Getting Started with gravel bikes

So you like the idea of gravel bike riding but perhaps you’ve been out of the saddle for a while. Maybe you’ve been a mountain biker or a road racer and want a change of pace or maybe you’re just a regular unlabelled cyclist who is looking to turn cycling into a real hobby.

Well get ready because you’ve just found the ultimate guide to…

Getting started with gravel bikes

A gravel bike is a relatively new concept or niche in the biking space. Up until now if you wanted to go off-road you bought a mountain bike and if you wanted to go on-road you bought a road (or touring) bike.

That left a bit of a gap in the market where some people wanted to go a bit off-road and a bit on-road. That was okay because most people who wanted this just bought soft a mountain bike a put up with the downsides. When I say soft I mean a basic mountain bike without all the crazy shock setups etc.

So wouldn’t life be amazing if we could have a bike that could handle some fun off-road but still be able to keep up with regular road bikes on the road. Something that could be used for the daily commute but also happy crunching miles down forest roads on the weekends?

We it was that kind of thinking that brought us this new hybrid, 50% mountain bike, 50% road/touring bike and 100% fun!

Now if you’ve done any reading before about gravel bikes you might be thinking, hey wait a minute, what about Cyclo-cross bikes… They’re 50% mountain bike, 50% road/touring bike and 100% fun too!

Cyclo-cross (CX) VS. Gravel Bike

Yes you are correct. A cyclo-cross (CX) bike and a gravel bike a very similar except a cyclo-cross bike is built for cyclo-cross racing and a gravel or adventure bike is built for… You guessed it, gravel and adventure.

A cyclo-cross bike has to be the best it can be for what it does (cyclo-cross racing) and it cannot compromise from that. Cyclo-cross is a cross country race that can be a mix of fields, mud, beaches, paths, mountain bike trails etc. and because of this it has very specific requirements.

For example, a cyclo-cross rider does not need to carry luggage during a race so it has only a few mounting points for water bottles etc. but a gravel bike has as many as possible so you can have an epic day/week/month/year long cycle.

A cyclo-cross rider often needs to dismount and carry their bike over obstacles or up very steep inclines and for this they need a high set cross bar to be able to get their shoulder under for ease of carrying. Cyclo-cross riders need to maintain as much speed as possible so they need to be able to keep pedalling even around tight corners. In order to allow for this the cyclo-cross bike has a much higher crank point than a gravel bike.

There are many other subtle differences that when added together make a massive difference but it can all be summed up like this. The cyclo-cross and gravel bike are both built with a different purpose in mind.

Finding a Gravel Bike

That leads us on nicely to a very important topic. How do you find a gravel bike to get started with?

Some would advise that for a beginner the best idea is to buy second hand so that you get a good bike but without the extra cost and I really have to disagree.

Buying second hand requires that you know what you’re looking for. You know how much a bike should be, you know what wear and tear and signs of damage to avoid. These are all things that a person learns over time through research and direct experience.

For example, buying a carbon frame bike with a hairline crack you miss could spell disaster for you in the future. You don’t want to be on your epic ride and find your bike breaking apart under you.

So what should you do? Well in my view investing in a gravel bike is actually much less risky than other types of bikes. A middle of the road gravel bike can be converted into a middle of the road mountain bike or road bike with a simple change of tyres. Yes that’s right, an average gravel bike is just as good as an average road bike. For average mountain biking you might want to add some suspension but either way you look at it, buying a mid-level gravel bike will mean that if in the future you find yourself drawn to more the roads or mountains they are both within your reach with your gravel bike.

For some of our highly recommended gravel bikes, check out our reviews of some of the best gravel bikes.

Before we finish this topic I think frameset should be mentioned. As always you have three main options of material. Steel for bargain and comfort, aluminium for being lightweight while still affordable and carbon for comfort and lightweight but at a cost.

I love steel tube bikes for many reasons. They are cheap but yet steel bike have come a long way and often have other complex alloys in the mix to make them stronger and lighter.

If you mix a steel frame bike with other materials you’re onto a winner. For example I have a steel frame bike from nearly 30 years ago but it’s still a great bike because of the carbon saddle and handle bar posts that absorb some vibrations and save weight and my aluminium wheels that also save weight.

Don’t rule steel out at any budget level.

Aluminium is the middle of the road material that some people love while others hate. It is often said to be harsher than steel and carbon, allowing more of the vibrations to reach the rider and some people worry about repairs because aluminium bikes require specialist repairs that might be beyond the skills of the local bike shop.

Well if you’re getting your frame repaired, I wouldn’t want my local bike shop getting a welder out to fix it so I don’t think repair is really an issue. While there might be some truth to how harsh aluminium is I think it would only impact the serious rider who should probably have a carbon bike anyway.

Aluminium is the middle ground. The weight savings over steel are not to be ignored and most of the time aluminium bikes are very close to steel in real world cost so don’t ignore aluminium for your bike purchase.

Well what can we say, we love a bit of carbon. It’s more comfortable than the aluminium, it often comes in better shapes than the other two with added aero benefits and then their’s the weight advantage.

Anybody who has cycled an old bike up a hill knows that the weight of a bike makes a massive difference. If you’re serious about cycling and you have the budget then carbon is the best material.

Basic Skills

Okay so you have your bike ordered or maybe you have it already, that’s great news. Most people (myself included) just jump on the bike and get going but if we just took a few minutes to brush up on our gravel bike riding skills we would get so much more from the experience.

It’s like buying the latest smart phone. If we don’t read the manual, watch a YouTube video or read a great guide *cough*, *cough* then we are going to miss out on everything that can be done with it.

Knowing how to get the most from your bike and yourself will mean many years of happy cycling is ahead.

