What is gravel biking, and why is it getting popular among cyclists?
Gravel cycling, simply put, is riding on unpaved roads. Similar to mountain biking, it opens up diverse terrains, ranging from wide-open dirt roads to chunky gravel to smooth trails.
Early in the pandemic, Shequaya Bailey bought a gravel bike. She’d been an avid road cyclist for years, and was even the president of the Pittsburgh Major Taylor Cycling Club, but she wanted to try something new.
Gravel cycling, simply put, is riding on unpaved roads. Similar to mountain biking, it opens up diverse terrains, ranging from wide-open dirt roads to chunky gravel to smooth trails. But like road biking, you can move swiftly without getting in over your head (or handlebars) on challenging terrain.
Bailey’s gravel bike expanded her “comfort, access and peace of mind” when exploring the counties around her home in Western Pennsylvania, she said.
So she loaded her gravel bike with camping gear and rode the 333-mile Greater Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal Towpath to Washington, DC. She pedalled for four days through deciduous forests, visited historic towns, explored caves and wandered Virginia’s Great Falls along the route.
“I spent most of the time letting my thoughts wander,” Bailey said. It was exhausting, but less than three months later, she was off again on another multiday trip.
The term “gravel cycling” has been around for the last 10 years or so, but people have been riding off-pavement since bicycles were invented. In the Paris-Roubaix, a classic race started in 1896, riders rode (and still ride) more than 150 miles on cobblestone and gravel roads.
Today, gravel bikes are one of the fastest growing sectors in the industry – sales jumped over 109 per cent from 2019 to 2021. Unbound, a popular gravel race in Emporia, Kansas, grew from 2,600 riders in 2021 to 4,000 in 2022.
Experienced cyclists and new riders alike are diving into the sport because it is “really a perfect medium for the masses”, explained Sarah Sturm, a professional gravel racer in Colorado. “It’s adventurous, gets you off the road with cars, and people really like riding on dirt.” Best of all, it allows riders to be flexible, riding on pavement, dirt roads and even some trails, which riders call single track.
WHAT IS A GRAVEL BIKE?
Gravel bikes are “jack-of-all-trades” bikes, said Kala Riester, a dietitian and cyclist in Salt Lake City. They have lightweight and compact frame shapes like road bikes for speed but also the low gearing of mountain bikes so you can climb steeper hills without working so hard.
Most are equipped with drop bars (handlebars that curve downward, offering multiple hand positions for long rides) and are fully rigid (they don’t have soft mountain bike suspension), which makes them fast. The frames allow for wider, grippier tyres — though not as large as mountain bike tyres.
Taken together, these features allow gravel riders to move efficiently and handle rugged terrain over long distances.
But you don’t need a gravel bike to try the sport. “You really just have to go pedal whatever bicycle you have on a dirt road and that’s it — you’re gravel biking,” Sturm said.
However, be aware that a mountain bike’s thick tyres and squishy suspension will slow you down and start to drive you nuts after a few hours, as your legs burn from fighting against the beefy and sluggish tyres. Also, before you dust off that old clunker in your garage, be sure to get it tuned up — you can’t always call an Uber if your bike breaks down on a dirt road.
If you don’t have a bike lying around, many local bike shops or REI rent out gravel bikes.
IT’S MORE ACCESSIBLE THAN MOUNTAIN BIKING, MORE WELCOMING THAN ROAD CYCLING
According to the US Department of Transportation there are about 2.2 million miles of unpaved roads in the United States (about half of all federal and state highways).
There are rural farm roads in the Midwest and logging routes in the Rocky Mountains. There are long-forgotten oil roads in the desert Southwest and converted railway tracks along the East Coast. No matter where you ride, each region offers a unique experience.
You can cruise for days on the smooth, rolling back roads outside of Pittsburgh, like Bailey, or power up steep climbs to wildflower-strewn meadows beneath snow-capped peaks, like Riester. “Biking has always been therapeutic for me, so I really love the remoteness of adventuring in areas that are less explored,” she said.
