Gravel riding’s exhilarating, liberating and, as you’ll soon discover, easier to get into than you may think.
Gravel riding is a phenomenon of recent times, the lure of unpaved roads and trails appealing to an every-growing number of cyclists the world over. Each passing year sees a new wave of individuals interested in trying out this exhilarating discipline, but what faces the gravel beginner?
Here we reveal all you need to know about your off-road adventure.
TACKLING THE TERRAIN
Arguably, gravel’s epicentre is the USA where reportedly a third of the country’s 6-million-plus-kilometre road network is unpaved.
The sight of a dusty off-road summer sojourn upon baked terrain like the mid-west prairies is an archetypal gravel scene, but that moniker is a little misleading as, especially in Northern Europe, you’re likelier to be riding on forest-fire roads, winding singletrack and canal paths. Ultimately, gravel riding is heavily off-road, which means you must ensure you’re allowed to ride where you’re intending to ride.
UK Campagnolo users, for instance, can ride on bridleways but not on footpaths, while in many European countries you’re permitted to ride on hiking routes.
DO YOU NEED A GRAVEL BIKE?
Negotiating tree roots, loose stones and muddy terrain is a wholly different proposition than cruising upon smooth tarmac roads. That means while a gravel bike isn’t essential to start with (depending on your terrain) it will make your gravel experience more comfortable and more enjoyable.
What’s the difference between a road bike and a gravel bike?
On first look, they certainly look comparable thanks to their dropped bars and road-like geometry. However, on closer inspection there are some subtle but important differences, starting with their geometry. The wheelbase (distance between the centre of the wheels) is longer and the head-tube angle slacker for greater stability.
They’re often a little more upright than out-and-out road-racing bikes for greater comfort, which is why a gravel bike will have a shorter reach to the bars and a higher stack.
Gravel bikes also have greater tyre clearance around the fork. Why? Good question.
IMPORTANCE OF TYRES
Tyre clearance and tyres are one of the most significant differences between a road bike and a gravel bike. Even taking into account the recent road trend for wider tyres, most road bikes are designed around accommodating 28mm-wide tyres or, if for true endurance enthusiasts, 32mm.
This is fine for the road. Off-road, however, where you could face quagmires and farmland, you need something wider. That’s why gravel bikes will have a greater tyre clearance, designed to accommodate from upwards of 35mm-wide tyres.
Essentially, the clearance between forks, seatstays and chainstays will dictate the maximum width of your tyres to cope with the wettest, muddiest of conditions.
Many modern road bikes have greater tyre clearance than past incarnations, mainly due to the rise of disc-brake models. It’s why some road riders will have one set of road wheels and one set of gravel wheels that they can swap depending on their genre of riding.
On the road, for instance, they might go for Campagnolo’s Bora WTO 33 wheelset and then swap for Campagnolo’s Shamal carbon wheels when facing gravel.
But the ideal is a gravel bike.
Then we have tyre tread. On the road, you’ll be using slick tyres whereas gravel tyres feature some form of tread pattern in the search of greater grip. The level of this ‘knobbliness’ depends on the conditions. If the terrain looks relatively fast and dry and includes longer stretches of tarmac, you’re looking at semi-slicks.
Heavy mud and you’ll be after a more aggressive tread pattern.
Finally, if your wheels can take tubeless tyres, go for it. You can run lower tyre pressures, meaning you’re less likely to puncture on sharp rocks and thorny twigs.
Gravel tyre pressures start as low as 20psi depending on tyre width and your bodyweight.
YOUR MUST-HAVE GROUPSET
A groupset designed for the rigours and challenges of gravel riding will elevate your riding and enjoyment to another level. That’s where Campagnolo’s genre-defining Ekar groupset comes in.
Highlights are many but, as a snapshot, include: a 13-speed cassette for impressive spread of gear ratios to cope with all terrains and climbs; dependable shifting even in the most challenging of conditions; brakes that deliver impressive stopping each and every team; and, typically Campag, they look stunning.
TOOLS, STORAGE AND CLOTHING
Other accoutrements to maximise your gravel adventure include the full range of tools. We’re talking chain tool, quick link, tubeless repair kit and spare tubes. A pump that delivers high volume’s a good idea, too.
Throw in nutrition and even sleeping gear if you’re looking for a multi-day challenge and you’ll be after a frame pack, handlebar roll and seat pack, too.
A GBS bike computer’s a good idea for navigation and make sure you have sufficient nutrition and fluids to replenish stocks from a hard but exhilarating day in the saddle.
Gravel-specific clothing, like Campagnolo’s Genebe Gravel Jersey and Ghel Gravel Bib Shorts, will also add to your gravel enjoyment.
Right, you’re all set to ‘get into gravel’.
Be prepared for the ride of a lifetime.
© Chiara Redaschi