The ultimate guide to gravel biking

gravel biking

Danny Baggs

Posted April 20, 2022

Gravel biking – also known as gravel cycling, gravel riding or gravel grinding – is a unique form of cycling that hovers somewhere between the road cycling and the mountain biking. Here’s the ultimate guide to gravel biking, with everything you need to know about getting started in the sport.

Gravel bikes are becoming more and more popular as cyclists experiment with mixing up their riding terrains while retaining their bike as a primary mode of transport for commutes to work and school. What exactly are gravel bikes, what should you look for in a gravel bike, and how can you improve your riding skills? We answer all your questions here.

What is gravel biking?

Gravel biking is a form of cycling that takes place on any terrain that falls between sealed asphalt and steep mountains. This usually means unsealed gravel roads like logging, mining and forestry roads, decommissioned service roads, or purpose-built gravel singletracks. Although some gravel paths are very smooth, you should also expect potholes, rock gardens, sand bogs, washboards, and a multitude of other challenges.

Gravel biking is less hair-raising than mountain biking, and without road biking’s danger of sharing the road with cars. In fact, AusCycling Mountain Biking & Cyclocross Sport Manager Andrew Miller described gravel biking as “very much like road biking, but without the anxiety of traffic.”

Gravel tracks also tend to have better views of nature, and lead to more interesting and remote destinations than typical road cycling. Some people call gravel biking ‘adventure riding’ as a result.

“Gravel biking is a really evolving space that’s continuing to grow. Industry, event organisers and the government are starting to notice the building demand,” said Miller. 

“Gravel biking has exploded in the last three years,” added Executive General Manager of AusCycling Agostino Giramondo. “In Victoria, the Bendigo & District Cycling Club have run a gravel race over the past two years with great success and this year the race featured ex-pro cyclist Mitch Docker.”

two cyclists riding on a gravel road

Gravel tracks can lead to interesting destinations and feature nature views. Image: Getty

What makes gravel bikes different from other bikes?

A gravel bike is like a dual sport motorbike or road-to-trail shoes: suitable for both road and off-road terrain. It blurs the line between a road bike and a mountain bike. Gravel bikes can be ridden over normal asphalt roads to gravel trails and service roads and back home again without any trouble. Put simply, it’s a jack-of-all-trades.

“Gravel bikes are currently well-priced, especially compared to road bikes and mountain bikes,” said Miller.

How is a gravel bike different from a road bike?

Road bikes are highly aerodynamic, with narrow and slick tyres, and are designed for straight-line speed. They cannot handle off-road surfaces and can struggle in wet conditions. A burly touring bike is closer to a gravel bike but is still designed with sealed roads in mind.

How is a gravel bike different from a mountain bike?

You can ride a mountain bike (MTB) anywhere you’d ride a gravel bike, but you’ll have a harder time doing it. MTBs are heavier, less aerodynamic on open roads, and have flat handlebars that limit your hand positions. 

How is a gravel bike different from a cyclocross bike?

Although they are built very similarly, cyclocross (CX) bikes are developed for short, intense races in all conditions and over a variety of obstacles like steep hills, jumps and stairs. Gravel bikes are made more for longer, slower days out on the trail, and can carry a lot more gear. CX bikes are more aggressive, with generally thinner tyres, while gravel bikes are more stable and comfortable.

Are there different types of gravel bikes?

Although gravel biking is a relatively new category, subcategories are already beginning to emerge. There are two main types of gravel bike: 

  • Gravel racing bikes – more suited to fast, simple gravel roads used in popular gravel races like Dirty Kanza. “Other big gravel events include the Dirty Pig & Whistle, and the Gravel Giro in Warburton,” said Mr Giramondo. "The National Championship is on in Noosa in July.”

  • Adventure gravel bikes – more suited to technical singletrack, with wider tyres and dropper seat posts to handle harder terrain.

gravel bike closeup

Gravel bikes often look similar to road bikes. Image: Getty

How do I get better at gravel biking?

Find a gravel partner

Safety comes first. Gravel biking will often take you off the beaten track and into bushland or deserted areas. Riding with a partner ensures that you have someone there to help if you become injured or lost. Plus, everything is more fun with a friend! Melbourne Gravel Grinders is a great gravel biking group to explore with.

Decide on a route

"You don’t have to go too far off the beaten track to get gravel roads in Australia,” said Miller. He recommended joining a social media group for community info and popular route recommendations, and downloading the TrailForks app. “It’s largely MTB focused, but there’s info there specifically catered to gravel too so you can piece together your own courses and routes.”

