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What You Should Know About Gravel Riding

30 October, 2018


Recently I invited a group of friends for an adventure of gravel riding. We headed out to Mohonk Preserve in The Gunks of New York to take in autumns best views and 80 miles of carriage trails. For many in New York, heading out to the Catskills for a gravel riding session is common and its popularity continues to grow. I personally love to ride gravel on the trails when I can, especially in the peak season of autumn so I figured inviting a few adventurous girls along would a great way to share the experience.

While I didn't worry too much about whether any of us had much mountain biking and gravel riding experience, I did realize while planning that there are a few things to keep in mind when making your first gravel ride an enjoyable experience. If you're thinking about heading out for an epic gravel grinding adventure, here are a few tips to help you prepare for your first gravel adventure.

 Whether you love mountain biking, cyclocross or road riding; gravel is the discipline that all but those most ardent road or mountain cyclists will love. The perks of riding gravel keeps you off busy roads, boosts your riding skills, multiplies your route options and lets you ride with more friends.

PLAN FOR YOUR ADVENTURE
Riding on gravel roads is not new. Mountain bikers and road riders have found themselves on gravel roads in rides and races for as long as bikes have been made. While your average mountain biker would prefer to shred singletrack all day and your typical road rider dreams of the smoothest roads, there is an increased interest for the peaceful adventure of gravel or groading (gravel & road).

When I had first tried gravel riding, I was out in Minnewaska State Park with my husband on mountain bikes. We swept through the woods with profound feelings of thrill from the speed and exertion we gave to reach unbelievable views of waterfalls, rivers, mountain top views along cliffs. I knew at the end that I was hooked! From that first experience I knew that I had to do it again.


Gravel riding is popular because of the variety of adventures you can do. It might involve a stream crossing, some hike-a-bike, even some light single-track; you choose. Whatever you choose to tackle on your ride, the thrill and satisfaction of putting together a loop you never thought possible — or seeing a view your road bike would never reach or your mountain bike would take days to pedal — is at the heart of gravel riding’s popularity.


CHOOSE YOUR GRAVEL RIDE
You can ride gravel on any bike, so start with what you have. If you need to get a gravel bike there’s a range of options. Consider how far you want to ride, how rugged the terrain is and your ability to handle technical situations. Ultimately, it’s a question of how you plan to use the bike.

Many people use cyclocross bikes, which are generally more aggressive and lightweight for short-duration races, by adding bottle cages and bigger tires. A mountain bike with semi-slick tires and harder gearing can also work and allow for more rugged adventures. Even a road bike can explore gravel roads if you use bigger, flat-resistant tires, add a bigger cassette for steep climbs and elevate your stem or handlebar to increase comfort and control.

My group and I used our road bikes since we knew we would be on carriage roads instead of technical trails. We made a few adjustments like lowering our PSI and switching out road tires for gravel tires. One thing to keep in mind if you do ride with regular road tires is to inspect them after a ride for any rock or tears and don't ride too far as you run the risk of wearing your tires out too quickly.


Many manufacturers (Trek, CannondaleBMC, etc) are adding suspension, playing with different tire designs and adding disc brakes to make the perfect adventure machine. A gravel bike is part road and part mountain bike. This sounds like a cyclocross bike, but there is a difference: Cyclocross requires very light bikes, without bottle cages that can handle aggressive cornering. A gravel bike borrows big tires, slack geometry and disc brakes from mountain bikes; while drop handlebars and harder gearing for high-speed sections are taken from road bikes. The ultimate gravel bike generally provides more comfort and many options for carrying water and gear, including rack and fender mounts.


PREPARE FOR ADVENTURE
To ride gravel you’ll want to start working on your technical skills like cornering and descending on loose, bumpy terrain. Road cyclists might find the loose corners and descents unnerving, so make sure to take it slow and include some practice in a field or parking lot on your gravel bike. Mountain bikers may find the extended pedaling challenging, but you’ll get a boost in fitness when you are back on the trail, so embrace the endurance training and put your skills to work when the gravel route turns more technical.

My group had not had much experience descending through switchbacks on a difficult gravel trail and while we were enthusiastic and daring we had to take occasional stops to give our hands a break from braking. While there are challenges of climbs or descends that you may not be prepared for, always maintain a positive outlook and have fun with it, even if you have to walk your bike down or up.

Aside from bike-handling skills, it’s worth practicing your navigation skills to plan routes using both an old-fashioned map, route markers and a GPS-enabled device that can load navigation files from MapMyRide. On MapMyRide, you can find or create gravel routes with the ‘Search for Routes‘ page. You can also search “gravel” to find new-to-you routes at home or on your travels.

If you’re going bike-camping or take overnight journeys, do a few practice rides with your larger saddlebags or panniers to ensure you are able to ride comfortably and without interference from the accessories.

Doing gravel rides this autumn gave me a break from the norms and rules of road cycling. It was a reminder that gravel riding is about a lot more than just the road surface. Where road riding has for so long been marketed around data metrics of speed and fitness, gravel is more about the experience, the journey, and the environment. When we ended our ride, all we could think was "that was epic".

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