OK, so you read our article on why gravel riding is great and how to get started, you’ve downloaded your route, and you’re ready to go. But what gravel equipment and gear do you need for your first ride?
Gravel riding and its respective gear may seem complicated, but just like triathlon it’s about figuring out the right equipment for you, and then having a few strategies to navigate the terrain and make your first ride one of many. Gravel riding equipment doesn’t need to be any more complicated than anything you already have.
The Gravel Bike
Like we mentioned last time, “gravel” is a bit of a misnomer. A gravel bike is simply a bike that allows you to tackle any terrain you might encounter. While some people do this on a mountain bike, typically a gravel bike looks more like a road bike—but with a few changes or additions. A gravel bike is generally built to be more durable (no carbon here) and handle more conditions—that can mean a slightly different geometry that’s more upright, sometimes modified suspension, flared drop bars on the handlebars, typically disc brakes, and room or attachment points for additional storage for bikepacking or ultra gravel events. If you get really into gravel riding, there are more specific components for the differences in terrain and surface. But, the most important thing to remember is: Before gravel riding was even a thing people simply stuck knobby tires on their road bikes and hit the dirt roads. You don’t need to get fancy to ride gravel, dirt, or mud.
The biggest difference between a gravel bike and road bike is typically the tires and wheels. Gravel bikes have knobbier and wider tires—and this may require a frame that accommodates wider tires. Or just go as big as you can and want to right now, and don’t worry about changing everything!
Tires and Tire Pressure
Unlike your road or triathlon bike, you have a vast array of tires sizes and types to choose from when riding gravel. You’ll want to figure out which tire is best for the terrain you’re going to face. For well-maintained gravel or areas with many paved roads connecting gravel segments, you can run a smoother tire around a 32c. If your roads are a bit more torn up or you’ll encounter some rocks along the way, a mid-grade tire is a good choice. This is likely to be a 35c and will look knobbier. If you’re going to find yourself on trails or heavy gravel, then you’ll want to upgrade to a 42c that will look a bit more like a mountain bike tire. Most people are happy with that mid-grade tire unless they know they’ll be hitting heavy trails or lots of loose gravel and sharp rocks.
A common mistake triathletes and road cyclists make when riding gravel is to run their tire pressure too high. If you have tubeless tires, you can go as low as 35 psi, depending on your weight and the road’s conditions. Clinchers should max out around 70psi (again, depending on your weight). A good rule of thumb is if you feel like you’re bouncing or sliding too much on the gravel, your tire pressure is probably too high.
Gravel Shoes and Pedals
You may need to hike and bike at some point along your gravel ride, and you may even find yourself knee-deep in a stream. (It happens.) You will likely want a sturdier shoe than you typically wear for triathlon or road riding. Most gravel or mountain biking shoes have some rubber tread on the sole to make them easier to grip when you have to walk, and you’ll want to look for something that quickly dries if you find yourself wet, muddy, or stream crossing.
Choose a pedal with a small surface area, so you don’t find your pedal or cleat caked with mud. You’ll even find that some gravel cyclists, especially bikepackers, prefer a flat pedal when they know they’ll be in an area that will require a lot of walking.
Do I Need Different Clothes for Gravel?
Most triathletes I’ve taken out on their first ride have shown up in shorts, no socks, and a tri top—myself included. Given the terrain, you’re going to be much more comfortable with more coverage.
Wear bike shorts, and you’ll be thankful for the extra padding when you hit a chunky gravel section or the infamous washboards. Tall socks will save your ankles and lower calves from any underbrush or small rocks that may get thrown up during the ride. And a bandana, neck gaiter, or buff will make your ride more enjoyable. If you hit an incredibly dusty section of gravel, it’s helpful to be able to cover your mouth and nose—plus with COVID protocols, it’s extra handy.
Finally, gloves and sunglasses will make your gravel ride safer and more enjoyable. Gloves will give you a little extra grip, particularly when your hands get sweaty. Glasses will protect your eye from flying rocks and dust. You’ll often find yourself in shaded areas, so clear lenses might be your best option.
Hydration and Food
Because gravel rides tend to be more remote than even country road rides, plan on being self-sufficient for the entire ride. Many gravel cyclists choose to wear a hydration pack for the water capacity and because your water bottles tend to get coated in dirt. If the terrain is muddy or technical, it’s harder to reach for a bottle and easy to get dehydrated.
Load up on snacks, and don’t be afraid to try new options. Professional cyclist Alison Tetrick has been known to show up to an event with a bag full of chicken wings and French fries.
Now that you have your gravel equipment and gear and are ready to go, it’s time to head out on your first ride.
Kathryn Taylor is a triathlete, triathlon coach, and former triathlon store employee who abandoned her TT bike for adventures in gravel. She founded a gravel cycling community for women chasing their epic and everyday adventures and co-hosts the Girls Gone Gravel podcast.