Keep your bike maintained

Learn how to clean and service your bike to keep it in top condition with this guide to maintaining your bike. You could always take your gravel bike into your local bike shop if you aren’t yet confident in your bike maintenance abilities. You will inevitably scratch paint, graze skin and blow tyres at some point during your gravel adventures, so it pays to know how to fix small issues.

Stay relaxed (and off the brakes)

Instead of fighting the bike, allow it to correct its path during forward momentum. When you stop fighting, you’ll notice that you will start to ‘float’ over tricky terrain rather than hang on for dear life. It’s also far less fatiguing to keep your hands and arms relaxed with bent elbows rather than maintaining a death-grip.

Like most vehicles, bikes are more stable at speed – especially on rough terrain. The slower you go, the more you’ll bounce. When you’re rolling, feather the rear brakes on the flats rather than slamming on the front brakes on the bumps.

During descents, place your hands into the drops, keep your elbows bent, shift to the back of your seat, and bend your legs to absorb the bumps. You can hover out of your saddle on particularly hairy terrain to avoid being jolted around too much, much like a horse rider during a trot.

Learn which techniques to use on different terrain

Gravel biking is infamous for its wide array of terrains. Different surfaces require different gear and speed choices to avoid wiping out or getting bogged down. Here are some particularly tricky tracks:

  • Washboard / Cobblestones – use a bigger gear at a higher speed to stay on top of the stutters rather than crashing into them

  • Sand / Silt – use a smaller gear at a higher cadence: your speed will drop but at least you’ll move forward

  • Climbs – shift around in the saddle to give different muscle groups a rest as you climb. Moving to the rear of your saddle uses your glutes more, while moving to the noise engages your quads. Always keep your heels low to take stress off your calves and use larger muscle groups to power your climb.

  • Singletrack / Descents – look as far ahead down the trail as you can to process what’s coming and find which line you’d like to follow. Stay as loose as possible to keep your ride fluid rather than rattled.

Rotate in some strength training

Strength training will help make your cycling more powerful and efficient, and less injury prone. Lifting 2-3 days a week will quickly improve your full-body strength and stamina. Focus on moves like squats, deadlifts and plank rows: these exercises target your glutes, quads, back and core, while increasing spinal stability. Push-ups are also an excellent way to work out multiple muscle groups at once. You don’t have to join a gym if you don’t want to: your backyard can work just as well. Just remember to regularly change your moves, weights, reps or sets to prevent your muscles from adapting and plateauing.

gravel biker on a gravel road

Strength training can help you improve your cycling power and efficiency. Image: Getty

What gravel biking gear should I buy?

Gravel riding is tough on your gear as well as your bike. There’s plenty of mud, dust, and of course gravel that gets everywhere – and we mean everywhere.

Repair kit

You should always carry a repair kit for your bike that includes a patch kit, a boot, a chain tool, CO2 with a mini-pump, spare tubes and a tubeless plug kit. A gear cleaning brush, a roll of duct tape and some zip ties are a smart addition for gravel biking repairs.

Not all gravel bike damage is fixable with field repair tools. RACV Bike Assist is a must for gravel bikers and will help get you moving again with benefits including taxi transport and puncture repair in the event of an accident or mechanical fault.

First aid / survival kit

Hope for the best; prepare for the worst. Outdoor stores carry a wide range of compact and ultralight first aid kits. At minimum, bring along a snake bandage, a space blanket and a fire-starter flint.

Clip-on mudguard

Unpaved roads turn into mud when wet. Fight the urge to attach full-coverage fenders, which will pack up with mud and slow your roll because they don’t allow for much tire clearance. Clip-on mudguards that attach to your seat tube or saddle rails will keep the worst mud off you without hampering your ride.

GPS unit

If you’re starting to venture beyond well-marked gravel roads, it’s time to invest in a GPS unit that you can attach to your bike for expert navigation.

Secure saddlebags

Saddlebags give you the ability to store your repair and first aid kits, extra layers, snacks, sunscreen and other bits and piece. Pay special attention to the security and durability of your saddlebags - they’ll be shaken and bounced around, splattered with mud and abraded by gravel on your adventures.

Don't let a flat tyre stop you in your (bike) tracks. Get the wheels spinning with RACV Bike Assist. 
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