If you’re predominately a road rider but are curious what all the fuss about gravel riding is, maybe want to give it a try but are unsure about kit and skills, here’s our HotChillee Ride Captains’ Guide.
What is gravel riding?
With an extensive network of gravel roads, gravel riding was born in the USA but, as more riders experience the versatility of these bikes and the places they can take them, sales are outstripping both road and MTB. In the UK, although there are some genuine “gravel roads”, especially in managed forests, it’s more about exploring lanes, by-ways, bridleways and trails and finding routes that you’d never tackle on a road bike.
Gravel riding in the UK isn’t really a new thing. In fact, the routes you’ll probably end up riding, mirror pre-trail centre and pre-suspension mountain biking routes. However, the difference is that there are now dedicated bikes that are perfectly suited to such lighter off-roading duties and mixed terrain routes.
Why do it?
The biggest advantage of riding a gravel bike is the sheer variety of riding it opens up to you. Road sections aren’t the soul sapping drags that they can be on a mountain bike and, when you do hit the dirt, you’ll be amazed at what you can ride. This means you can put together routes that you’d probably never ride on a mountain bike, definitely wouldn’t on a road bike but are perfect for a gravel bike. Gravel riding allows you to explore the road (and off-road) less travelled, escape traffic and have fantastic adventures on your bike.
Is a gravel bike the same as a cyclo-cross bike?
No, a cyclo-cross bike is designed for 30-60 minutes of racing and so will tend to have aggressive geometry and often lack drillings for bottle cages, racks and guards. Also, because of UCI regulations, cyclo-cross bikes will only have clearance for 35mm tyres.
With a geometry more suited to long days in the saddle, clearance for bigger tyres – often up to 50mm with 650b wheels – and drillings for mudguards, bottle cages and panniers, a gravel bike is an incredibly versatile steed.
That said, if you already own a cyclo-cross bike, there’s nothing stopping you having some gravel riding fun on it. Equally, if you’re gravel curious and your road bike will take 28/30mm tyres, you could definitely come along and try one of our gravel rides.
Do I need any special kit?
No your road riding kit will be fine as long as you don’t mind it getting a bit muddy! If you get into gravel riding though you might want to look at some new shoes and pedals. Although you can get away with road shoes and pedals for less technical gravel rides, mountain bike shoes and pedals are probably a better bet. With recessed cleats, walking is easier if you’re forced off the bike and they also clear and function far better in muddy conditions.
Any other equipment or set-up tips?
Yes, go tubeless. Tubeless set-ups offer a number of advantages for gravel riding. You can run lower pressures without risking pinch flats improving ride comfort and traction. Also small penetration punctures will often seal without you knowing about them or just require a small top up of air. Your local bike shop can help you with set-up if you’re unsure and, if you do puncture and it doesn’t seal, there are various plugs and “worms” you can use or you can just pop a tube in.
I’m worried about my bike handling skills (or lack of!)
Don’t – if you can ride on the road, you can ride gravel. If you’ve done a bit of mountain biking that can help but it’s definitely not essential.
Probably the best bit of advice is to try and stay loose. You will feel your bike moving underneath you more than on the road but don’t overact to it. If you tense up, it’ll transmit to the bike and make it more twitchy.
You haven’t got suspension of a gravel bike so use your knees and elbows. 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.
You’ll need to get into the habit of shifting your weight around more off-road. On steep descents get your weight back a bit but not too far or you’ll lose control of your front wheel. On climbs, where a loose surface often means you can’t get out of the saddle, move onto the nose of the saddle and drop your chest towards your bars.
Look where you want to go, down the trail and plan the line you want to take. Don’t look at the big rock or log you want to avoid but focus on the line that’ll take you past it.
On many trails you can ride on your hoods but when things get rough, especially on downhills, the drops are a far more secure place to ride.
The more you ride your gravel bike, the more confident you’ll become and the more you’ll be impressed by what it can handle. Momentum is your ally and, by just letting your bike roll and staying loose, you’ll find yourself riding out of a lot of seemingly sketchy situations. Tensing up and grabbing a handful of brakes rarely ends up well.
How do I find routes?
There’s no beating local knowledge so ask around, do a bit of online research and see if there are any gravel groups heading out. Sit down with an OS map and a route planning app, such as Komoot, and piece together small lanes, bridleways, forest roads, by-ways, tow-paths and bike paths. Old school MTB guidebooks can uncover some hidden gems but can throw up a bit of Hike-a-Bike or the odd technical section. MTB trails centres can also be worth checking out. Green trails are always gravel bike friendly, blues often are and, depending on the centre and your skill level, reds and even blacks can be do-able.
Join a supported ride soon
Sign up to the HotChillee mailing list for up coming information about free supported HotChillee CC evening gravel rides. We’ve run these for the past few years in partnership with Sigma Sports, and although currently on hold, we’ll be starting up again soon. Groups will be limited to 6 riders, each supported by the HotChillee Ride Captains and with a no drop policy, they’re the prefect intro to the joy of gravel.
HotChillee multi-day gravel events
Looking for some additional inspiration to get started?! Check out the HotChillee Swiss Gravel Explorer and Rainmaker RollerCoaster multi-day gravel events – two for the gravel bucket list!