Gravel biking is one of the fastest growing segments in cycling, yet ask a rider to describe exactly what gravel riding is and you’ll likely get a wide variety of answers. Gravel includes everyone from bike tourers to racers, and encompasses everything from Type 2 Fun trips along rugged tracks that involve as much hike-a-bike as riding to fast and fun rides on “champagne” dirt. Even within gravel racing, there’s a huge variety in types of riding. The UCI’s inaugural Gravel World Championship was held on a fast and flat course featuring Italy’s “white roads,” cobbles, and asphalt with many riders racing their road bikes—quite a contrast from the long, grueling events like Unbound or the multi-day bikepacking races that are growing increasingly popular. Racing probably isn’t even on the radar of most riders, yet the gravel denomination encompasses it all.
Gravel Riding Defies Definition
There have been numerous attempts to categorize the different types of gravel riding, but all of them fail to truly capture the essence of the sport: exploration, adventure, taking the road less traveled, and (most importantly) fun. Perhaps it’s so difficult to characterize gravel cycling because it defies categorization and riders don’t fit neatly into simple silos; rather, gravel riders are better represented on a spectrum with those in it for pain on one end, and those for pleasure on the other.
Gravel Biking is Pain
On one end of the spectrum are those who find joy in the challenge—the harsher the conditions, the better. Not all gravel is created equal and these riders seek out unmaintained and infrequently cared-for roads that are commonly super remote and feature challenges including rock gardens, bike-swallowing puddles, fate-tempting ruts and confidence-killing sand traps. Regardless of the condition of the terrain, many of these routes seem engineered to elicit suffering, with lung-searingly steep climbs and puckering descents that will equally take your breath away.
Those who find torment a treat on their gravel bikes are usually identified by their wide, knobby tires, bag-laden bikes and mish-mash of skin-tight and baggy clothes. This group prizes gear that can stand up to abuse and that they can fix in the field. On the quirky side of the spectrum, this group draws everyone from backpackers to mountain bikers to roadies.
Even the harshest roads don’t offer enough torment for the pain-is-pleasure gravel crowd. Like mountain bikers to energy drinks and roadies to coffee shops, these riders are attracted to long-forgotten and debris-riddled double track, skill-testing multi-use trails and snaking singletrack. This group typically believes a good gravel grind has a few sections that involve walking their bike and any route that is fully rideable is considered easy.
You won’t find road bikes frequenting the paths taken by the group of gravel bikers that court pain, but you may see some mountain bikes and it’s a good bet someone is riding an old converted hardtail with a drop bar. This group relishes testing their limits and leaving their comfort zone. In addition to demanding terrain and ungodly road grades, this group welcomes adventurous outings far from cell phone reception, rides in poor weather and prefers experience over speed. At the end of the day, you’ll likely find these blue-collar bike riders covered in mud, grime and dust, huddled around a grill or cooler minimizing today’s monster climb or telling tall tales about past exploits.
Some events/routes to try if you're in the 'gravel is pain' camp:
- Farmer’s Daughter Gravel Grinder
- Vermont Overland
- Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnée (D2R2) 180K
- Rooted Vermont
Gravel Biking is Pleasure
On the other end of the spectrum are gravel bikers in search of pleasure. These riders typically stick to well-maintained gravel tracks and aren’t above riding some pavement to link dirt roads, rail trails and gentle double tracks. Pleasure-seeking gravel grinders don’t avoid challenges (barely crushed stone, soft sand and teeth-rattling washboards are all commonplace), although they’re generally the exception, not the rule. Despite their washed-out corners and occasional ruts, in many cases, these dirt roads are in better shape than their paved counterparts.
These pedalers in the pursuit of happiness are generally recognized by their comparatively narrow tires with file and semi-slick treads, faster speeds and the many miles they cover—at least while riding on forgiving surfaces. Many members of this group have gravitated to gravel from road cycling—you may even see skilled bike handlers tackling these routes on their road bikes—and enjoy the extra challenge presented by riding on mixed surfaces.
It’s not just logging miles on immaculate dirt that these riders revel in, the routes they follow tend to have less traffic and allow for a more social setting (like biking side by side). Consequently, they often travel at a party pace—somewhere between a hardcore roadie and laid-back mountain biker—that is steady enough to breathe hard, but not so intense they can’t carry a conversation or have a laugh. Gravel riders find fun in fitness, entertainment in exercise and amusement in athletics.
The quiet found in getting away from busy roads, lively towns and the hustle and bustle of everyday life is another attractive quality to those who find gratification in gravel. This group isn’t tackling extreme terrain or the most severe surfaces, but still enjoys adventurous riding and allows for exploration on long-ignored and often-avoided pathways not suitable for traditional road bikes.
Some events or routes to try if you're in it purely for the pleasure:
- Presidential Rail Trail
- Kearsarge Classic (35 Mile or 55 Mile)
- Acadia National Park’s 40+ miles of car-free, crushed-stone carriage roads
- Ammonoosuc Rail Trail
- Rose Mountain Rumble RMR 25 Miler
The Fuzzy Middle of Gravel Biking
There’s also the murky line between pain and pleasure. After all, it’s possible to enter the pain cave on even the highest-quality gravel roads—just ask anyone who has tackled gorgeous gravel at an event where factors like race pace, altitude and a ridiculous amount of climbing are sure to inflict an abundance of agony. Similarly, gravel riders tackling multi-day trips are likely to feel the pain of pushing their gear-laden bikes no matter how nice of a surface they’re riding on.
Conversely, the combination of competent bike handling, super wide and grippy tires, disc brakes and suspension can help highly skilled riders tame even the most treacherous of trails and prove a pleasurable experience. These riders might find the elusive flow state where obstacles are overcome with ease and the miles melt away all with a smile on their face.
Why Gravel is Great
Maybe gravel is so hard to define because it falls somewhere in between the two most predominant sections of cycling—road and mountain—and has pulled riders into its orbit from both. Because of this, most gravel riders don’t land at one end of the spectrum or the other; instead, they find themselves somewhere in the middle. There are plenty of riders who don’t prefer one type of surface over another but love all surfaces—some days pain, some days pleasure, some days a little bit of both.
Thanks to the newness of gravel riding and the diverse type of riders it attracts, gravel isn’t bogged down by the traditions and rules that can suck the fun out of other types of riding. Let your freak flag fly and pair your favorite bibs with a flannel shirt, ditch the gears in favor of a single-speed or swap out your in-vogue flared handlebar for a flat one. In many ways, gravel brings back the excitement and freedom that bikes brought us as kids. Gravel riding breaks the bonds of established bike culture, snaps us out of obsessively monitoring Strava and brings us back to the freedom and passion we felt when we first pushed on the pedals.
The appeal of gravel riding is that it’s whatever you want it to be—whether it’s bike paths, dirt roads or even singletrack—no matter where you land on the spectrum of riders. As long as you have a helmet and a love for riding off-road, you’re a member of this fast-growing and passionate pack.
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