Gravel Cycling 101 ... Plus 10 Essential Gravel Tips

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Cleanly bunny-hopping the bitumen, powering down a sidetrack and even having a space blanket aboard, in this special feature Alison McGregor explains all things gravel and adventure cycling.

It began with my father enthusiastically pushing me towards a steep and dirty precipice. My lanky legs were spinning. My bottom lip was wobbling. And everything inside me believed I was heading for disaster.

We’ve all a story to tell about learning to pedal. It usually involves a parent and an off-road place you’ll never forget.
Having learnt to ride over 30 years ago local cyclist Bev Shroot now teaches new roadies how to handle the bike in bunches. During her own formative weeks, Bev recalls “Our local park had red gravel. My Dad would run behind me…shouting words of encouragement.”

The author, Alison McGregor, enjoying a gravel sector on a quiet country road north of Sydney.

Affectionate stories of off-road expeditions are aplenty. Taking to cycling again as an adult, her vivid memory involves her Mum supporting her two wheeled escapades. “Riding down a dirt road, my mum had a fixed broomstick behind the saddle helping with the balancing act.”

“I was 6. Along the grass footpath my Mum ran alongside me.” says Ange, who’s by now travelled multiple continents and routinely explores cities by bike. Many of us, like Ange, continue to benefit from exploring foreign countries from the saddle of a bike.

Learning To Trust A Bicycle

Mud on her face and ready to get back on the bike, Alison takes a break during a gravel ride.

Being forced to learn the art of trusting a bicycle is high on the list of things my father taught me. Staying on the bike and overcoming the distress of a rocky decline allowed me to experience the first realms of freedom.
In hindsight recognising the physical challenges of learning to ride, and then excelling on the bike, provide plenty of metaphors to face life. The rocky path is hard, but with the right support you can overcome the dramas and just enjoy the ride.

I use the term rocky because every rider I speak with learnt to ride off-road. There’s something psychologically comforting about landing on grass compared to hard tarmac. Recalling his first major stack in dirt Ben the ultra-marathon runner of the bunch had his parents at the sidelines as he and his brother “rode full tilt at a jump we’d built out of an old card table and bricks. Being a fixed gear kiddie I needed to keep pedalling in the air (I figured this after the fact). I landed on the top tube and bucked over the bars and copped a face full of kikuyu.”

Nowadays there are instructions for everything and when it comes to off-road riding every reference advises grass and smooth gravel doesn’t hurt as bad if you fall. Likely our parents inherited this reasoning. Bitumen in comparison may be easier to navigate but requires thicker skin.

While the general consensus suggests dirt is softer and therefore safer, riding on sand, dirt, rocks and mud requires a keen set of skills. The act of balancing is more precarious and pedalling is more strenuous yet, like many things in life, the best things come from challenging yourself. You can’t learn these skills on YouTube, you need to get out, dig deep, and do it.
Add 40 years or so and today my wheels are back on the dirt. As a proud owner of a cyclocross bike, the perfect gravel frame is now on my agenda. And I’m not alone.

It’s exactly that heart pumping adrenalin and call for adventure we felt when learning to ride that now prompts a new breed of rider. Some may call them 'Graveleurs'. They’re the guys and girls chasing dirt drops and searching for deep sandy trails. They look for rides that hark back to childhood times where dusty banks were for jumping, and riding through fields of paspalum after school was typical.

As kids we zoomed our wheels over everything, we’d adjust ourselves to the terrain and push ourselves to the limits. Gripping the bars, pushing on the pedals and moving with the bike was natural. On such days I’d ride my little red bike so hard, and habitually chuck it in a creek to rush and catch yabbies with Mum’s stockings. As adults, we tend to be a bit rusty off-road, and nervousness has us feel like we’ve reverted and are learning to ride a bike again.

From Road To Rough

If you’re transitioning from road to gravel your muscles could be in for a shock. If you’re up for challenges, riding dirt hills will have you grabbing the epsom salts to soothe a mysterious set of new aches and pains. After all, we’re not kids again! Not only do we use alternative muscle groups, but the chatter of the rocks on a long ride will pummel your body like you’ve just been tenderised.

