You’ve likely heard the term “gravel cycling” thrown around in conversation. After all, it’s taken over the world of cycling and has provided a new lease of life and adventure for many cyclists. But what actually is it, and how do you get started? This article is the ultimate guide to gravel cycling; we’ll explain what it is, how to find gravel routes for cycling, what to wear, how to choose a gravel bike and more.
What is gravel cycling?
Gravel cycling is often seen as a mix between road and mountain biking. Picture a road bike with wider tyres, easier gearing, and extra mounts for long trips. And although “gravel” is the name, gravel cycling includes anything from gravel to bridleways, beaches, and stretches of road in between. You get to define what gravel means to you - whether that’s an off-road adventure or getting from point A to point B by crossing a mix of terrains. That’s the beauty of gravel.
Is it hard to ride a gravel bike?
If you already ride a road bike, the transition to gravel should be relatively easy. But expect a few more bumps accompanied by pain in the wrists (to begin with) and more challenging terrain for you to tackle. But that’s all part of the fun, right?!
Despite this, the hardest part about riding a gravel bike is getting used to the terrain. For example, in just a few hours, you may ride on beaches, roads, trails, and a bit of the classic gravel stuff.
Focus on good form, set up your bike position correctly, and expect your grip to shift based on the terrain.
What is a gravel bike vs a road bike?
There are a few key differences between a gravel bike and a road bike. For starters, gravel bikes have a more relaxed geometry - they’re intended for long hours in the saddle across a mix of uneven terrains. This means they’re not as aerodynamic - the goal isn’t to go fast, it’s to go long. You also benefit from lower gears - think more spinning and less grinding. Gravel bikes also have more mounting points - this allows you to attach saddlebags, top tube bags, and frame bags for extra storage on the go (great for bikepacking).
Can you turn a road bike into a gravel bike?
Not everyone can afford a new bike for every type of terrain. But we have some good news: you can use your road bike on gravel. Well, kinda. It won’t be as comfortable, and the geometry isn’t quite as relaxed, but you can fit wider tyres, more durable wheels, and slightly easier gears to try your hand at gravel. If your road bike has a wider tyre clearance, such as 34mm, then you’ll have a much better time than 28mm, for example. But there’s only so much you can do to convert your trusty steed into a gravel-loving machine. You might be limited by the number of mounting points (you won’t be able to carry as much luggage), and if you’re still on rim brakes (long live the rim brake), then those loose gravel descents just became a whole lot scarier.
But yes, you can use a road bike for gravel.
Tips on how to get started with gravel riding
Gravel cycling is typically a lot more relaxed than road cycling. Think less Strava segments and more ice creams on the beach.
But to make your transition to gravel more enjoyable, we’ve put together a few tips below:
Get out and start exploring
The best way to start is just to get out and start exploring.
Ride off the beaten track, ride a route you’ve always wanted to ride, but perhaps your road bike couldn’t take you, take in the scenery, and enjoy the journey.
Don’t focus on pace - concentrate on exploring new places and take pride in getting from point A to B on two wheels, whatever route you take.
If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you can plan a bikepacking trip. Gravel bikes are becoming more popular for backpacking trips thanks to the increased mounting points, allowing you to secure more luggage to your bike.
Wear the right kit
We always say wear what you feel most comfortable in for cycling.
But investing in cycling-specific kit will help you become more comfortable - it’ll also make riding more enjoyable.
At the very least, we’d suggest investing in a pair of padded shorts to protect the sit bones. You’ll walk a lot less like you need the toilet and more like you’ve conquered a ride you never thought was possible.
You might also wish to look into kit such as jerseys, loose-fitting tech tees (a popular choice for gravel), and a pair of off-road shoes.
MTB, gravel, and cross-country cycling shoes are all great options, providing you more grip for those off-bike adventures, but plenty of comfort for a long day in the saddle.
Ignore your pace
If you’re accustomed to road cycling, you may be tempted to glance at your Wahoo or Garmin, increasing your pace and maybe, just maybe, chasing down a local segment.
