Gravel Cycling 101: A Triathlete’s Guide to Gravel Basics
Ready to get started gravel riding? It doesn't have to be as scary or as complicated as it sounds.
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Gravel cycling is the fastest-growing subcategory in the cycling industry, so it’s no surprise that in a year with few races and more time for adventure lots of triathletes are adding a gravel bike to their collection. It’s not just for fun (though it is fun), gravel cycling also provides both physical and mental benefits for your triathlon fitness and racing.
Riding gravel is a great way for triathletes to train on the bike during the off-season, when they are building long base miles, or even during the on-season for recovery rides. Because gravel riding is done on a variety of surfaces, you’ll find yourself building leg strength as you ride, which can translate into higher watts when you’re back on the road in more traditional training. You’ll also improve your technical skills and your confidence.
Perhaps the biggest reason that so many triathletes are taking up gravel, though, is for the mental benefit. It’s a great way to add some adventure to all your hours on the bike. Three-time Kona qualifier Katie Aguilar purchased a gravel bike earlier this year because she was curious about gravel cycling. She’s found that it allows her to let go of the internal performance expectations that come with riding her TT bike. “You have to let go of control on the bike and let it skip around the terrain,” she said. “It’s exhilarating. I get to just ride, talk, see and be.”
Here are some gravel cycling basics.
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What is a gravel bike?
The term ‘gravel bike’ was an unfortunate naming choice. It’s more of an all-terrain bike or adventure bike. A gravel bike is a bike that allows you to tackle any terrain that you might encounter.
Although some people will ride gravel routes on mountain bikes, a gravel bike typically looks more like a road bike, but it’s built to tackle a variety of surfaces (including roads), it allows you to attach additional gear for ultra-events or bike-packing adventures, and it’s designed to be more comfortable off-road. Before gravel was a thing, people would simply venture out on road bikes with wider, knobby tires for off-road conditions.
You’ll also find many people riding gravel on mountain bikes, which is OK too, although once riders gain more experience they often switch to a gravel bike because of the body position and speed benefits.
Where do I ‘ride gravel?’
Wherever you want. Gravel is a misnomer. While many roads are often unpaved surface covered in gravel, they can also be packed dirt, clay, sand, mud, chip and seal, or a combination of all of the above. The weather conditions have a much greater impact on your ride than they would if you were just riding on a paved road.
Unless you live in a major metropolitan area, you can find gravel or dirt roads everywhere, with some states boasting up to 70% of their roads being unpaved. Even people living in larger cities are usually able to find routes within 20-30 miles of the city limits.
The best place to start looking for gravel routes is either on Strava, MapMyRide, or Ride with GPS. Try searching using the word ‘gravel’ and you’ll typically find some popular routes. You can also use Gravelmap.com as a tool to help you narrow in on the locations, but you’ll have to string together your route.
Some gravel routes may cross private property. You’ll want to respect any ‘no trespassing’ signs and may have to reroute yourself. Some routes will also travel into hunting and fishing areas, so you may need a special license to technically be on that property and you’ll need to be aware of hunters in the woods.
What should I expect on my first gravel ride?
You’ll probably go a lot slower than you are used to riding in triathlon. Unless you hit smooth road conditions, even some of the fastest riders are only averaging 14-16mph on routes.
As mentioned before, the weather can really impact a route. Very dry conditions can leave big ruts in the road while rainy conditions can turn that same road into peanut butter. It’s always a good idea to have extra clothes, wet wipes, and a towel in your car for post-ride cleanup.
It’s a good idea to load the route onto a bike computer or have a solid cue sheet and ask around to find out what the conditions are like. Some routes can be very technical, and if you’ve spent most of your time training on a TT bike, then you may want to ease into those conditions to enjoy the experience more.
It also takes some time to get used to the jolting that comes with riding gravel. You are going to want to upgrade your tri shorts. The extra padding will come in very handy if you hit some freshly laid gravel or, what those in the gravel would affectionately refer to as, washers.
Washboarding happens as car wheels pass over a granular surface fast enough to bounce and create ripples. These ripples deepen over time and become a series of wavy ruts. The only way to fix them is with a road grader, according to Selene Yeager, in her book, Gravel.
What are gravel grinders?
Gravel grinders most often refers to races or events, but can also refer to local routes. There are a handful of large gravel events that sell out very quickly. Those events typically have a long-distance component like a 100- to 200-mile option. (Most events often have options in the 30 to 60 mile range.) You can find great events in your area by searching for gravel grinders or gravel races. Events are a great way to ride new routes and meet other people in the gravel community.
Before signing up for the event, make sure you understand what type of gravel you’ll be riding, so you can choose the right tires and gear, and what the ride support is like. Some routes will have an occasional SAG stop, while others will be completely self-supported.
Although you’ll need to be strategic about your time on gravel as a triathlete, adding a gravel bike can rejuvenate your riding and give you a new sense of adventure while helping you build skills and strength on the bike.
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.