Enjoying a gravel forestry trail in the hills around Bright in North East Victoria.

Even with the physical tests, the addiction to off-road grows. Flip through the pages of a bike magazine. You’ll see a definite surge of popularity for gravel riding. Its supported by a spike in gravel bikes, the growth of reviews and articles on locations, equipment, events and rides.

Why? Because even the smallest of gravel escapades burst with potential for excitement. There’s the lure of adventure away from the humdrum of work and routine. Moving over gravel is a sure way to punch a thrill or two into your day. And you’ll likely be talking about it all week.

Starting Out

The fantastic thing for those starting to gravel ride in Australia is that you’re in good company. Communities of off-road riders are being fostered by bike shops and event co-coordinators, and there’s no shortage of beginners with every event. At the start line you’ll compare the glossy paint and sparkling chains, there’ll be fresh rubber tread and clean bar tape. All are at the ready to take a good beating.

If you’re not up for a communal gravel ride, how else do you start?

When I began on the gravel again, I rode solo. Friends gave advice on trails suitable for a cyclocross. I was contacting people by association in search of good tracks. At the time I believed anything trail was doable on my cross, though in reality the options were more MTB trails than gravel. And so I built my confidence and picked up skills quickly.

The end of the trail ... taking in the view mid-way through a gravel ride near Pittwater on Sydney's Northern Beaches.

Word got out and I was quickly matched by mutual friends to a perfect gravel partner. Riding solo isn’t reasonable to friends and family who wonder if you’ve being eaten by a python or fallen in a ditch deep in the Australian bush.

Nadine was the best person I could wish to ride with. We immediately hit it off and began planning riding weekends out of the smoky noisy city. Routes were discovered on random websites. Open our computers at any point and the search engines were filled with Strava rides, mapmyride, gravelmap and other MTB sites.

Things got serious as our navigation skills were put to the test using downloaded erratic maps. We started by dragging our bikes from the back of the car and spending hours searching for rideable gravel in the bush. I can’t read maps, so getting lost was inevitable. There were snake sightings, and the markings of wild dog prints and other unmentionables. I kid you not, a wombat skull in the middle of nowhere was worth stopping for a photo.

Gravel riding is as old as cycling itself but remains a fast-growing aspect of the sport.

Consequently after a few encounters with stranger things, I got myself an independent tracker. Nadine did a first aid course.
Between the conversations on survival and chats over episodes of Bear Grylls, we’d do some seriously crazy riding. The trails got more technical, our bush mechanic skills became increasingly demanding. Once I’d a meter long stick jammed against my rear derailleur. Things happened to our bikes that’d give any mechanic an attack. Along with learning how to ride, we equally learnt how to fall. Skin was lost. Kit was torn. Shoes were destroyed. Paint was scratched. Tyres were blown. And through all the small disasters, our laughter developed and our stories developed into the absurd.

I consider gravel riding the perfect way to trick the brain in believing you’ve gone on a wild holiday. Part of that is getting out to places you’ve never been and exploring bush with two wheels. For city folk, finding trails can involve a car trip or a train. But don’t let this put you off. Off-road riding is for the adventurous. You don’t need to follow our paths because there are just as many serene country roads to start.

10 Gravel Essentials

So you’re committed and ready for adventures off the bitumen. You could wing it to see how you go… or you could check these handy tips to settle you into a less bumpy ride. I’ve rated these 10 essentials because of some tricky predicaments actually experienced out there in the wild.

Navigation

Navigation computer, whether its the latest Wahoo Roam, a Garmin or a Bryton, before you head out the door check it’s fully charged and your map is downloaded! If you’re fairly hopeless at the former, get yourself the incredibly economic KNOG PWR Front Light 600 to 2000 lumens that’ll charge your phone or computer as you ride.

First Aid

If you drive, keep a loaded kit in the car. On the bike and planning a trip for over 5 hours or away from built up areas? I recommend a bandage, and a space blanket. Remember this is an adventure and anything can happen. That’s why we’re doing it, yeah?

