Han­dling and gear ad­vice for ped­alling on rough sur­faces

Canadian Cycling Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Steve Thomas

Top gravel rid­ing tips

Tak­ing your bike onto gravel roads adds to your ride. You can’t zone out on loose sur­faces. You don’t need a moun­tain biker’s han­dling skills, but you can’t phone in your tech­nique, which is part of the fun. Gravel – it’s like road rid­ing, but with an edge, a slightly rocky edge. Here are some rid­ing and equip­ment tips to con­sider be­fore things get bumpy.


Climb­ing on dirt is much heav­ier and slower than on the road. Grades can sud­denly ramp up; stay­ing close to your low gears is es­sen­tial. Al­ways look ahead, es­pe­cially at switch­backs. Stay in sad­dle and keep it light on the bars as much as you can. When you do stand up, do it gen­tly. Avoid rapid ac­cel­er­a­tion. Keep gears smooth and your weight over the sad­dle and back of the bike un­til you sense the limit of trac­tion. Re­mem­ber that tire grip can vary a lot with gra­di­ent and sur­faces, so keep your pedal stroke silky smooth and light.


Scrub your speed gen­tly and evenly be­tween any corner. Al­low at least dou­ble the brak­ing dis­tance that you would on the road. And, do not brake in a corner. Un­less the road is very smooth, stand on the ped­als and keep your weight back slightly, with arms and legs slightly bent to ab­sorb the bumps and to al­low the bike to bounce around some. Al­ways keep a firm grip of the bars, while also al­low­ing them to move around. Keep your dis­tance from other rid­ers, and don’t au­to­mat­i­cally fol­low their lines. If it’s dusty ahead, ease off and al­low it to clear some. Try to stay re­laxed phys­i­cally, yet very alert men­tally, with­out get­ting ner­vous.


Rac­ing lines that you’d take on as­phalt are rarely an op­tion on dirt and gravel as wear from large ve­hi­cles, weather and ero­sion re­duce their fea­si­bil­ity. You should al­ways look for the safest and smoothest op­tion. Look well ahead, es­pe­cially at what lies on the other side of the corner, and then trim your speed very evenly with both brakes. The edge and cen­tre of any of­froad bend is rarely a safe op­tion. Avoid cut­ting cen­tre ridges in an ap­proach to a corner. Un­less you know the line well, stick to the well­worn sur­faces and play it safe.

The Bike for the Ride

The ge­om­e­try of most gravel bikes sits some­where be­tween a cy­clocross bike and a road race bike. Com­pared with a road ma­chine, the gravel rig is de­signed to be more com­fort­able and sta­ble on rough ground, as well as more ro­bust, while also re­tain­ing that re­spon­sive­ness

“Try to stay re­laxed phys­i­cally, yet very alert men­tally.”

and fast-re­ac­tion feel. These fea­tures come largely through a slack­en­ing of ge­om­e­try.

In re­al­ity, the de­signs are a hy­brid, and are not far from some of the faster tour­ing or au­dax bikes that have been around for decades, only with a mod­ern slant.

A reg­u­lar race bike can han­dle reg­u­lar dirt and gravel, although for a big­ger rider it can feel harsh at times. Clear­ance is an is­sue in the wet, but for dry smooth dirt, it’s good to go.

A cy­clocross or tour­ing bike is great on the dirt and frees you up to ride all but se­ri­ously de­mand­ing moun­tain bike routes. Both are a lit­tle slug­gish on the road, but com­fort­able with it. As for the gravel bike? Sweet. It’s of­ten not as nim­ble as a ’cross bike, or a road bike for that mat­ter, but smooth over the long haul.

Wheels and Tires

Slightly wider rims and more spokes will give a softer ride with less chance of i mpact punc­tures. Deep rims may look and feel nice, but they also make for a rigid ride, which can in­duce more rider fa­tigue – es­pe­cially if you’re a big­ger rider.

De­pend­ing on the ter­rain, 28– 36 mm tires are best. If it’s dry and not so rough, 28s are great. Some mod­ern gravel bikes of­fer enough clear­ance for knob­bier treads as wide as 40c.


Road rim brakes are fine on smooth and dry roads. But as soon as you get grit and crud on your brake pads, the muck will scour your rims, which will wear their sur­faces and lower stop­ping per­for­mance. If you do ride rim brakes off-road, con­sider flip­ping them open at times to in­crease clear­ance and be sure to clean up af­ter.

Can­tilevers are great, as they of­fer more pulling power and clear­ance than rim brakes, and are much eas­ier to clear. Sadly, they are slowly be­com­ing ex­tinct.

Disc brakes are with­out any doubt the way ahead, es­pe­cially for gravel and off-road rid­ing. Cable-pull discs are more ef­fec­tive than reg­u­lar rim and canti brakes, but they are a few stops short when com­pared with hy­draulics. Once you’ve had discs, you will never go back.

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