So, why ride a gravel bike?
“As the gravel biking segment has grown over the past decade, so has the need to develop purpose-built bikes for the task at hand. Where there was a demand, the bike industry decided to supply, and we are all here for it.
I’ve recently had quite a few road cyclists ask me about my opinion on buying a gravel bike because they’re curious about the plethora of new roads that such a bike would permit them to explore.
Safety and adventure are likely the two main drivers of a gravel bike purchase. If you want to escape the dangers of riding in traffic or you’re looking to expand your horizons of available roads to ride, a gravel bike is your best option”.
How is a gravel bike any different from a road bike? What’s all the hype about?
“The geometry between gravel bikes and road bikes aren’t significantly different but tweaking a few millimeters here and there have drastically changed the ride quality of a gravel bike compared to a road or even cyclocross bike.
A traditional road bike is designed for riding on pavement with skinnier tires and usually leans towards speed and efficiency over comfort for the rider. The geometry of a road bike will feel faster and respond quicker to the movements you need on paved roads.
One other main difference between gravel and road bikes is tire clearance. Road bikes are designed for skinny tires and nothing over 30c would fit in most traditional road bikes. Cyclocross bikes are the next level up from that where companies have designed frames to be optimized around a 33mm maximum width rule imposed by the UCI. Moving up to modern gravel bikes, huge tire clearance is the main requirement from riders because there’s no governing body dictating the maximum width. This realization from the bike industry opened the doors of creativity on new frame geometry and we have drop-bar bikes like the RLT with clearance for 700 x 50c or 650b x 2.0” tires.
The new frame geometries also gave way to my favorite bike concept, the transformer. One bike that can do it all from skinny road tires for fighting it out on the local group ride to transforming into a burly, racked-out bike-packing adventure rig. Gravel bikes are now choose-your-own-adventure machines”.
What would you say are the main performance benefits of a true gravel bike?
“A true gravel bike allows a rider to create any sort of route they want and construct an adventure on mixed surfaces. Besides all the safety and adventure reasons mentioned previously, there are a few additional technical benefits of a gravel bike. The longer wheelbase and lower bottom bracket give riders compliance, comfort, and stability. New roads and longer adventures require more stuff to carry and gravel bikes now have all the mounts you could want for gear. One of the biggest updates Niner made in the 2020 lineup is adding all the additional mounts, even on the fork which comes equipped with two sets of four mounts that can fasten cargo racks or water bottle cages.
If you’ve gotten this far and wondered why we’re not just riding mountain bikes on backcountry fire roads or gravel roads, it’s because we’re simply trying to optimize our ride on the dirt AND the pavement. A mountain bike would sacrifice too much ride quality that a drop-bar bike can offer on pavement, so we want to be able to have a true gravel bike that can do it all. Much like a mixed-surface ride wouldn’t be fun on skinny tires because the dirt sections would be sketchy, the same ride wouldn’t be fun on super wide knobby tires and mountain bike position for the connecting stretches of pavement. Any way you look at it, whatever bike you want to ride is totally cool and up to you, but gravel bikes are here to stay so you can choose your own path”.
What are some benefits of riding gravel bikes vs. road bikes?
“Riding bikes where the pavement ends is nothing original, but recently more cyclists are venturing to the dirt and gravel to get away from traffic and explore new roads.
Gravel riding has grown in popularity recently because of a few contributing variables, the main one being the evolution of equipment which allows for a more comfortable ride. Where people used to force sub-par equipment that was meant for smooth roads and skinny tires, there is now a plethora of gravel-specific gear to choose from. Riding on dirt and away from dangerous cars on the main roads has always been an option for safer riding, but now we have equipment that makes gravel biking more enjoyable”.
How would someone go about getting started with gravel riding?
“One of my biggest pieces of advice is to familiarize yourself with maps of your local area or the areas you want to ride in. My go-to places to scan for new roads are Strava’s Heat Maps and gravemap.com. Both of these resources show you new roads to ride and give some peace of mind that cyclists have traveled there previously. If you’re looking to steer off of the pavement and on to dustier roads less traveled, maps will be your best means to do so. Some of my most memorable rides have been routed off of a US Forest Service paper map. Carry as much equipment as you need to make yourself comfortable to tackle any sort of mechanical errors you foresee happening. I run though a few scenarios in my head of possible problems and make sure I carry enough gear to get home safely.
Once you get used to riding on gravel and feel confident in your bike handling abilities, you can start researching gravel bike events that might pique your interest. Or you can be like Dave Sheek and take his suggestion on using your newfound confidence to look on Google Earth for completely unknown areas to ride. It’s no wonder why he gets lost so often, but also finds the best roads. If you’re not into racing your bike, that’s okay! The best part of gravel events is that you decide how you want to ride it, and sometimes just completing the challenge is the achievement”.
What other gear would you need for gravel biking besides road or MTB stuff?
“The type of gear and amount you want to carry is completely up to the style of adventure you plan, but it will typically have a few unique pieces. Gravel bikes will have a wider gear range because the varied terrain requires more options to keep the legs spinning. This isn’t a requirement but will make the ride much more enjoyable. As mentioned previously, size and contents of your saddle bag depend on what kind of ride you’re doing and how prepared you want to be for troubleshooting. A few additional suggestions would be to consider tubeless set-ups with sealant for peace of mind, chamois cream to help with added friction, and gloves to protect your hands. It’s a nice balance of advice taken from both road and mountain that come together for a more comfortable, harmonious ride on gravel roads”.
You can follow Amanda’s adventures on Instagram @amanda_panda_