What is gravel cycling, and how to get ready for your first ride

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Krystal Salvent was an avid road cyclist – until she found herself lying in a ditch after a driver ran her off the road. That experience prompted the Boulder, Colo., Co-leader of Black Girls Do Bike Denver to buy her first gravel bike. “If I can remove that obstacle for myself and focus more on my bike handling, rocks and maybe rattlesnakes, I think I’m a little better off,” she said.

Salvent represents the growing community of gravel cyclists, who prefer pedaling alongside fields and forests rather than cars and trucks due to safety concerns. The past 10 years saw a 37 percent increase in accidental bike-related injuries.

“There’s this sense of, ‘Do I really want to be on the road?’ ”Said Dirk Sorenson, executive director and sports industry analyst at the NPD Group, a market research firm. After steady growth since 2018, gravel bike sales over the 12 months ending in February 2022 jumped 62 percent compared to February 2020, Sorenson said.

Gravel bikes feature gearing and geometry similar to road bikes and the wider, knobby tires of a mountain bike. While they lack the shock-absorbing suspension forks and rear shocks that mountain bikes have, gravel bikes allow access to off-road terrain, including muddy trails, dirt roads and crushed gravel paths.

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Rachel Olzer, co-founder of Pedal 2 the People, a community of color cyclists, credited much of gravel’s popularity to its accessibility. She said many cyclists want to avoid traffic and explore remote areas without the challenges of mountain biking, which includes a steep learning curve and a degree of fearlessness required to stay upright on technical terrain. Gravel biking, which typically takes riders over more forgiving terrain, has a relatively low barrier to entry.

Inspired to explore gravel cycling but not sure where to begin? Here are some factors to consider.

Start with a shorter route and park at the trailhead “in case you get in any kind of pickle where it’s five miles in and this is actually a lot harder than [you] thought, ”Olzer suggested.

One of the most important route-planning considerations is the surface you’re riding on. “Gravel is a little bit of a misnomer,” said Linda Gravel Girl, co-founder and executive director of Dirty Freehub, a Bend, Ore-based nonprofit whose mission is to share gravel cycling routes. The word encompasses a wide variety of surfaces, including gravel of all sizes and textures, pavement, forest roads, fire roads, singletrack (mountain bike trails) and dirt.

Because gravel routes aren’t necessarily labeled as such, talking to other cyclists is the best way to get accurate information about the terrain, road closures and potential hazards, English said. Most bike clubs have Facebook groups for tip sharing, or you can ask your local bike shop for recommendations. Online resources include Gravelmap, which shares dirt roads, and Dirty Freehub, which offers curated routes across the West and gives details about elevation, technical difficulty, cellphone coverage and e-bike access.

Strava, a fitness tracker that lets users share routes, can also be helpful – but it’s not perfect. Mer Parra, a service technician and bike marketing manager at Dirt Rooster Bicycles in Catonsville, Md., Said she used the “heat map” feature, which shows popular routes, to plan a cross-country gravel tour. While this worked well at times, because these maps represent historical rather than real-time data, she encountered “all sorts of crap,” such as a washed-away bridge and a flooded path that forced her to reroute.

While you should always inflate your tires before a ride, determining how much is tricky, English said. The recommended pressure stamped into every tire’s sidewall, is a rough guideline. “It depends on your weight, where you are riding and tire width,” but most people ride with too much pressure, English said. Lower pressure gives you more traction on rough terrain.

She suggested free online tools (such as those from Silca and Gravel Cyclist) as a starting point and adjusting tire pressure midride as needed. “If the road gets chunky, washboard or sandy, we let the air out,” English said.

Just as you would for road or mountain biking, at least bring tools to change a flat. While all riders should have a tire lift and a couple of CO2 cartridges or a pump, additional must-haves depend on the type of tires.

Kevin English, co-founder of Dirty Freehub along with his wife, Linda, said that if you’re running tubeless tires, you need a small bottle of sealant, a valve core remover (necessary to create an opening in which to insert the sealant ) and dynaplugs, which plug punctures and inflate tires. Many gravel riders prefer tubeless tires because you can run lower pressures without the risk of the tube pinching against the rim.

Salvent suggests bringing two extra tubes, whether you’re using tubes or tubeless tires, in case of a major gash, as well as a multi-tool for basic mechanical problems.

Linda English said her ride’s risk profile determines the rest of her packing list: “If I’m using our local mountain biking trails mixed with some gravel farm roads, there’s so many people out there, I’m not too worried.”

On the other hand, said English, “If I’m 40 miles in the middle of nowhere, with no cell service,” her preparation looks different.

For more remote rides, the English take plenty of food and water, their phones, Wahoo GPS bike computers and a satellite communication device. Kevin English suggested downloading the Avenza Maps app, which doesn’t require an Internet connection. “In case you’ve gotten off track on your Wahoo or you’re not quite sure where you are, you’ve still got a really good map to look at.”

Salvent suggests taking a taillight and headlight, should you outride daylight. Extra layers are helpful in case of unexpected weather or emergencies. English once waited two hours for a rescue team after she broke her pelvis on a gravel ride.

Olzer and her partner share their locations with one another in case of emergencies. GPS bike computers and apps such as Google Maps, Find My iPhone and Strava make this easy to do.

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While many cyclists use flat pedals, if you choose clipless (the type that attaches directly to a cleat in your shoe), Parra suggested a mountain system such as SPD vs. a road system.

Parra said gravel riding involves “stopping, getting off and walking and having to cross something that might be in your path,” situations that mountain bike shoes’ flexible soles and recessed cleats were designed for.

Gravel riders, who are more likely to stop for drinks or bikepack (backpacking via bicycle), tend to wear clothes that are “less spandex and Lycra-y,” Parra said, with an emphasis on comfort and utility.

Kevin English wears baggy shorts over his bike shorts. “[If] I’m decked out in a hundred percent skinny, tight… Lycra and I’m walking up to a rancher to say, ‘Hey, I need a little bit of information,’ it starts the vibe on a wrong note. “

Whatever you wear – regardless of where you go, how far you ride or what you take – don’t worry too much about making mistakes, Parra said. “Everyone is getting on a bike to have their own adventures.”

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