Remember the joy of that first bike as a kid? That wonderful feeling of freedom as the world opened up? If you’ve spent the entire season pounding the pavement in an aero tuck, open yourself up to the thrill of gravel riding.
I got started in cycling through road racing, and a hard and fast group ride is still one of my favourite things to do. However, over the past decade, I have gotten more and more into the world of gravel riding.
Why this switch? First and foremost, it’s just so much fun to explore new routes and adventures. That dirt farm road you’ve ridden by dozens of times during training rides but ignored? Turn down it and see where it goes. That trail run that you love? Experience it completely differently on two wheels.
Where to Ride
Getting off pavement really opens up a vast world of opportunities. Depending on your bike and your skills, you can stay tame and ride dirt farm roads, or you can get gnarly and even try out singletrack trails. Just make sure that you respect trail and property access.
This wide variety also extends to gravel events. Every event is completely unique in distance, terrain and challenges, but all emphasize physical challenge, fun and camaraderie – the same things we love about triathlons.
Triathletes have three disciplines to pursue and master, which offers lots of variety and crosstraining opportunities. Despite this, cycling off-road can still help both your cycling and overall athletic development. Unlike the steady efforts and pacing that we try to sustain in triathlons, riding off-road means that molehills become mountains, with even slight changes in elevation magnifying the power requirements. As a result, there are repeated bursts of power at relatively low cadences required while seated. The need to handle the bike around obstacles, along with the vibrations from the bumpy ground, also puts more demands on your upper body and core strength than typical road riding. Riding off-road can become a form of functional strength training.
Improve Your Bike Handling
Ever watch a pro cyclist like Peter Sagan and marvel at his bike handling ability? Not surprisingly, he came from an off-road background, even racing the mountain bike race at the Rio Olympics. The constant fight for traction and having both the front and rear wheels sliding around while riding off-road does wonders for your bike handling skills.
My off-road skills have literally saved my skin many times. I well recall one road ride with my wife and a friend, when, going into a corner, first my front wheel slid out on some loose dirt, regaining grip just in time for my rear wheel to slide out. While luck helped, I’m certain that my experience with losing traction and sliding during off-road rides kept me upright by helping me to keep relaxed and not overreact.
What to Ride
While the cycling industry would love to sell you a new “gravel” or “adventure” bike, the honest truth is that, with just a few minor modifications, your gravel bike is likely already sitting in your garage:
With the recent trend towards wider frame clearances, most road bikes built in the past five years or so can likely accommodate at least 28 mm tires, which I have found perfectly adequate for the dirt farm roads littering southern Ontario.
Make sure to drop tire pressure to maximize comfort and grip. At 65 kg, I run my 28 mm and 40 mm tires at 55–60 psi and 30 psi, respectively.
Comfort and more stable handling become priorities compared to aerodynamics when riding off-road. I adjust my stem so that my handlebars are about one cm higher and closer. This can be done, often, by swapping spacers on the fork or flipping the stem upside down.
Swap out your flash carbon wheels for more durable alloy training wheels. You will gain both comfort and peace of mind.
Unless you’re riding trails you expect to be walking, your current road shoes and pedals will be perfectly fine.
If none of the above works, or you’re considering a dedicated bike for adventure riding, check your local listings for used cyclocross bikes. With the industry’s recent switch to disc brakes, you can likely get a great deal on a used cyclocross bike with older cantilever brakes.
The fall is a perfect time to get gravel-curious as the trails come alive with colour, so check out one of the hottest trends in cycling and get a megadose of fun and fitness.
Brock University’s Stephen S. Cheung PhD is an avid cyclist and world renowned expert in Environmental Physiology.