This guide will help you get started with gravel biking.
I packed it with plenty of tips and know-how from my and other riders’ experience. It’s written in an easy-to-understand form, so it’s ideal for beginners.
When I tried gravel biking for the first time, it completely blew me away. This article will give you a good idea of how to get started, so you can experience similar feelings.
We will dive into gravel biking styles, choosing and riding a gravel bike, apparel, accessories, and much more.
So, whether you just want a versatile bike that is fast on paved roads but also handles gravel and dirt roads, you are in the right place.
Let’s dive in!
What Is Gravel Biking?
Gravel biking involves riding a gravel bike on paved and unpaved roads (usually on the tarmac, gravel, forest, and dirt roads) or trails.
Gravel bikes are known for their versatility, drop handlebar, 700c or 650b wheels with narrow or wide knobby tires, aerodynamics, and low weight.
Their geometry is more aggressive than mountain bikes, allowing the rider to sit in a more aerodynamic position to cover longer distances without spending as much energy.
You can think of them as road bikes with wider tires.
These features make gravel bikes ideal for riders who appreciate terrain diversity, bikepackers, adventure riders, etc.
Gravel biking is popular because they don’t sacrifice as much speed on paved roads as mountain bikes while allowing the rider to ride off-road.
How to Get Started with gravel Biking?
Here is a brief description of the basic steps to get started with gravel biking.
1. Get a Gravel Bike
You don’t have to buy a brand-new bike if you are just getting started with gravel biking.
I recommend borrowing it from a friend or renting it in a bike rental before you pull the trigger and buy a new one.
This way, you avoid spending money on something you may not enjoy.
You can also save some money by buying a second-hand gravel bike. Feel free to ask a more experienced friend to help you double-check if the selected bike(s) is in good condition.
If you are serious about buying a gravel bike, read my fully dedicated article ‘How to choose a gravel bike?‘ to learn what to expect and look for.
In short, you should consider the following:
1. Bike geometry & size
2. Wheel size
3. Type of gravel biking (from light to rough terrain)
The article explains gravel bike types, bike frame materials, wheel sizes, components, ideal tire width, and more.
2. Buy Bike Accessories
Bike accessories are optional, but I highly recommend them. If I had to choose only one accessory, it would be a bicycle helmet.
Although its wear is not mandatory in every state or country, it can literally save your life.
According to this study, the number of head injuries is reduced by an average of 60% when wearing a bike helmet.
Remember, different types of riders will require different accessories. For example, bike packers and adventure riders will benefit from panniers and additional cargo capacity.
Those who prefer shorter rides will rather take only the essentials like a saddle bag with a spare tube, mini pump (or CO2 inflator), tire levers, and multitool. They will save you if you get a puncture.
3. Clarify Your Goals and Expectations
By clarifying your goals and expectations, you will realize why you want to do gravel biking.
Knowing your motivation will help you in the long run. Sometimes, you may feel like you don’t want to cycle anymore.
But when you remind yourself why you started, you get the needed push to keep going.
You can bike to explore new places, have more fun, improve your fitness, push your limits, make new friends… The list goes on.
Types of Gravel Biking & Gravel Bikes
Gravel biking is diverse and has lots to offer. But unfortunately, its disciplines are not clearly defined.
However, some people ride gravel bikes just for the sake of the adventure, some like to race, and some enjoy their versatility.
The versatility is, in my opinion, one of the biggest benefits of gravel bikes in general.
Anyway, we can distinguish multiple gravel bike types. They mostly differ in geometry (more or less aggressive), tire clearance, wheel size, gearing, and mounting points.
Choose a gravel bike type based on the terrain you will ride in and your riding style. Maybe you will need an all-road (road bike-like gravel) for fast-paced gravel riding.
Or maybe you want to tackle MTB-like terrain and single trails, so you will need an MTB-like gravel bike.
Gran Fondo Cycling categorizes gravel bikes into nine groups. I believe we only need three:
- All-road gravel bikes
- Standard gravel bikes
- MTB-like gravel bikes
Please, remember the categorization of gravel bikes is not unified. I based the categories on common characteristics across different brands. If you have a suggestion for better categorization, let me know.
1. All-Road Gravel Bikes
All-road gravel (sometimes also called light or racing gravel bikes) mostly includes fast-paced biking on paved and light gravel or dirt roads.
These gravel bikes don’t have features like a suspension, dropper post, or additional mounts. They mostly have 700c wheels with narrow tires (up to 38 mm).
