Top Tips For Riding Gravel

Another year down, another Alpine Loop Gran Fondo successfully completed. Copywriter Brian completed the event for the second year in a row—this year taking nearly an hour off his previous time and placing 10th in his age group KOM.

If you aren’t familiar with Alpine Loop, it’s probably one of the hardest rides on the East Coast—or anywhere, for that matter. Started by pro mountain biker Jeremiah Bishop to help raise money for prostate cancer, Alpine Loop Gran Fondo covers 106 miles, 11,000+ feet of climbing, and features two gravel climbs—one of which is 9 miles long, and the other has grades over 20%. It’s a hard ride, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. If you can, it’s worth the trip to Harrisonburg, VA next year to take it on.

With such a formidable ride, how did he make such big improvements over last year?

There were a lot of things that went into it (better training methods, rethinking hydration and fueling strategies), but one of the biggest was better adapting his bike for gravel and working on his technique.

Let’s be clear, within reason you can ride almost any road bike on gravel. Having a dedicated “gravel grinder” would be great, but for most of us, making a few changes to your existing road bike can make riding gravel more fun, more enjoyable, and a little bit easier.

Brian's Ridley Fenix SL endurance bike with a custom Campagnolo EPS build kit was the perfect tool for the job. See the bottom of the post for more photos.
Brian’s Ridley Fenix SL endurance bike with a custom Campagnolo EPS build kit was the perfect tool for the job.
See the bottom of the post for more photos.

1. Tires/Rims

What To Do: Run the widest tires your bike will fit—for most road bikes this will be 25-28mm tires. The bigger tires will provide a larger contact patch, which will help improve traction on loose gravel and dirt. The larger air volume will also let you run lower air pressures to improve comfort without risking a pinch flat. Look for a tire that features a puncture-resistant belt and a moderate file-type or Roubaix tread.

The Fenix SL had plenty of clearance for 28mm tires
The Fenix SL had plenty of clearance for 28mm tires

 Hacks: Even if your bike’s clearance is limited to a 25mm tire, you can get more air volume by using a wheel with a wider rim. The wider rim gives the tire a wider stance, allowing the tube to inflate more fully. Examples would be HED Ardennes, Mavic’s new Ksyrium 4D, or Zipp Firecrest. If you bought a new Fuji or Diamondback road bike in the last two years, you’re in luck. The Oval 500- and 700-series wheels spec’d on most 2014 and later Fuji’s already feature a new wider rim profile, while most 2014 and later Diamondback’s come with nice and wide HED Tomcat or HED Ardennes rims.

Fuji Transonic Gravel Grinder
Most modern road bikes, like this Fuji Transonic, can clear 28mm tires

Brian’s Setup: This year I upgraded my endurance road bike to the new Ridley Fenix SL—which has an almost unbelievable amount of clearance. I rode 28mm file tread tires which when mounted to set of HED Ardennes+ wheels ended up actually being more like 30mm. They were pretty much perfect. Even on the borderline-unrideable Sarlac Pit that is Reddish Knob, I kind of felt I like I was on a mountain bike. The big tires let me be less careful about choosing my line, since they rolled over almost anything and I also noticed a huge increase in traction.

ridley_fenix_sl_8
The HED Ardennes+ wheels provided a wider rim for the 28mm tires, giving them a size closer to 30mm

Be Careful Of: While wider tires do have lower rolling resistance, that’s only true to a point. When I first got the Fenix SL and was playing around with tires and rims, I was delighted/astounded to realize it would clear a ~33mm tire. With rim brakes. The balloon tires handled great on the gravel, but out on the road they felt sluggish and slow. Realizing that Alpine Loop had only ~15 miles of gravel, with 90-something miles of road, I opted to go for a slightly smaller tire.

 

2. Tire Pressure

What To Do: For the Northern Classics like Paris-Roubaix and Ronde van Vlaanderen, the pro team mechanics consider tire pressure to be their most closely guarded secret. Finding the right tire pressure for gravel riding is about finding that happy medium between a low enough pressure that the bike feels comfortable over the jarring surface, but high enough to avoid pinch flats or rim damage. Finding the right pressure will depend on your body weight, tire width, and rim width. There are no ready-made solutions, so you’ll have to experiment to find what works right for you. Generally, the best bet is to start at 20 PSI under the tire or rim manufacturer’s recommended max (whichever is lower) and then go down from there.

Hacks: Run your front and rear tires at slightly different pressures. Run the rear wheel 5-10 PSI higher than your front, since it’s bearing all of your weight and will be taking far more punishment. The front tire can handle lower pressure, which will help reduce the amount of vibration and jarring hits going into your arms.