Decent Pedals

Off road riding can involve mud and if you get that stuff stuck in the cleat it can be a problem with some pedals. So I’ve always used Crank brother Egg Beater 3’s - they excel at mud shedding.

The author, Alison McGregor, enjoys scooting through a puddle of mud during a recent gravel escape.

Shoes

I absolutely love the latest Vittoria Gravel Tierra shoes. Glamorous but very practical. And they match my bike!

Tyres

This will depend on the terrain. In general I like a tread for dry packed mixed conditions, like the Vittoria Terreno Mix. And if you’re thinking tubeless …. Do it!!! I’ve walked 10km trails in the dark to get someone’s bike back to their car due to continual flats. Tubeless has since solved every problem.

Slug Plugs

They sound gross. But hell they work. Got a big hole in your tyre you just wedge this sucker in and she’s good. I could talk more on sealant…. But lets move on.
PMP Valves are a hot new item in Australia. Air access to these valves is up to 250 times faster. You can also check the sealant levels. They're small but important additions to your gravel hardware.

Bike Check

Prepare for regular bike check ups. Get to know your local bike shop as a preventative measure. It’s preferable they know you and your bike well to keep you both in shape.

Saddle Bags

Saddle bags bring about a hot topic of debate amongst graveleurs and it’ll depend how your bike handling prefers to take the weight. I like the Ortlieb saddle pack. However, if you like top tube bags, check out the Miss Grape range - they've the luxury of three lengths available. There’s also handlebar bag options for those wanting to keep their snacks close.

Bikes

Lets not rave about brands you can find in any other magazine. I'm going to share some truly special models ...
Firstly, the gravel bike is really a multipurpose invention. If you're like me and take that literally, you'll end up buying 2 sets of wheels - road and off road. But the frame is really the heart of a bike, so I start with the Basso Palta. Its is an Italian stunner that’s as good to look at as it is to ride.
The Wilier Jena is a sturdy, stable and reliable beast. It’s also a good climber. The Orbea Terra is nimble and light plus, if you're starting out, they offer a hydroformed triple butted aluminium model. Meanwhile, for something truly special, a custom gravel frame transcends everything to another level. I can't go past the DeAnima Carbon Soul.
Whatever bike you choose, please don't limit your riding by choosing any less than a 40mm tyre clearance.

Tyres are an important consideration with various companies offering mixed terrain blends such as these tan wall Gravel Kings from Panaracer.

Finally

Oh, before I go ... don't forget the GoPro Hero7. Because all that awesomeness deserves to be captured. 

Three Priorities

As for what I’d recommend? I’ll share my three highest priorities when it comes to off-road riding. They aren’t likely on your average list of cycling necessities …

  • Check the age of any downloaded route you aim to follow. Anything that hasn’t been travelled for more than six months suggests it could be on private property, or overgrown and now unrideable. I know, I’ve been stuck in the middle of a National Park without trails. Nadine had an irreparable flat and I believed we’d be the next meal for the local dingoes. Fortunately all worked out in the end that time, but it does pay to learn from others’ experiences.
  • Get yourself a dependable mode of navigation. Definitely add an independent GPS tracker to your core gravel necessities, as well as a bandage and space blanket. It sounds dire, but if you need it…you need it.

The last remaining tips for those wanting to embark on a gravel journey are these –

  • Make sure you check your bike before each and every ride. Take all your tools. Learn to clean your bike after every outing so you discover any issues before your next ride. If you can’t do the basics, go to your bike shop. You don’t need the latest carbon model with SRAM Eagle, but at least invest in something that’ll take a 35 or 38 tyre. Trust me, your life will be easier and it instantly opens more riding options.
  • Whether your next ride has your back splashed with mud after hitting creek crossing, or you prefer sticking to rolling hills alongside farmlands, its good to be prepared. Even then one thing you can be sure of is, no matter how or where you ride, you’ll be telling stories. 
  • If you’re new to gravel, the easiest way to enter the adventure is to ask a bike shop close to trails, or join the many events popping up on social media. 
  • Finally, don’t be put off believing that getting into gravel is all too difficult. After all, it’s been years since you did the hardest part and learnt to ride a bike.

 

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