But while you can certainly go fast with slightly wider tyres, gravel bikes are typically slower than road bikes - ride for the adventure, not for the latest King or Queen of the mountain.
You don’t need the best gravel bike to get started
Two wheels and a saddle bag full of ambition are enough to get started. Ideally, those wheels will be equipped with thicker tyres for a little extra grip…
But you don’t need the best gravel bike to start your gravel journey.
As previously mentioned, you can turn your road bike into a somewhat gravel machine.
And even if you are shopping for a new gravel bike, the most expensive option isn’t necessarily the best.
You're not here to break personal bests - there’s only so much kit you need, and the basics are more than enough to get started.
How to choose a gravel bike
So, you’re ready to purchase your first gravel bike? Great! Adventure awaits. But first, the hard part - deciding on a bike.
When choosing a bike, gravel or not, we recommend you consider the following:
- Riding style: there’s a gravel bike for all riding styles; find one that suits your unique style (relaxed, aggressive, etc.).
- Expectations: are you planning on riding only gravel or also road? Some gravel bikes are more aero than others - great for an almost hybrid between road and gravel.
- Do a test ride: try out a few bikes and see what works for you.
- Find a reputable brand: it’s always best to go with a reputable brand, but don’t forget to support your local bike shop.
How to dress for gravel cycling
The beauty of gravel cycling is the dress code. And by dress code, we mean there isn’t one.
While roadies may wear lycra from head to toe, gravel riding is a lot less intense - wear whatever you want!
If you want to wear your road kit, great.
And if you want to wear a loose-fitting tech tee, that’s also great!
While many riders may find lycra more comfortable and clipless pedals more enjoyable, wear what you want to get the most out of your ride.
Despite this, we’re seeing more gravel riders opt for a pair of padded shorts paired with a tech tee for all-day comfort.
It’s a more relaxed fit, pairing nicely with the relaxed nature of gravel riding.
And while you may find your road kit more comfortable, we’d recommend leaving the aero kit at home. It’s for the best, trust us.
How to find gravel routes for cycling
Getting away from traffic and exploring new terrain is a gravel fundamental. But how do you find those epic routes, you know, the ones you keep seeing on Instagram from your favourite riders? We suggest the following:
Use a route planning app
There are tons of free route planning apps out there, with popular choices including Komoot and Strava.
You can use the explore functions to find gravel routes in your area.
Or, you can create an entirely new route, using the built-in maps to get you from point A to point B.
Komoot is especially great for finding gravel routes. Use the handy “discover” feature - plug in your location and type of riding (gravel), and you’ll find segments and road rides created by local riders. You’ll even find notes on the best places to stop for food, what hills may be particularly treacherous, and where to find the best ice cream (we can’t stress how important this is…).
Ask friends or check local gravel events
If route planning isn’t your thing, ask your cycling buddies for recommendations.
You can also scout around for local gravel events - more and more local clubs are beginning to arrange gravel rides, so keep your eyes peeled for a session that suits you. It might just be the perfect introduction you need to gravel riding.
Use a book to find the best routes
Don’t underestimate the power of a book - there’s loads of information and route guides in gravel books. You’ll find some of the best gravel routes in the world in a hardback - besides, if they’re good enough to be printed on paper, then we’re sure they’re good enough to ride.
This article has answered the big question: what is gravel cycling? We hope you have a better idea of what to expect and that you’re excited to ride off the beaten path. Gravel riding is for all riders - that’s the beauty of it. You get to decide what gravel means to you, whether that’s a bikepacking adventure across an entire country or finding a new way to work through the local trails on two wheels. So, get out there and try your hand at gravel. We promise, you’ll love it.
What kind of bike is recommended for cycling on light gravel?
You can fit wider tyres to a road bike for added traction on light gravel. Alternatively, a gravel bike would be a great option.
Is it okay to ride a road bike on gravel?
Yes! But we’d suggest fitting wider tyres before you attempt tackling the off-road stuff.
What is a gravel cyclist?
A gravel cyclist is as exactly as it sounds - predominately riding gravel (or other off-road) instead of road riding.