When we were putting this guide together, we went straight to our bike experts and buyers to pick their wise bike expert brains. But we quickly realized that we didn't want to be a middle-man between their wealth of knowledge and you, our wonderfully curious customers. Enter: Michael Tanner, Presidio bike shop king and multi-discipline cyclist extraordinaire. He's written up this awesome guide for those of you who are looking to leave the tamer trails but aren't sure where to begin.
This could be you!
The lure of gravel is undeniable. From the soiled shortcut that makes the same old pavement loop less monotonous, to the sea-view just past that gate and around the bend, to the gladiatorial inspiration of the pros battling it out on the white roads of Italy every spring, the temptation to push the bike that much further is unceasing.
Gravel riding is basically just riding extra robust road-style bikes on dirt roads, like fire roads and forest service roads, that aren't smooth macadam but not quite full-blown mountain bike trails either. There are dedicated gravel races, dirt-road sections mixed into a pavement ride not worth hauling an unwieldy mountain bike along for, and long, questionably wise adventures off the beaten path on a fast drop-bar bike whose tires are just wide enough not to be absolutely unsafe.
If you’re planning on racing the Grinduro or Dirty Kanza, you’re probably going to want to spring for the real thing, from Jamis, Scott or Cannondale. With stable geometry, wide gear ranges and room for corpulent tubeless tires, a dedicated gravel bike is the full surface-agnostic vehicle that laughs off the roughest trail segment before zipping you across the blacktop to the next one.
But if you just want to dabble, don’t waffle. Anybody who rides a road bike possesses the original gravel bike. What do you think they rode on in the 1800s before there even was asphalt? Or still use for racing the cobblestone brutality of Paris-Roubaix today? It helps to cram in the biggest tires you can fit (and if you own a disc-brake road bike, that’s pretty dang big). If you’d rather give it a go on the real thing without committing to it, you can always rent this one.
Experiment! Hop on the shoulder, cut across the dirt path between roads. Any bike can go uphill on most surfaces, with the worst eventuality being a slow loss of traction or momentum and a subsequent walk. (Consider investing in mountain bike pedals and shoes -- the only way you’ll find the bike’s limit is to pass it, and then you’ll be out of the saddle and pushing, at which point slippery road shoes are not the fun kind of challenge.) Take it easy on downs because flat tires and high-speed wash-outs are more consequential.
Swap your hybrid bike's tires (left) for thicker ones with more tread.
Or say you’re the proud owner of a Cyclocross bike or a hybrid? You’re three quarters of the way there. Big, tready tires fit fine, the brakes are strong, and at least on the hybrids, you’ll have nice low gears. Pop something like a 40 mm WTB Nano tire on there and you’re getting near mountain bike levels of control. If you can convert them to tubeless, even better. Conversely, put a slightly narrower set of rubber on that old mountain bike you have lying around and you’re sporting the Cadillac of the fire road.
Now make sure you’ve got a couple of water bottles in strong cages for long, dusty, bumpy days, and let a little air out of those tires for traction and comfort. Speaking of which, schlep along an extra tube or two and some patches, and know how to use them — those rocks can be sharp. Worst of all (or best of all?), the gravel slope is metaphorically slippery as well — when you see what’s out there, the sirens of bike camping will be whispering in your ear….