Last weekend I went on my first real gravel ride with a couple of my mates, and now feel obliged to share a few tips for riding a gravel bike.
I confess that I’ve owned my Specialized Diverge for about six years and I’ve mostly ridden it on the road, with an occasional off-road diversion. My friend Sarah is a keen bike-packer and she invited a couple of us to join her on a gravel ride near Wisemans Ferry on Sydney’s outskirts.
Before the weekend I headed to my local bike shop and bought some new more suitable gravel tyres – Specialized Pathfinder Pro (700 x 32), some mountain bike shoes, and mountain bike pedals. Previously my Diverge had smooth tyres and road pedals. It was the first time I’d tried mountain bike pedals and they proved perfect for this type of adventure.
The gravel road we traversed was pretty smooth but there had been a lot of rain and flooding in the area so there were some potholes, mud and water to avoid. I stayed upright and had a ball. Here are some tips that might help you when you head out for your first gravel ride:
Cornering on gravel
When cornering on the road, you’ll tend to lean with the bike, but on loose off-road surfaces, you still need to lean the bike while keeping your body more upright. This leans your bike into the corner while your upper body and head remain relatively upright which helps with stability.
Look where you want to go
This tip applies to just about any activity involved going around a corner. Don’t look at that big intimidating log or rock because you’re guaranteed to hit it if you do. Instead, look well ahead down the trail and focus on the line you want to take. Even on non-technical trails, look ahead to scope out smoother and faster lines.
Stay loose and relaxed
Try to stay relaxed and don’t overreact to the bike moving under you. I know it’s easier said than done, but any tension in your body will transmit to the bike and result in more twitchy and unpredictable handling.
Your knees and elbows are your suspension so don’t lock them out. Especially when descending, keep them soft, hover a few inches off your saddle, and keep your knees apart to allow the bike to move and soak up bumps.
Get used to speed
You’ll likely start a little tentative and fairly slow like I did, but the more you ride your gravel bike, the more confident you’ll become. Momentum is your friend on uneven surfaces and, by just letting your bike roll and staying loose, you’ll find yourself riding out of a lot of seemingly difficult situations. Tensing up and grabbing a handful of brakes never ends up well.
Choose the right tyres
It depends on the type of off-road surfaces you plan to ride on. For relatively smooth dirt tracks you could stay with fairly slick road tyres. But if the surface is rougher you may need to go with a gravel tyre like the Specialized Pathfinder or even something more knobby like the Pirelli Cinturato Gravel to handle the gnarly paths. This will provide more grip and flat tyre protection.
Lower your tyre pressure
Not only will lower tyre pressure give you a more comfortable ride, but it will also provide additional traction and confidence, both while climbing and descending. A few PSI can make a big difference in the handling and feel of your bike. The first part of our ride was on bitumen so when we reached the gravel section, I let some air out of my tyres.
Practice, practice, practice
Like any bike skill, you’ll get better with practice so find some local trails that suit your current skill level and then find an area that’s a little more challenging. Repeat.
Sarah is already planning our next gravel ride.
That should get you started on gravel riding but there are plenty of other great Internet articles and YouTube clips on the subject including this one from a woman called Juliet Elliot in the UK.