To improve comfort, try running a slightly lower pressure up front
To improve comfort, try running a slightly lower pressure up front

Brian’s Set Up: With 28mm tires on wide rims, I ran 85 PSI in the rear and 80 in the front. That might have actually been a little bit high for my weight and riding position (145lbs, seated a little further forwards than most riders), but I didn’t flat once (which was delightful, since this summer I’ve suffered a legendary 21 flats) and was generally comfortable enough.

Be Careful Of: Going too low. Too low of a pressure will allow the tire to compress all the way to the rim if you hit something hard enough and fast enough. This can both cause a pinch flat (“snake bite puncture”) if you run clinchers, and possibly lead to damage to your rim whether you run tubeless or clinchers.

3. Bar Tape

What To Do: Even with big tires, wide rims, and the right tire pressure, gravel can still deliver a pretty rough ride. If you’ll be doing a lot of gravel riding, or are looking at setting up a dedicated bike, you may want to opt for some thicker tape (in the 3mm thick range), adding some gel inserts under the tape, or even double wrapping.  This will provide more cushion to improve comfort and relieve pressure on the ulnar nerves.

Hacks: Next time you wrap your bars, you can get a little more padding by utilizing the extra tape. Most rolls of handlebar tape will have more than you need, requiring you to cut off the extra. Once you’re done wrapping and have cut off the excess, unwrap the bars back to the lever, and place the extra tape on the bars where you feel you need some extra padding, then wrap back over it.

Brian’s Set Up: I used some 3.2mm thick tape, and it definitely helped make my ride feel more comfortable, especially on the really rough surfaces.

 

3mm thick bar tape helped take the sting out of the gravel. Also note the climb cue sheet taped to the stem.
3mm thick bar tape helped take the sting out of the gravel. Also note the climb cue sheet taped to the stem to help anticipate efforts and plan when to fuel.

4. Torque Is Your Friend

What To Do: Most riders will need to significantly gear down to ride gravel. A high cadence with lots of torque is your best friend in situations where the gravel or dirt gets loose and sloppy. The higher cadence will allow you to power through situations where you lose traction, and allow you to stay on top of the gear without having to resort to standing up—which is a no-no on gravel. Depending on the gearing you already run on your bike, you may need a bigger cassette, smaller chainrings, or both.

For Alpine Loop, Brian switched to compact chainrings
For Alpine Loop, Brian switched to compact chainrings

Hacks: Consider upgrading your rear derailleur to a medium/long cage model (Shimano GS or SRAM WiFli). It will still work perfectly with your normal cassette for every day riding, but will also give you the option of running a huge 11-32t cassette when the time comes.

 Brian’s Set Up: I normally ride a 53/39 crankset with an 11-27 cassette on my road bike. For Alpine Loop, I switched to a 50/34 (hallelujah for the new 4-arm crank designs) with a 12-29 and it was wonderful. While I felt significantly under-geared on the flats and the paved climbs, I was really happy with the 34/29 low gear on the gravel climbs where it allowed me to spin without having to stand and risk losing traction, and gave me enough torque to power my way out of some really loose, terrible sand.

A very wide range 12-29 cassette, paired with a compact, gave Brian plenty of gearing to work with
A very wide range 12-29 cassette, paired with a compact, gave Brian plenty of gearing to work with

Be Careful Of: Overestimating yourself. There is no such thing as too low of a gear on a long ride with lots of gravel, especially if it’s hilly. I seriously considered using a 52/36 on this ride, and only reconsidered at the last minute after consulting with some friends. That would have been a disaster, and I’m glad I listened to them. Too high of a gear will force you to have to stand on a hill, which will unweight your rear wheel and break traction. The wheel will spin out from underneath you, and most likely you will crash.

Parting Notes:

1. Your Saddle Bag: Stock it well, flats are far more common on gravel than out on the road. For Alpine Loop, my saddle bag weighed over 600g, and I wasn’t ashamed. It had literally everything I needed to fix two flats, a sidewall tear, even a broke chain. Even if you don’t need it, you’ll be glad you had it—especially since areas with gravel roads tend to be pretty far out there.

600g of peace of mind
600g of peace of mind

2. Don’t Make Drastic Line Changes: Your bike will handle differently in gravel. Change lines slowly and gradually, instead of making sharp turns.

3, Ease On The Brakes: Don’t grab a fist full of brakes. You need to be looking 20-50 yards up the road, and anticipate what’s coming. Your stopping distance is reduced on gravel, and braking hard will cause your bike to drift and slide. Instead, lightly feather the brakes and gradually slow down. This will enable you to stay fully in control of your bike.

Bike Photo Gallery:

Usually we post brand new bikes here, fresh from the box. This time, we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to showcase a well used, still dirty bike after a truly epic ride.

3 thoughts on “Top Tips For Riding Gravel

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