The allure of gritty adventurous fun awaits those intrepid enough to eschew asphalt and pedal down roads less traveled. Less traveled by motor vehicles (to be specific) and, until recently, self-powered 2-wheeled steeds of freedom. Being relatively new to the fine art of gravel grinding I am learning something from every expedition and I would like to share some notes to gravel grinding newbies!
There Are No Pelotons in Gravel
To be fair, there may be some ‘group’ riding, but there is no such thing as a peloton in the sense that most roadies understand it. When you see a group ride posted for gravel-grinding fun: don’t be alarmed if the group doesn’t stay together. As long as people are within reasonable sight distance, then that is considered a ‘group’. The larger the group, the tougher it is to keep together. Here are two main reasons why:
- Safety. In gravel grinding the road surface varies widely from one instant to the next. While not as mentally demanding as mountain biking, there is a fair amount of concentration required. Also necessary is the ability to change lines to take advantage of the least grumpy part of the gravel road.
- Skills. Not everyone’s abilities are the same and that’s just fine. Understand that people’s needs are different and it’s important to ride within your ability zone. Don’t feel pressured to keep up with the fast kids on gravel. Take your time and get the feel of how your bike handles.
Be prepared! Make sure you have enough food and water for the ride. Bring TWO tubes and a flat changing kit (CO2 or pump). A mini tool is recommended and one that has a link-breaker. Gravel rides take longer than road rides so plan accordingly.
Basic Gravel Group Etiquette
I may be sticking my neck out a bit on this one, but heck with it – here goes…
When anyone uses the word ‘etiquette’ in cycling you get a barrage of differing opinions. Opinions are great, it’s a free country and everyone is allowed to have one of those ‘opinion’ things. Regardless, here’s what I’ve learned from my gravel rides so far.
Planned Group Ride success is dependant on a few factors:
- Post a route if you have one. That way, everyone can download the route into their Garmin (or phone) and not feel panic if they see the group drifting away into the distance.
- Indicate whether there is a place to get water and food or if the participants need to be self-sufficient. Be obvious about it if you know there could be riders new to gravel grinding.
- Post whether a ride is ‘no-drop’ or ‘drop’. In other words: whether you plan to wait for the group members or not. Drop rides are typically for those that are out trying to reach specific training goals. No Drop rides usually indicate that you don’t have an agenda except that folks have a decent experience.
- If it’s a No Drop Ride you have a couple of choices on how to handle keeping the group in the same zip code. (A) Wait for everyone at each turn. (B) Play ‘pass it along’ and each person that comes to the turn must wait for the next person until the last person comes through.
- Stopping the entire group at every turn can be tedious depending on the size of the group. If there’s a large gravel grinding group – plan to have two leaders. Also, plan to stop periodically to allow folks to catch up.
Have an opinion? GREAT! I am not the Guru of Gravel so post your thoughts below or comment.
Gravel is Demanding!
Gravel will beat the snot out of you if you are underprepared, have the (1) wrong bike or (2) wrong tire choice. There is no such thing as a Recovery Day on gravel unless you are lucky enough to have a nice smooth gravel road. I won’t go into the details of proper tire choice or gravel bikes because that is highly variable depending on your gravel priorities. However: I will cover a few generalities below:
- Big knobby tires are comfortable, stable and dependable – but take more energy to roll. My advice: start with larger, more knobby tires and work your way into more aggressive tire choices as you gain skill on gravel. You won’t be fast but you will probably enjoy the workout more.
- Whatever you do: don’t buy a bike that limits your tire choice too much. If you cannot squeeze in a fatter tire between the chainstays: you may be disappointed in the long run.
- Speaking of tire width: a good gravel grinding tire width (in Texas) is typically around 40ish mm. If you are thinking of purchasing a gravel-ready bike: make sure it can accommodate larger tire widths (no, 32 mm is not large).
Not All Gravel is Equal
In Texas, we do everything bigger – that includes the gravel. The places where I tend to ride most has some of the most demanding gravel surfaces that you will ever set tire on. Stuff that makes you drool when you see pictures of crushed limestone surfaces or hard-packed granite roads. The more you Grind, the more you learn about gravel road surfaces (probably more than you wanted to know). Here’s a few from my gravel grinding dictionary:
- Hard Packed. This can be anything from the lovely limestone to packed unwashed granite roads. I’m not super familiar with these other than I discover them occasionally when I gravel grind in place people don’t mind spending money on their unpaved roads.
- Sandy Slow Poke. Sand can be found just about anywhere but most common in areas that are either low or near water (and in most corners). Depending on the soil in the area, sandy washouts usually make a guest appearance on most stretches of gravel roads.
- Stony / Roubaix. Also makes a guest appearance on most gravel roads and usually attributed to larger stones being packed into the dirt but slightly exposed enough to rattle your bones.
- Walla-Walla Washboard. My least favorite part of gravel grinding but something you had either better get used to or stick to pavement. Most gravel roads have them and especially if they haven’t been graded in a while.
- Loosey-Goosey. This is what happens after the road is graded. Usually, in the Spring and Fall, everything is churned up and so are you!
- Bouldering. A condition particularly found in the Texas hill country where they simply dig up dirt that happens to come with rocks and dump it on the road. Most of the time it’s sifted to a degree, but it’s cheap and easy to come by. The composite is ancient river rock and varies in size from peas to ‘baby heads’ (fist sized rocks). Typically loose over a harder surface, it can make you truly feel the ‘grind’ in Gravel Grinding.
Gravel Endurance Comes with Time
… Time in the saddle on gravel to be specific. I can clock 70+ miles on the road and nothing takes it out of me like gravel does. Understand that the additional rolling resistance of gravel will put more demands on your legs than you think. If you are new to gravel, don’t expect to grind out 50 miles. I tried that on my first gravel ride and was very pitiful for weeks afterward.
Gravel can be epic and wildly awesome! I hope these notes to gravel grinding newbies are useful to you. Start with 30 (or less) miles to begin. Pick a group that has made it clear that they are no drop. Ask tons of questions and most importantly: don’t forget to have fun!