An Introduction to Gravel Cycling

Gravel Cycling by Nick Legan GC Linda Guerrette photo 800x533

Nick Legan’s book, Gravel Cycling: The Complete Guide to Gravel Racing and Adventure Bikepacking, shares everything you need to know to enjoy gravel cycling and bikepacking. From event profiles to dream bike set up, route planning to gear selection, Legan brings his experience as a ProTour bike mechanic and dedicated gravel junkie to this guide.

Gravel Cycling by Nick Legan GC Cathy Kim photo 800x533
Photo by Catherine Fegan-Kim

GETTING STARTED

Paused at the side of what few would consider a road, the morning sun still low on the horizon, I was struck by the beauty of the setting I had just entered. Rolling green hills covered in tall grass were bisected by a narrow brown path of dirt and gravel. Clusters of cows dotted the land, while small white clouds floated through a brightening blue sky. The humid air carried a sweetness that would soon burn off in the Midwest’s intense summer heat. An ant-like procession of multicolored Lycra-clad cyclists labored their way out of view ahead. Looking back, hundreds more bobbing cyclists made their way in my direction. As they approached me, they called out to ask if I needed anything.

Returning my bottle to the cage after a swig of water, my eyes fell on the number plate attached to my handlebars. This served as a helpful reminder that despite the idyllic setting and friendly nature of the other cyclists nearby, I was in a race, my first gravel race. My first double century, or 200-mile ride, in fact. Somewhere in the beautifully brutal Flint Hills of Kansas, a couple hours into the 2011 Dirty Kanza 200, I fell in love with gravel racing.

Gravel Cycling by Nick Legan GC Linda Guerrette photo 800x533
Photo by Linda Guerrette

In the ensuing years, having made my way to other events around the United States, the love affair has only grown more intense. I’m certainly not alone, and that’s the whole point. In searching for your own limits at gravel events, you find a family of people seeking untapped abilities. The shared suffering of trudging through miles of mud and hours of chilly progress against headwinds brings cyclists together.

And just as social media makes discovering new gravel events easier, it also makes staying connected with your new gravel brothers and sisters more convenient. Online, just as at the starting line or when out on nearly forgotten dirt roads, the gravel community supports its members, inspiring them to gather repeatedly for new adventures, new terrain, new vistas. It is a self-perpetuating circle of curiosity, preparation, testing, dissecting, and trying again.

For those who prefer solitude to competition, gravel roads offer escape from the increasingly busy paved roads around the world. Cyclists are discovering that riding on dirt lanes and gravel roads is the calmest form of cycling, a way to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life. Jim Cummins, the founder of the Dirty Kanza 200, embraces the term gravel grinder, but for a different reason than you might think. It’s not because the ride is a grind—not at all. It’s because going out and riding gravel allows him to leave the grind of daily life behind.

Bikepacking offers even more joys, a long-form escape into a world you may not have seen before. Imagine extending your gravel ride with some nights under the stars, and you will discover a joyous time in nature—self-supported, self-reliant, and richly fulfilling.

For new cyclists, riding gravel and solitary dirt roads is a natural solution to the problems of road riding or mountain biking. Traffic on paved roads scares many new cyclists, and the absence of a safe shoulder or the threatening presence of a gutter strewn with broken glass and debris can be paralyzing. The technical skills required for mountain biking are also an impediment for many. Riding gravel and dirt roads, on the other hand, offers a quiet cycling experience with only a minimal amount of cycling prowess required.

The remoteness of gravel roads also helps produce better cyclists, riders with a sense of self-reliance. Many gravel races reinforce this by requiring competitors to self-support using convenience stores found along the race route. This is a far cry from the world of Tour de France racing, where a team car is ready at a moment’s notice to deliver food, clothing, even a spare bike if needed. In contrast, gravel race promoters borrow race rules from the roots of mountain bike racing, where making it to the finish line requires fitness and self-reliance, as well as thoughtful riding to preserve your bicycle. In addition to making the organization of an event a much simpler affair, this approach creates cyclists who are unlikely to find themselves marooned by mechanical or nutritional problems.

In short, gravel riding has a lot to offer to cyclists of any ilk. A full day exploring farm roads or mountainous miners’ paths will bring highs and lows, flat tires and new friends. These roads are much more than a venue for cycling. They serve as romantic reminders of bygone eras while also inspiring an adventurous future for the sport.

Gravel Cycling by Nick Legan GC Almanzo photo 800x533
Photo by Craig Lindner

Where did gravel riding come from?