Aspiring gravel cyclists can use crowdsourced apps like GravelMap to find established routes. Bailey uses the app Ride With GPS and filters rides using the “surfaces” option.
If you have a more competitive bent, dozens of gravel races are popping up in every state. Unlike road races, which tend to be intensely competitive and hard to enter, gravel races lean more to casual participants, like running races.
“You’ll be riding the same course with a 12-year-old and an 80-year-old,” Bailey said. She rode her first race, a 25-mile ride in Garrettsville, Ohio, alongside a few teens that she mentors through a local leadership programme. Although the kids’ skill levels varied, “the event made space for them to be present and feel welcomed,” she said.
YOU’LL BOOST YOUR CARDIOVASCULAR SYSTEM
It’s no secret that aerobic exercise like cycling is good for you, said Ryanne Carmichael, an avid gravel cyclist and exercise physiology professor and researcher at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. It’s good for cardiovascular endurance and is less impactful on the joints than running.
But compared to road cycling, a challenging gravel ride will require much more work. “Gravel riding tends to be punchier than most road rides,” meaning plentiful short, steep hills, explained Kyle McFarland, a cycling coach with White Pine Athletics. On steeper terrain, you may spend more time above what experts call your threshold, which is any pace that you cannot hold for more than 60 minutes.
“The increased heart rate, ventilation and oxygen consumption, which occur with such an effort, will elicit spectacular gains in cardiovascular and muscular endurance,” Dr Carmichael said. Even if you’re cruising on flat terrain, the vibration of rough roads significantly increases your oxygen consumption and heart rate, according to a 2021 study.
YOU’LL GET SOME STRENGTH WORK IN, TOO
Most people think of cycling as a lower-body workout, but after a gravel ride, you’ll often find yourself sore in your triceps, biceps, core and back. The vibration of the road is one factor, but it’s also how you position your body on a gravel bike.
“On certain types of rides, we might see more upper body work,” Dr Carmichael explained. On steep climbs, your upper body works to manoeuvre and balance the bike. On long bumpy descents, you’ll engage your arms to stay balanced, using the muscles without shortening or lengthening them. (Imagine plank pose instead of a sit up.)
“When I started riding gravel, it was an awakening,” Bailey said. “My whole body is engaged, and I’m using my core and back much more than you would think.” On descents, she often stands up, hovering above her seat to brace for technical spots or washboarding (the ripple-like surface that forms in dry dirt from car tires). In this position, you’ll feel the burn as your glutes and core kick into gear.
READY TO RIDE? HONE YOUR SKILLS WITH THESE THREE TIPS
Once you’re comfortable on a bike, you can build your gravel technique. Both road and mountain biking skills will help you, but there are a few things that are different.
First, if you’re used to road biking “you’re probably putting way too much air in your tyres,” Sturm said. “You want as much contact between your tyre and the dirt as possible, especially when descending.”
Lowering your tyre pressure to around 30 to 45 psi (depending on your weight, tyres and terrain) will increase traction on loose terrain and dampen vibrations from dirt roads, McFarland said.
Next, work on your cornering skills. Turning at speed is always tricky on a bike, but on gravel you need to be careful not to skid out. It’s best to slow down before a turn and then ease off the brakes and speed up through it.
As you approach, bring your inside pedal to the top position and your outside pedal to the bottom, McFarland explained. “This allows you to place counter pressure onto the outside pedal while you accelerate.”
Last, while road cyclists often stand up for maximum power during climbs, doing that on loose gravel can cause you to lose traction. “I sit as long as I can, because if you stand, you can end up throwing your bike,” Bailey said, meaning unweighting your rear tyre and causing it to spin out.
Although your technique won’t feel perfect when you begin, over time you’ll build confidence as you navigate rocks and climb steep gravel.
McFarland’s biggest piece of advice: “Ride with curiosity,” he said. “Take time to try different styles of riding, terrain and features, and if something feels challenging, go back until it becomes smoother and easier.”
By Hannah Singleton © 2022 The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.