Discovering Gravel Cycling: An Easy and Approachable Introduction

Discovering Gravel Cycling: An Easy and Approachable Introduction

Aaron Johnson CEO Aaron Johnson CEO
6 minute read

Hey there, if you're new to cycling and wondering about this thing called gravel cycling, let me break it down for you.

What really is Gravel Cycling?

So, at its core, gravel cycling is essentially riding a bike on unpaved roads. That's the simplest definition I can think of.  You might be thinking, "Can't I do that with my road bike or mountain bike?" Absolutely! I have said this many times, but a road bike becomes a gravel bike the minute you put Gravel tires on it.  Seriously, it is that simple.  When looking at the bigger picture, what sets gravel cycling apart is a combination of three things: community, culture, and equipment.  The thing I worry about most, is the community and culture part.  I have seen this with cyclocross and the hype faded quickly (that's a long story for some other day).  

Gravel bike with an orange helmet on a gravel road

 (It's a Gravel Bike! Look at the tires)

Community for Unity

Let's talk community first. The gravel cycling community is like a big, welcoming tent. It's more accessible than mountain biking (MTB takes skills) and friendlier than road riding (you all know what I mean, the vehicles trying to kill us). When you're out on those rural farm roads, old mining paths, or converted railroad tracks, people tend to stick together. The routes are less straightforward, and since there's so much to see, riders share the experience. Instead of a competitive vibe, the gravel community celebrates diversity and inclusion.  For now.  

The problem I always see, is the industry flocking to these trends.  Now, what I am going to say here isn't all the cycling industries fault.  They see an opportunity to monetize a movement, they monetize the movement.  You as the consumer decide if that is okay with you buy purchasing products within that marketing effort.  It's a symbiotic relationship and I cannot put the blame solely on one side.  It's the follow through after the market starts monetizing a movement, or the lack of follow through really. 

What do I mean by follow through?  Well, this is probably a really long discussion that takes us away from the core purpose of this article.  Basically, as the money is flowing around a new trend, or new movement, money has to flow back into that movement to sustain it at a certain level.  Otherwise, people get frustrated and creating races and events becomes a month long journey in exhaustion with no real payoff for the event creators.  That leads to burnout and the movement fades.  Okay, now on to culture.  

The Malleability of Culture 

Now, onto culture. Gravel culture is a blend of the occasional teamwork of road cycling, the occasional solitude of mountain trails, and an overall "no-drop" attitude. Unlike roadies pushing for speed at any cost or mountain bikers embracing risk and injury, gravel cyclists appreciate the quiet, beautiful views on open, traffic-free roads. It's a culture built on shared experiences.

A mountain bike on a gravel road descending down a gravel trail

(Yes, a full suspension Mountain Bike can be a Gravel Bike)

For now, we see limited racing venues where that hardcore competitive racing is occurring.  The Unbound Gravel Race is one of those hardcore racing series within the Gravel Community.  It is unique because the midwest provides hundreds of miles of gravel riding without much interference from road traffic.  Unbound is a truly unique event which is why it will survive as a competitive Gravel Event.  For the most part, gravel racing has transformed into a hybrid system. 

One of those hybrid races which maintains community and builds culture is the unPAved race in Lewisburg, PA.  GoGrava was there and we did a video all about what makes it unique.  Instead of racing for the entirety of the event, the race is segmented into sections.  That means you can wait for your friends after the race segment and casual pedal to the next race segment.  unPAved is the right way to do Gravel Racing while maintaining community and culture.  

We also see smaller events like the recent Barn Gravel Ride which is a community organized ride that doesn't have any racing.  The primary purpose of this ride is to maximize fun and community.  Another great way to put on an event and support more gravel riding and build bigger communities. 

The Equipment Abides

And let's not forget equipment. In the early days, gravel races were won by riders on cyclocross or rigid mountain bikes. You can even try it out on your old cyclocross bike with some slicker wheels or your hardtail mountain bike with semi-slicks. As you spend more time on gravel, you might find yourself tweaking your ride. Tubeless wheels, wider tires, a single chainring drivetrain – these mods can make your gravel experience smoother.

These days it doesn't really matter what you ride.  I have seen conversations with serious Gravel Racers and they have discussed the purpose of a Hard Tail mountain bike with drop bars in the front.  Big tires and Aero benefits abound, but the majority of us will just ride anything.  I leave those discussions for those who are passionate about racing.  Most of us are just passionate about the quality of the ride stops and what sort of snacks we can eat.  

The Newbies Summary

Now, if you're new to cycling and thinking about your first bike, consider a gravel bike. They offer a wider gear range for tackling tough climbs, a more comfortable upright position, wider handlebars for better steering, and they're adventure-ready with space for racks and fenders. Plus, those wider tires provide a more comfortable ride.  

Beautiful scenic trail of a gravel road and mountains in the background that gravel bicycle riders would love to ride.

(Gravel Trail in Iceland)

GoGrava is bringing some amazing Gravel and BikePacking bikes to our store in 2024.  Stay tuned for more news and sign up for our email to be notified.  Your really, really want to sign up for the newsletter as we are giving some stuff away for free!

One last thing – gravel riding isn't a one-size-fits-all experience. Some riders load up with gear for all-day adventures, while others keep it minimal, racing through the countryside. Whatever your style, there's no wrong way to explore the world of gravel cycling.

So, grab a bike, hit those gravel roads, and enjoy the ride!

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