Man, I’m sore this morning! Yesterday (June 1, 2019) I participated in the Kantdu Kanza gravel ride held by The Spinistry. Technically, this was my first really big gravel ride. I’ve done smaller ones around the Dallas area and, with this one, planned to only do the 20-mile route. But, after arriving, I felt confident I could do a little more. So, I opted to go on the 50K route, just a little over 32 miles! What a wonderful ride! :D
On the drive home after the event, I got to thinking: What is it about gravel riding that I find so attractive?
I’m not a racer or a daredevil. I’m not competitive. I just want to ride for the sake of riding. For people like me, there are really only four types of riding with three to four different types of bikes to fit: cruisers, fitness, mountain, and road. But now, with gravel riding, we have a new type: the gravel bike!
What is a gravel bike?
A gravel bike is exactly as it sounds: a bike designed to ride on gravel roads. But, like many types of riding, there are varied degrees of gravel. Gravel can be anything from loose, light gravel to larger, rocky gravel to sand or dirt, and anywhere in between. Virtually any path that doesn’t go to mountain biking extremes is game. Even some dirt trails could be targets for a gravel ride. It’s road riding without the road; off the beaten path style riding.
Now, you’ll likely see and hear about different aspects of what is good for gravel. Everything about the bike is scrutinized: the frame, handlebars, tires, and more. But what about any of these things make for a good gravel bike? The answer: It depends.
To be frank, virtually any bike can be turned into a gravel bike; a mountain bike, cruiser, road, any bike that allows for enough tire clearance can be ridden on gravel. It mostly boils down to the condition of the paths in your area. Once you know that then it’s mostly a matter of putting the right tires on your bike. Do you need a wider profile tire? One with more tread? If the paths are relatively loose and flat with very little debris then you could get away with a tire that has little tread but with a wider profile to allow for more surface area of the tire hitting the path. Otherwise, having a tire with more tread will help you feel more confident that your bike will grip the path better and won’t slip through a turn.
The rest is a matter of personal preference. Do your handlebars allow you to maintain control over your bike on rougher terrain? Is your saddle comfortable for longer rides on gravel roads? That’s honestly about it.
Granted, there are aspects of gravel bikes that are starting to become a little more defined. But right now, honestly, there really isn’t anything that we can call a gravel bike per se. Most bikes that are labeled as gravel bikes are really just touring road bikes that already have ample tire clearance for gravel style tires.
The In-Betweener of Bike Rides
I see gravel riding as something that is somewhere in-between a road ride and a mountain bike ride. Really the only difference between a road ride and a gravel ride is the terrain. You might still take quite a few paths on asphalt but, unlike road riding, where the pavement ends and the gravel begins doesn’t require you to turn around.
And, unlike a mountain bike ride, you’re not riding through gnarly terrain that require you to jump over stuff. The roughest terrain you might run into is a really rocky gravel road with some pits in the road*.
* On road rides, the pits you see in the road are pot holes. On gravel roads, calling them pot holes didn’t make any sense so...I at first called them cow holes, then bull holes, and then finally bull pits. Only a bull could make a hole that size on a gravel road!
Racing on Gravel
Most of my goals revolve around distance more than anything. Can I do 20 miles? How about 50K? What about 100K? How about on gravel? Only time speed comes into play for me is in making sure I can finish in a relatively timely manner before I kill myself. That’s about it.
But for some, it’s an opportunity to race in a way that is more comfortable than mountain bike or cyclo-cross races. I’ve heard about traditional road cyclists getting into gravel racing for that very reason. For many road cyclists, the appear of mountain and cyclo-cross racing just isn’t there. But gravel racing? Absolutely, and for the reasons I mentioned before which is that it’s a step up from road racing.
Main thing that concerns some gravel racers is rules. Eventually, there will be a professional gravel racing association formed in the same vein as the UCI. When that happens, the concern is that rules for things like wheel width will be imposed. The hope is that freedom will be retained in gravel racing and unnecessary restrictions will be kept out of the rules. After all, the reason why gravel is gaining popularity is the freedom it gives for cyclists. You’re no longer bound to just asphalt. As such, you really shouldn’t be bound to what bike you ride or how. That’s the beauty of gravel riding. Pretty much anything goes.
The Love of Gravel
What I really love about gravel riding is that the level of fitness required is right there between road and mountain biking. It’s a step up from road biking especially since it does require you to use your whole body. When you’re on a relatively rough gravel road you have to maintain full control over your bike. As such, you use your core more and, as a by-product, burn more calories. That’s one of the primary reasons I like it. I can gain more fitness on a one-hour gravel ride than I would with a two-hour road ride.
Plus, with most gravel rides, I don’t have to worry about cars hitting me. Usually don’t have to worry about traffic lights either. Most rides are relatively non-stop barring the occasional intersection or pit stop along the way.
Mostly what I love about gravel riding is that I can just ride at my own pace, ride pretty much anywhere, and just enjoy myself. Like I said above, I ride for the sake of riding. I ride to enjoy being in the moment, to soak in the scenery, to be one with my bike in the here and now. It’s as much of a mindful Zen experience than anything else. Just me and the road...and of course my riding partners! They’re as much a part of the experience too.
The real beauty of gravel riding is this: asphalt, dirt, gravel. Wherever the road takes you the sky’s the limit! My bike can take me pretty much anywhere. That’s the freedom that a gravel bike can bring.
Where will your next cycling adventure take you? It might just be gravel road.