Modern endurance road bikes provide wide enough tire clearance (around 35mm), often falling into this category. The differences between them are slowly disappearing.
Their geometry tends to be more aggressive, pushing the rider into a more aerodynamic position.
Sometimes, the racing gravel bikes are mismatched with cyclocross bikes (those have even more aggressive geometry and other differences).
Remember, every gravel bike can be used for racing. It just depends on which one best suits the course and race rules.
2. Standard Gravel Bikes
Standard gravel bikes (sometimes also called progressive or touring gravel bikes) have slightly more relaxed geometry and wider tire clearance than the first category.
They often have more mounting points for additional accessories like panniers, bags, or bike bottles, making them suitable for longer trips and tours.
They can have fancy features like a suspension fork, dropper post, or hidden storage spaces inside the frame.
This gravel bike type focuses on riding comfort and stability rather than low weight and speed.
3. MTB-like Gravel Bikes
The MTB-like gravel bikes (sometimes also called ‘monster’ gravel bikes) resemble mountain bikes with drop bars. They usually have slack geometry and wide tire clearance.
They are suitable for demanding terrain, singletracks, etc. They often have many mountain points and front suspension, and eventually also a dropper post and rear suspension.
They differ from the standard gravel bikes mainly in the tire clearance and more relaxed geometry.
Some terrains are more demanding than others and require different tire widths and patterns.
Remember, the gravel bike has to have wide enough tire clearance if you want to equip it with wide tires.
One of the best categorizations of what tire width to choose for which terrain is the one from Cycling Tips.
|Grade||Definition||Suggested Tire Size|
|1||Tarmac, bad paved roads with cobbles||700×25 – 700×32|
|2||Dirt roads||700×28 – 700×35|
|3||Light gravel||700×32 – 700×38|
|4||Rough gravel||700×35 – 700×40+|
|5||MTB terrain||700×38+ / 650b|
Gravel bikes come with different wheel sizes. Nowadays, 700c and 650b wheels are the most popular.
700c wheels have a larger diameter and narrower tires than 650b wheels. This makes them better for light terrain and paved surfaces like the tarmac because they allow you to ride faster without spending as much energy.
650b wheels have a smaller diameter and use wider high-volume tires. This makes them suitable for rougher terrain like bumpy and forest roads, mud, single tracks, trails, etc. The knobby tires ensure that you get enough grip and adhesion. They are also more comfortable.
You can learn more in this in-depth article from Gran Fondo Cycling.
Believe it or not, gravel bikes are not always rigid, but some have a suspension fork.
A gravel bike with a suspension fork is suitable for more demanding terrain because it can handle larger bumps and rocks. It’s also more comfortable.
On the other hand, the suspension adds more weight and is less aero, making it less suitable for fast-paced races, climbing, etc.
NOTE: There are also full-suspension gravel bikes, but they are rare and not widespread (yet).
Unlike most road bikes, gravel bikes usually have additional mounting points for bottles, panniers, bags, etc.
However, some gravel bikes may not have mounting points on the front fork or rear triangle, for example.
So, you have to consider how much cargo you will need for your adventures and choose the bike accordingly.
Learn more about bikepacking at Exploring Wild, which includes plenty of tips and tricks.
Some gravel bikes (mainly those designed for more technical terrain) have a dropper post.
It’s a cool feature because you can quickly change your center of mass for better handling when descending. You will also have more space to maneuver through twisty trails.
On the other hand, these gravel bikes are more expensive, heavier, and more things can go wrong.
How to Ride a Gravel Bike?
This section includes general tips on braking, shifting, and handling.
How to Work with the Center of Gravity on a Gravel Bike?
Knowing how to work with your center of gravity (i.e., body and bike position) is not only one of the essential MTB skills, but you will also benefit from mastering it on a gravel bike.
You will become more confident and gain better control over your bike. Here is a great video explaining cornering.
And you can continue studying a proper gravel riding technique by watching the following video by GCN.
How to Use Brakes on a Gravel Bike?
Gravel bikes have almost exclusively disc brakes. They are mechanical or hydraulic.
The hydraulic ones can better dose the braking power and are easier to use because you don’t have to apply as much force on the brake lever.
But due to their high effectiveness, you have to be careful when using them.
One of the most common mistakes of beginners is that they only use the rear brake. But you should use both brakes simultaneously.
Before you gain experience, either ride slowly or break well in advance to avoid skidding and losing control of your bike.