Gravel cycling is the original form of cycling. Modern gravel riders are simply rediscovering the sport’s roots. When bicycles first became popular in the mid-19th century, almost all roads worldwide were dirt. Although asphalt roads existed as early as 615 B.C.E. in Babylon, they didn’t become common outside of city centers until the 20th century. In the United States, much of the impetus to pave roads came from the League of American Wheelmen (now known as the League of American Bicyclists). Formed in 1880, the group advocated for improving road conditions, and its efforts led to the creation of the National Highway System.

Fortunately for modern gravel riders, the league was not 100 percent successful. The U.S. Department of Transportation, in a 2013 report, noted that nearly 1.4 million miles of the country’s 4 million miles of public roads are unpaved. With well over a quarter of our public roads made of dirt and gravel, opportunities abound.

As with many organic developments, the modern incarnation of gravel riding was simply a matter of cyclists in rural areas taking advantage of the miles and miles of remote farm and mountain roads they had on hand. A pragmatic sense of using what you have at your disposal is the very heart of gravel riding. Seeking out unpaved routes allows riders to avoid increasingly busy paved roads, where many only find anxiety and motorists intent on texting. Depending on your location, riding gravel also bypasses the need to build a trail network, which mountain biking often requires.

What is a gravel bike?

Simply put, a gravel bike is a bicycle that you ride on gravel. This definition is intentionally vague because riders all over the world enjoy riding dirt and gravel on bicycles as different as lightweight carbon-fiber road race bikes and heavy-duty dual-suspension mountain bikes. Because surfaces and terrain differ so greatly, what’s best for you in your area can require a bit of experimentation. As you’ll see in this book’s photos, the diversity of bicycles used for gravel riding is startling and inventive.

In many cases, buying a new bike is not required. At the same time, a new steed may serve your needs better than what you currently own and add to your on-bike fun. Later, we’ll explore how to upgrade your current bicycle for gravel as well as give you a quick primer on what to look for if you decide to pull the trigger on a new bike. Rest assured, though, that a big investment is not needed. The only requirement for gravel biking is your willingness to take on new adventures.

What skills do you need to go gravel riding?

A bonus to gravel riding is that it doesn’t require a high level of rider skill like mountain biking does. It has a low barrier of entry to a good time aboard a bike in a beautiful rural setting.

That’s not to say that gravel biking doesn’t require attentive and careful riding, especially when cornering. But you can easily achieve those skills, and thanks to the quiet nature of most gravel and dirt roads, the classroom setting is not harried. Small bobbles don’t put you in a lane of constant traffic or careening off a narrow trail into rocks and trees.

Riding on loose surfaces can be unnerving at first. But with some instruction and a bit of practice, riding on gravel will raise your skill level across the board, with those skills then translating to road and mountain biking. Much like a road rider on the lookout for glass and potholes, a good gravel cyclist is continually scanning ahead, looking for the smoothest path, wary of deep patches of loose gravel, and aware of what little traffic may be approaching. We become students of roads, judging if standing over a rise is a good idea or if it will result in a spinning rear wheel. We memorize the location of washboard sections and revel in mastering particularly rough roads.

Because most dirt and gravel roads are maintained annually by state and county agencies, we get to experience them anew after additional gravel is laid or grading work is completed. Rain, snow, wind, and traffic also continually evolve a gravel road’s surface. All this rewards the attentive rider and provides subtly different roads week by week, keeping the riding fresh for riders who have limited access to gravel roads.

Gravel Cycling by Nick Legan GC Ian Stowe photo 800x530
Photo by Ian Stowe

Give it a go

With a strong emphasis on fun, gravel may be the shining light in cycling’s future. It mostly bypasses interactions with motorists and sidesteps the access issues associated with mountain biking. Riding gravel doesn’t require special equipment or a high skill level. With so many opportunities to ride gravel and so few impediments to giving it a try, there’s no reason for the growth of gravel cycling to slow.

Our next chapter contains an introduction to gravel racing, but bear in mind that you don’t need to compete to ride gravel. Cycling as a sport has a strong tradition in competition, a tradition that sometimes overshadows the simple pleasures of freedom and exploration that riding a bike can deliver.

Make no excuses for how you ride, be it fast or slow, long or short. Just ride.

Nick Legan’s book, Gravel Cycling: The Complete Guide to Gravel Racing and Adventure Bikepacking, shares everything you need to know to enjoy gravel cycling and bikepacking. From event profiles to dream bike set up, route planning to gear selection, Legan brings his experience as a ProTour bike mechanic and dedicated gravel junkie to this guide.