Whether you're going on an all-day off-road adventure or you're planning to take your gravel bike on an epic bike packing tour, we can't think of a more fun way to explore the roads less travelled. Here's our guide to getting started with gravel biking.
Why is gravel riding so popular?
In recent years gravel riding has exploded in popularity. The UCI has even announced a new Gravel World Championship with rainbow stripes now up for grabs in the growing discipline.
For the majority of riders it remains a more relaxed and casual way to explore without the worries that sometimes accompany sharing roads with other vehicles. It's not weighed down by the rules and traditions of road cycling so it's fine if you don't want to wear lycra. Forgot to put Strava on? Who cares! Gravel riding can be whatever you want it to be, as long as you're having fun.
While you're having such a good time, you'll be improving your bike handling skills without even realising it. Learning to negotiate rocks and roots on the trail will help to bolster your confidence and skills on the roads which, as we all know, vary greatly in surface quality.
Another thing we love about gravel is that, since gravel bikes will work just fine on tarmac, you can start to really explore the unfamiliar even on your well-ridden local routes. Always wanted to know where that trail goes that you pass on your regular Sunday road ride? On a gravel bike you can effortlessly hop on-and-off-road and discover all those hidden gems you might have missed otherwise.
Getting your gravel bike ready
We love gravel bikes because they're so versatile. Gearing is typically pretty generous to allow you to power up technical climbs, the roadie-style drop handlebars give you more options for grip and the frame is burly enough to chuck about. However, there's a few things you might want to consider changing or adding to your gravel bike to optimise it for the trails ahead.
Gravel bike tyres
Gravel bikes often come supplied with semi-slick tyres and this is often the first thing people swap out. If you're going to be tackling loose or muddy terrain, you'll need something with a bit more grip.
You'll also need to make sure the tyre pressure is right for your gravel ride. Inflating your gravel tyres to a higher pressure will make the bike harder to control as you bounce off roots and rocks. A lower tyre pressure means you'll have more grip but can also lead to a higher puncture risk. Many gravel riders are moving to a tubeless setup so that they can run a lower pressure without worrying about an inner-tube pinch-flat.
Gravel bike bags
For those days when you go left instead of right, get totally lost, find new trails you never knew existed, then end up riding against the setting sun back to civilization, you might want to carry a few tools, spares and maybe extra clothes and food. On a gravel bike, luggage options are seemingly limitless. An oversized saddle bag or handlebar bag lets you carry all the essentials without the sweaty back. There's even bags that sit neatly on your top tube for access to those all-important snacks.
It's nice to be able to explore trails unknown, but it's also nice to not be completely lost. We love the Garmin Edge 1030 GPS Cycle Computer because the high-resolution color display makes mapping data easy to read. Turn-by-turn navigation means following a route is easy but if you stray off-track it will automatically re-route. and there's also trendline popularity so you can see where other riders like to go.
If you're heading out on your own, look for a GPS computer that has live tracking like this one does so that loved ones at home can keep track of where you are. There's also incident detection which you can set up to notify somebody of your location in the event of a collision.
What to wear on a gravel bike ride
The beauty of gravel biking is that you can really get into the great unknown, but this also means that you could be miles away from civilization for hours. Unless you live somewhere with consistently lovely weather, it's a good idea to be prepared for whatever the day might throw at you.
Do you need gravel-specific cycling kit?
As gravel cycling grows in popularity, more and more brands are developing gravel-specific kit. Of course, there's no reason why you can't make use of your existing road or mountain bike kit and depending on the kind of ride you're doing, you might find it more comfortable.
If you're going to be embarking on longer gravel rides or multi-day adventures, clothing designed specifically for the job might start to make more sense.
Gravel kit is typically more streamlined than full-on mountain bike kit but much more hard-wearing than your typical roadie lycra so it can withstand brushes with overgrowth and even the odd tumble.
Because gravel riding is all about exploring and adventure, you'll need to be prepared for anything and you might end up fending for yourself. Kit with plenty of pockets lets you keep extra snacks close at hand and look out for extra weatherproofing and breathability. If you're splashing through puddles, you'll be thankful for waterproof shorts.
Here's some of our favorite cycle clothing that we think is particularly ideal for gravel biking.
The best kit for gravel biking
The classic staple of many an off-roader's wardrobe gets a few nifty new features in this versatile 'shacket' from Endura.
Wear it plaid-side-out for casual drinks or café stops. In windy weather, the plain side will keep the chill out and the cosy flannel will keep you nice and warm.
There's also chest and handwarmer pockets - handy for extra storage.
Early starts, late finishes and multi-day adventures can mean you'll be out in a wide range of temperatures.
This windproof puffy jacket uses a layer of Polartec® Alpha® Direct insulation to keep you nice and toasty. There's also plenty of pockets so that you don't need to let the cold air in if you need to access your phone or food.
Weighing in at only 186g, when the temperature rises it will easily pack away into a saddle bag.
Keep it fast and light on warmer days in this featherweight high-performance jersey from dhb.
No less than six pockets, including two drop-in side pockets and a zipped pocket, help you keep essential snacks and spares close to hand.
A coldblack® fabric treatment helps you to stay cool whilst the UPF50+ rating keeps you protected from harmful rays.
The Castelli Unlimited bibs might look like your average roadie bibs at a glance but take a closer look and you'll see how they have been designed specifically for long days on the rough stuff.
They're constructed from ultra-tough Unlimited Lycra® which means they'll resist abrasion and tears. The side panels are double-layered since it's likely that's where you'll hit the ground if you take a tumble. There's also covered pockets on the sides and even more storage at the back.
Finally, the KISS Air2 seat pad for men and superbProgetto X2 Air Seamless Donna seat pad for women are both anatomically shaped and designed for breathability and comfort over long distances.
Lightweight and super-soft on the skin, a merino base layer will help to regulate your temperature on cooler days. Not only does it keep warmth in, it also lets moisture escape so you don't end up cold and clammy.
Merino wool is naturally anti-bacterial, so on multi-day trips if you let it air out overnight you'll be able to wear it multiple times before you'll notice even a whiff of odor.
Gravel riders favor the MTB 2-bolt cleat pedal system because it's easier to clip out of and walk in if necessary and it's less likely to get clogged up with mud.
Fizik have designed the Terra Powerstrap X4 specifically for long adventures on mixed terrain. The hook-and-loop strap evenly distributes pressure across the foot, delivering all day stability and comfort.
The X4 sole perfectly combines the stiffness you'll appreciate when you're putting the power down on tarmac with an MTB-style tread that offers grip and stability off the bike.
Gravel riding technique
All kitted up? Here are a few tips from Team Spectra boss and gravel guru Bruce Dalton on the technique that will help you to get the most from your ride.
Where's your next adventure?
Once you've got to grips with gravel grinding days out, we're certain that you'll be wanting more. Gravel bikes normally have plenty of places to mount luggage and, because you can take them almost anywhere, they're perfect for multi-day adventures.
There's loads of routes available online but if you need some inspiration, here's our video from when we explored the King Alfred's Way in the South of England.