Once you gain confidence, you can experiment with skidding and sliding.
How to Shift Gears on a Gravel Bike?
Components manufacturers started to produce gravel-specific groupsets with the growing popularity of gravel bikes.
|Entry level||GRX 10spd||Mechanical|
|Mid range||GRX 11spd||Force XPLR eTap*||Ekar||Mechanical|
|Pro||GRX Di2 11spd||RED XPLR eTap||Electronic|
*Force XPLR eTap is electronic.
Gravel bikes for rough terrain usually have 1X drivetrains, so you only change the rear gears. This is a trend copied from mountain biking.
2X drivetrains are more complicated and heavier, and more things can go wrong, but you will have more gears to choose from.
The easiest gear is when your chain is on the biggest sprocket on the cassette and the smallest chainring. The hardest gear is exactly the opposite (smallest sprocket and largest chainring).
Here are a few tips for shifting gears:
- Use your entire gear range depending on the terrain you ride. Many people use just a few gears, contributing to increased wear of given cassette sprockets.
- Avoid cross-chaining (applicable to 2X and 3X drivetrains) to improve drivetrain efficiency.
Additional Tips for Riding a Gravel Bike
Ride with more experienced riders in technical terrain. You can watch how they ride and handle jumps, drops, cornering, etc. This helps you if you are getting started on trails.
Look where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go. Many people tend to look just a few feet in front of their wheel. Unfortunately, this is not the best strategy because you may not hit the best ride line.
When riding through the turns, berms, etc., look where you want to go. Otherwise, you may subconsciously end somewhere else. This concept is also known as target fixation.
Don’t ride difficult sections alone. In case of a crash, you want to have somebody else who will help you and, eventually, calls for help.
And most importantly, have fun!
Gravel Bike Pedals and Shoes
Gravel bikers use either:
- Road bike pedals
- Clipless mountain or gravel bike pedals
- Flat pedals (platforms)
Road bike pedals are suitable for long distances and not too technical terrain. They have a larger contact area with the cleat, so they are more comfortable than MTB clipless pedals. On the other hand, you can clip in them from one side only.
Clipless MTB or gravel bike pedals are suitable for technical terrain because you can clip into them from both sides. They are not as comfortable for long distances, though.
Platforms are ideal for highly technical terrain (like trails) because they allow you to quickly take your feet off the pedals to regain balance. They will also force you to learn a proper riding technique.
You can read my guides on ‘How to choose bicycle pedals‘ and ‘How to choose cycling shoes‘ for more details.
Gravel Bike Apparel
The range of apparel you can wear when gravel biking is wide. It mainly depends on what you feel comfortable in and your riding style.
Racers prefer tight and snug lycra bib shorts and jerseys, you know from road cycling. Except for aero benefits, they also take sweat away from the body.
Bikepackers rather wear looser, more casual clothes during their multi-day adventures.
As always, it depends on the type of gravel biking you will do. However, the investment in quality cycling clothing pays off in the increased riding comfort.
What to Eat and Drink When Gravel Biking?
To avoid bonking (sudden loss of energy and exhaustion), you have to fuel your engine properly during your gravel biking adventures.
This topic is pretty complex, and there are nuances between people on what they should eat and drink to maximize their performance.
If you do multi-day adventures, you must be more conscious about your fueling strategy.
The basic principles are:
- The warmer it is, the more you should care about your hydration and drink more water.
- The more intensive (or longer) your ride, the more calories you should consume.
My rides hardly ever exceed 6 hours. I like to have a bottle of water, eventually with maltodextrin and glucose (in a 2:1 ratio) for some extra calories. During summer, I drink about one bottle every hour, so I try to refill when possible.
With food, it’s more complicated. My favorite ‘bike’ meal is these oatmeal balls. They are tasty and full of energy, and you can customize their ingredients as you want.
To learn what and how to eat on a gravel bike, I recommend the following post from Two Wheel Wanderer: ‘Bikepacking Food‘.
Gravel Biking FAQ
Gravel biking is one of the youngest cycling disciplines, but it is quickly gaining popularity worldwide.
I like its diversity. You can ride relatively fast on paved roads while being able to go off-road when needed.
Depending on your goals and motivation, you can explore new roads and places, gain new experiences, meet new people, and much more.
I hope this article has helped you and provided you with valuable information. If so, please pass it on to your friends or share it on your social media.
Feel free to comment below, what are your favorite tips or whether you have any suggestions to improve this article.
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