5 things that you need to know before your first gravel ride
© Duncan Philpott/Tweed Valley Guides
Fancy giving drop bars a go offroad? Here are some of the things we wish someone had told us first.
Gravel bikes – throw a stone out of the window and you’re more likely to hit one at this time of year. They are very much the ‘in’ thing at the minute, and for good reason.
The gravel boom really started stateside but the rest of the world has been quick to cotton on and it feels now like your once MTB-heavy social media feed is now inhabited almost entirely by drop-bar evangelists. Curious? Well, you probably should be – gravel bikes are a fantastic way to build your core fitness and endurance, all whilst exploring off the beaten track.
Here is everything that you need to know (based on our own trial and error session in Scotland's Tweed Valley):
1. Wheelsize is a thing in gravel too
If you’re a mountain biker dipping a toe into gravel then be prepared – they like to talk about wheel size too. Basically, as it depends on what size of ‘chunk’ you plan on riding and for how long. 650B and 700c are the two main wheelsize choices – the smaller being the (once) medium MTB size and the larger being the international roadie standard/29in.
Tyres are critical with gravel as not only are they your only form of suspension but will also affect things in terms of rolling resistance. The smaller of the pair allows space for chunkier rubber whilst the bigger tends to offer skinnier fodder. But this will all depend on your frame and fork of choice. If you’re used to riding MTB’s then the smaller wheel and chunkier tyre of 650B will feel more familiar and vice versa if you’re into your skinnies.
This of course though is all before you bring tyre volume and how certain models sit on certain widths of rim and, well, it’s a bit of a rabbit hole which (as with everything wheel size) all ends up back at your own personal preference.
2. There is no ‘right’ way to dress for gravel
We were assured of this and to an extent, it makes sense – from the waist down go XC MTB, from the waist up go road. Of course this is cycling and so there are little touches which are critical for ‘le look’ if you’re really getting invested – casquettes and bum bags would seem to be two cornerstones.
The latter perhaps have a more practical side to them. Gravel is intended to be a long-distance affair and often strays into multi-day bike packing and as such, an ample cargo capacity is key. Our ride was based around Scotland's Tweed Valley and saw us miles away from civilisation amidst extremely changeable weather so a wide array of spares, food, liquids and clothing were all essentials.
Just as the kit worn for gravel riding borrows heavily from road and MTB, so too does it then demand that you need to be prepared for any meteorological or mechanical eventualities.
3. You WILL puncture!
This is a weirdly masochistic element of gravel, particularly in countries with chunkier grades of forest road. Without suspension and often higher top speeds than when on your mountain biking you’re asking very thinly carcassed tyres to absorb thousands of mini square-edged hits one after another. Punctures are still very much a massive part of gravel as is the chipper camaraderie around fixing them as everyone in the group knows that it could well be them next.
Losing air aside, gravel bikes are remarkably mechanically resilient already. They borrow heavily from both MTB and road and as a result, benefit from some already pretty dialled in bike tech such as one-by drivetrains and disc brakes. They do a superb job of nullifying the vibrations and chatter coming back through them and leave you relatively free to get on with the job in hand of closing the gap or bunny hopping a puddle.
4. Everything is familiar, yet really different
Your first hour or so on a gravel bike is a space shuttle launch of a learning curve. The speed at which you can climb feels other worldly and climbs you once suffered or endured turn into full-blooded attacks.
Likewise, the first tip into a fast left hand berm on the drops takes a level of commitment you’d all but forgotten. Gravel bikes are of course not trail bikes but riding easier trails on them is eye-opening in every sense and trail centre climbs become excellent gateways to higher vestiges of hillsides.
It’s easier to come at them from a mountain biking perspective as you’re offroad. That said, the first time your brain clocks a root to pull up you quickly scramble for the escape hatch!
5. Go with experienced gravelistas
It would be very easy to go gravel riding on your own and not really ‘get’ it. After the initial amusement of being on a completely new set-up and shape of bike wears off, it can feel a bit like the halfway house that it really is – neither on nor offroad (at least in a MTB sense).
We went on a well-planned 40km gravel ride with a professional guiding company (Tweed Valley Guides) who had tailored enough undulation and points of interest to allow for a total immersion in, well, gravel. On a MTB trail they can feel awkward and difficult to get your head around but open one up and dip your head down into the spray of the rider in front of you down a flat-out, well-sighted fire road and it all starts to make sense.
Gravel riding is a whole new sensation and an essential experience if you want to challenge your cycling brain and develop as a rider. The great news is that the majority of mountain bike hotspots, such as the Tweed Valley, feature hundreds of miles of ready-made routes for you to explore.