of the enormous distance gravel cyclists and other adventure riders take on, but it’s still best to start out slow and get used to riding on different terrain.

Don’t try to cover a certain distance or reach a certain destination, just head out and look for some local routes and then you can start linking them together.

Search out bridleways or multi-use paths

While we may call it gravel riding, there are a lot of different kinds of terrain you kind find out riding.

From full off-road dirt single track to smooth cycle paths and unpaved roads, there’s a range of ways to get your off-road fix, but when you start it’s probably best to search out bridleways.

These routes can offer reliable surfaces and beautiful traffic-free paths while you won’t have to worry about things getting too extreme.

There have been a good few occasions where I’ve decided to wander off the beaten path and have unexpectedly found myself plummeting down a sketchy rutted descent, trying to cling onto to the bars and avoiding falling – it’s not a mountain bike we’re riding after all.

It’s not about the bike

James Bracey's dream gravel bike

You can have as much fun on a cheap gravel bike as you can on an expensive bike.

While this is pretty much the case for all types of cycling, the emphasis of gravel riding is not on speed, aerodynamics or Strava segments – it’s enjoying the ride.

For that reason, the performance differences between a high end and mid-range gravel bike matter much less than on a road bike.

Of course you need to make sure your equipment can withstand the more demanding terrain you’re riding, but there’s no need to worry about the wind-tunnel testing of your gravel machine when you’re just out to enjoy the view.

Your pace will be much lower

It’s worth knowing the scale of your adventure before setting out, so you don’t end up over-extending your distances and accidentally spending nine hours on the bike when you only planned to ride for three.

So it’s worth remember that your average speeds on a gravel ride will be a lot slower than a road ride, particularly if you’re spending most of the ride away from the tarmac.

Don’t expected a 50km ride to take a couple of hours and plan for a long day out if you want to cover some serious kilometres.

Beware of sore legs

Quarantine doesn't have to be boring

(Image credit: chris catchpole)

The efficiency of riding a bike means you can cover large distances relatively easy, but heading off-road suddenly you can find things get a lot harder.

You’ll need to put in more effort to maintain your speeds and you can often find yourself grinding up some hefty gradients on the gravel, so beware of the strain on your muscles.

You might find that a three-hour gravel ride takes much more out of your legs than a road ride, and the ache could last for a few days.

Low cadence efforts are common on the gravel as you battle the rough terrain, so your legs might not be ready for the strength needed.

Consider a recovery strategy if you plan on riding gravel a lot or if you’re fitting it in to your regular training, as you might find yourself a little more fatigued than you’d expect.

Footwear and pedals can make all the difference

Getting the basic kit for gravel riding can be fairly inexpensive, as you can get off-road shoes and pedals for a fairly good price.

But that being said, sometimes it’s worth considering if spending extra might make you much more comfortable on the bike.

Avoiding bad off-road pedals and shoes can really make the difference and help you enjoy your ride more.

Stiffness isn’t everything when riding away from the roads and consider a pedal with a larger platform.

Try a hydration pack

While you can get started with even the most basic kit, there are a few optional extras you might want to consider as your gravel experience ramps up.

One area that you might want to focus on is hydration, as gravel riding can often involve long days out without easy access to shops.

Loading up bidons is the time-tested method, but on those hot summer days you might find the dirt and dust a problem as it cakes your bottles and makes drinking an unpleasant experience.

Opting for a hydration pack or vest is a great way to ensure you have plenty of clean water that’s easily accessible.

Geek out on tyres

Again this might not be one for consideration in the early days of your gravel riding, but if you want to level-up it can be worth investing in a few different sets of tyres.

>>> Why are road cyclists riding gravel bikes when hardtails could be faster? 

Your route and weather can make a huge difference on a gravel ride, so you may want to switch up the grip from a fine tread to something with deeper rubber for those aggressive off-road sections.

You're going to have fun

Here at Cycling Weekly the team have been building up their own experience of gravel riding but one thing that’s been reported back by everyone is how much fun you’ll have.

Whether it’s mixing up your regular riding, exploring your local area, or getting stuck into some intense off-road adventures gravel riding is an enormous amount of fun and is a great addition to the catalogue of cycling disciplines – we’d definitely recommend.

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