Gravel Riding: A Lust for Life
If your ideal road surfaces are as smooth as a roller skating rink and pancake flat, you can skip this post. You know how to get to Hains Point. Looking for something a little more exciting? Keep reading.
Gravel and dirt roads aren't for the squeamish and easily terrified. It will re-arrange your notion of what road cycling is all about. Forget the smooth rotating pace-lines. Been riding the same smooth roads all summer and know exactly when to up the tempo on every climb? It's time to wake up! Gravel riding is all about the twists and turns, ups and downs, and unpredictable conditions. No two rides are alike.
Get out there on your road bike and feel what the kids are raving all about. I took a 45-mile ride last spring with a huge dose of the crunch and grind beneath my tires. I was instantly hooked and had to re-think everything I knew about road cycling. I kept driving myself out to the countryside for more and here's what I learned:
1. Don't rush to buy another bike.
Are you confident when things get a little rough? If so, your current road bike is just fine. Riding sections of Loudoun County gravel is possible on 23mm tires (on bike pictured above), better on 25mm to 28mm tires, and pretty darn comfy on anything wider. Road specific bikes do just fine for anyone with some off road riding skills. Cyclocross and all-roads bikes allow wider tires for better handling at faster speeds with less fatigue, but they aren't mandatory for an introduction.
2. Prepare for a different kind of excitement.
It's not about holding the wheel in front of you for the drafting and wind resistance. You'll be too busy picking the best line on the road between small holes and looser gravel areas. You'll want to maintain enough space between riders so you can make quick adjustments for changing road conditions.
3. The scenery of Ashby's Gap in the heart of Loudoun County is amazing.
Rolling farmland hills, stone fences, barns, cows, horses, wild turkeys, wooded areas. No pace-line means you get to ride with your head up and take it all in. You'll find the picturesque rural setting, the peace and the calm, and all the reasons in the world to leave the city behind.
4. Virtually no car traffic.
People don't usually drive their cars on dirt roads unless they absolutely have to. They would rather stick to the faster, paved roads. That makes the sweet gravel backroads a local-traffic-only affair. You get to relax and avoid the dangers of distracted drivers. 300 gravel roads in Loudoun County alone means you'll only be scratching the surface with every adventure.
5. The more you ride gravel, the more fun you have riding gravel.
You get better at reading the road surface and trusting the way your tires react to each type of road. Road conditions vary, and that's part of the excitement. Some gravel roads are hard packed, smooth and fast. Others have sections with deeper gravel that you'll want to take more slowly. 90% of the time, you've got the road to yourself and you'll be all over it searching for the best line.
Ready to take your drop bar bike off the pavement? A few quick tips to get started:
- Measure the distance between the fork legs and rear wheel stays to determine its tire clearance. You'll want to have at least 3 mm of clearance between the edge of the your tires and the frame. If you are still running 23mm tires and have a bit of room to spare, pick up some 25mm tires. Some road frames may have enough clearance for 28mm tires (pictured above on a Ritchey Logic Frame) The wider tire you buy for gravel riding can double as a stable and dependable tire for the upcoming winter road conditions. Oh, and leave the deep dish carbon wheels for the smooth stuff and ride your stock aluminum rims.
- We've had great experiences with these tires for road bikes on gravel: Continental Grand Prix 4 Seasons 25mm or 28mm tires and Panaracer Gravel King 28mm tires.
- We've also run these tires on gravel and cross bikes with great results: Panaracer Gravel King SK 32mm or 35mm tires, and Challenge Gravel Grinder 33mm tires.
- If you have a Cyclocross bike, you've got room for even wider tires. The soft knobby tires you use in cross country racing aren't necessarily ideal for riding gravel. You'll want to save them for their intended purpose.
- Dive into the Riding Gravel website for more on all things gravel.
- If you're ready to ride a gorgeous gravel route, join us.