Bike care and maintenance

Firstly make sure you have a nice dry secure place to leave your bike at night. You want to make sure it’s not getting attacked by the elements or those with a love for taking what doesn’t belong to them.

Before each ride you should make sure that the chainset is clean and clear of any foreign material (I once had near invisible fishing wire clogging everything up). You should then check your tyre pressures are correct and that you have everything you need for the ride like a spare tube and pump.

In fact that’s something that I only realised recently. I always brought a puncture repair kit but really it’s much easier to just bring a spare tube. On the road it’s not easy to spot the puncture and waiting on glue to dry in the rain isn’t fun.

After each ride you should make sure to clean your bike. Don’t be tempted to leave it until another time because you’ll most likely not do it and then on your next cycle you’ll be starting out with a dirty bike. That’s not the end of the world but leaving your bike covered in dirt and debris will only shorten the life of your bike and leave your frame and chainset more prone to long term damage.

Riding on gravel

The real key to riding on gravel is being comfortable and stable on your bike. With gravel riding the surface can change in an instance so you need to maintain a loose control of your bike, letting the bike jolt and move with the surface without you fighting it too much. Of course you have to stay on course but by going with the bumps and jolts and not fighting the bike you are less likely to hurt yourself or crash.

No pressure; okay not too much pressure. When you’re on smooth tarmac you want your tyres pumped and solid so you can get max speed but when you’re on gravel, you need to take the pressure off a little. Somewhere above 30PSI and below 50PSI seems to be a good average range for riding on gravel surfaces. Of course if you know the gravel is going to be fine and smooth you can push to the high end and if you know it’s very rough large gravel then keep the pressure on the low end.

For turning on gravel you won’t want to be making sudden movements with your front wheel or you risk digging in and coming off your bike. What you want to do is act like a race-car going into a turn, take a wide turn in, clip the apex and take a wide turn out. This will also allow you to maintain a higher speed in the turn than taking a sharp turn.

Getting good at putting one foot down is also a vital skill for gravel riding (also known as tripodding). The ability to have one foot ready to place on the ground can help you come off your bike totally. It’s a skill you can practice when coming to a stop.

Last tip for riding in gravel is kind of counter intuitive. Riding in the drops position might not feel like you have the most control but it actually provides the most stability to your bike. By being in the drops you make yourself more aerodynamic and you also lower your centre of gravity and both of these help with stability and of course that helps when riding on gravel.

Riding uphill

If you’re starting on a hill it’s a good idea to change into your lowest gear (or the gear you want), lift your bike and pedal it a bit to get the gear engaged. This way you will be starting in the correct gear without having to struggle to change gear going uphill.

It’s also a good idea to point your bike at an angle to the hill rather than straight at it so that you get some momentum before going straight into the hill-climb.

When riding up a long hill get yourself into a good position first. What you want is to put your weight as far back on the saddle as possible to help give your rear wheel traction and the lower angle of your body pulling on the handle bars will help use your upper body strength to push against with your legs.

Riding in the rain

Getting the right clothing is essential for riding in the rain. You’ll need rain proof gear that also allows for heat and moisture from sweat to escape. You’ll want to wear layers so you can adapt your cloths for the conditions but make sure the layers are not too thick as this might cause unwanted heat and sweat build-up.

If you know that your entire ride will be in the wet then it’s a good idea to lower your tyre pressure. The lower the tyre pressure the more grip you have and you’ll need that in wet conditions but do be aware that this will also make the cycle tougher and maybe you won’t want that in already miserable conditions.

Wearing a cycling cap is also a good idea if you know it’s going to be a rainy day. A cycling cap is made of cotton so it will help you stay warmer and keep some of the damp from your hair and if it has a peak that will also help to keep water dripping into your eyes.

Breaking in a straight line before a corner is a great way to stay upright in the rain. Hitting the breaks mid corner when your weight is over one side of the bike puts a lot of pressure on the tires for grip which can often be lacking in the rain.

Doing a bunny hop

A bunny hop is great for avoiding or mounting larger obstacles while you’re cycling. It doesn’t need to be a massive hop in order for you to be able to get over the obstacle.

To perform a classic bunny hop; bend your knees and elbows while you push down into the bike then in quick sequence tip your toes to the ground and pull back with your feet as you pull up the front of the bike to perform a “bunny hop”.

With some practice you’ll be able to get more and more height in your bunny hop.

Performing a wheelie

While a wheelie might just seem like something you use to show off when you’re 12, it actually is a vital skill for gravel riding. Being able to perform a wheelie will allow your front wheel to clear large objects, rocks, dykes and potholes.

To perform a wheelie get into a lower gear and pedal at a normal rate, with your dominant foot put that pedal in the 2 O’clock position (the highest point of pedal rotation without being straight). Push down sharply on the pedal and at the same time lean back to move your weight to the rear of the bike. As you pull on the handlebars, quickly accelerate and put your weight over the back of the bike you will perform a wheelie.

Where to next?

You should now be ready to get started with gravel bikes. All you need now is somewhere great to have your adventure. For starting out, forest roads (sometimes knows as fire roads) are great for beginners because they will mostly be compacted gravel (not loose), usually they are in good condition, are surrounded by beautiful countryside and are relatively flat.

If you’re after something even easier, I find canal and river bank roads/paths are great but they must be well maintained and mostly a mix of tarmac and gravel. Avoid grass and mud to start with as these are harder to cycle on.

The Komoot map/route planner is fantastic for finding your next adventure but it does come at a cost so Google maps is an excellent free alternative.

Look for local gravel/adventure bike groups that you can join online and in person for group rides and friendly competitions.

Most of all enjoy getting out into nature and getting a new perspective on the world that only a gravel bike can give you. See you out there!